"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 23, 1800

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Z Is For........Zero

We were sitting on the back porch the other night and my son was telling us middle school stories while we shared some of our recollections about those years with him. The subject of social groups came up, you know, the jocks and nerds and preppie kids, and John said he was most likely considered one of "the losers." He wasn't upset by this. Much. He isn't one to put much stock in others' opinions of him, which is something I'm proud of, but no one can ignore it totally. He's brought this up before and told us that in reality, the kids the others call "losers" are the ones who actually have plans to make something of their lives. John is pretty secure, as much as any 13 year old can be I think, and knows he isn't a loser. He has friends, though not a huge gang of them, and is a generally very happy kid. He is a very strange combination of both Lisa and I. He rests right in between where we were at that age. He worries about others' opinions much less than Lisa did but more than I did. He doesn't have the drive that Lisa had but he has more than I did. He has the same sarcastic attitudes and views on the actions of his classmates that I had, but he shares them with us, which is all his mom and something I never would have done. I love watching him grow up, I love talking to him about his day or even current events. I wonder what kind of person he will be when he is my age? Will he remember that he was considered a "Zero"? Will it matter?

This last few weeks saw a lot of talk that brought me back to Middle School/Junior High/High School days and made me think about how much of that stuff we carry around with us into adulthood -- standardized tests, what "level" of classes we took, the school bus and who sat with whom, what friends we pick and why, The Breakfast Club even got brought up. Who didn't see a part of themselves in The Breakfast Club? I wonder, though, if we see ourselves in the same character as others see us? I wonder if we still see ourselves as that strange chick with the cereal sandwich while others think we are Molly Ringwold's little miss perfect? We tend to let other's opinions of us shape too much of what we do and how we act, but what is much worse is how much we let our perceptions of what others think affect us. I think this begins in middle school, but it certainly doesn't end when we have middle schoolers of our own.

The easiest target here is physical appearance. Lisa showed me a video of a forensic artist drawing women's images as described by them and then as described by another person instructed to study their face. The women all made themselves out to be much less attractive than them as seen by others. No man who has a wife or any female friends or siblings can be surprised by this. I know women won't be shocked. I know it rang completely true to me. I've seen women very close to me become nervous or even dread social situations because they were sure others would see them as unattractive or unworthy to be where they wanted, or were expected, to go. They went anyhow because they are strong, but how many people aren't that strong or lack any sort of support? And I wonder if they know how sad it makes us, their husbands and children and brothers and friends, to see them unable to see the same person in the mirror we see standing in front of us. Because we know, ladies. Even your kids. We know. And it hurts. A bad self-image starts when we are kids and we grow into it rather than out of it too much of the time. We tend to carry the labels of childhood around like luggage.

I'm no different. I don't have attractiveness issues not because I'm a good looking guy but because I'm a guy and it doesn't matter what I look like, really. Sure I got picked on for zits and greasy hair and thick glasses, but it never bothered me because society doesn't judge a guy that way. I just never fit in. I am average-looking at best so never attracted friends that way; I am a complete klutz who can't throw, run or catch; I have no musical talent so never ended up in the band or chorus crowd; I'm smart enough to stick out from the average but not smart enough to be one of the "gifted" kids; and I wasn't quirky or cool enough to fit in with the crowd that walked around all dressed in the same black clothes listening to the same music by The Cure and The Smiths all the time (all while calling themselves "non-conformists," which was kind of funny). I had friends, but they tended to be others on the fringes of school society. I wasn't unhappy, quite the contrary, I rather enjoyed high school. I eventually ended up on the high school newspaper and for the first time had a group. It was small, but there were pretty girls and they talked to me and that was nice. I married one of them. But I never lost that feeling of being an outsider. I always wondered if, no, really assumed that, people kept me around out of obligation. I was enthusiastic and nice and you just can't kick a puppy can you? Aside from my wife and son, I still feel that way all too often. I'm incredibly insecure in friendships. I've been burned, sometimes badly, but no more than anyone else I don't think. I think it's a hold over from school days, from always hoping at least ONE PERSON got picked for the team after me. I guess in a lot of ways it's worse than thinking strangers will see me as fat or ugly. I have a hard time believing my friends really like me. It makes me a hard person to be friends with. The fact that mine stick around should be proof enough, but like telling your wife/friend/sister she's beautiful a thousand times, it doesn't work that way. Middle school still haunts us.

While I see a lot of me in John, both good things and some things that worry me, he is different in some important ways. He has talent, musically. He is in the band and intends to stay there and join the marching band in high school. That will give him a "group." He made the golf team last year. He wasn't very good, but he tried out and made it, something I never would have done. And while he isn't golfing for the school this year, he stays on me wanting to practice, another thing I never would have done at his age. He's learning a real adult skill as well by helping out with tech on theatre productions. He's proven himself to some experienced and talented people and takes great (and well-deserved) pride in his sound board skills. And he came to us wanting to take Honors English next year because he really thought he wasn't being challenged enough in his English class this year. I NEVER would have done that, didn't actually. I knew I could have done well in the advanced classes, but that would have required work. I happily took my A's in "Dumb English" (as one of my more self-motivated friends calls it). John is different, and better, than me. I know he will carry SOMETHING from middle school around and it will affect him in some way, but I hold out hope he will turn out to be a more secure and confident man than his father.

I just wish I knew better how to help.

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