Smarties, I am thrilled to be a part of the Charlotte Smarty Pants community. Since I’m new here, I thought I’d introduce myself.
This is a picture of me in 6th grade. Before I even begin my story, I wonder if you can tell which one I am?
I do a lot of public speaking and sometimes I show this picture. When I speak to adults, they can usually pick me out right away. But when I show it to kids, they never guess correctly. Once (and this cracks me up still) I was speaking to an auditorium full of 150 boys. They guessed every girl in the picture twice before one boy said, “I still think you’re the girl in the blue sweatshirt next to the guy in the bow tie.” I choked on a laugh and said, “Man, I am the guy in the bow tie!”
And the crowd goes wild!
Life lesson #482: Laugh at yourself often, especially with other people. Willingness to be vulnerable is a sign of great strength. It took me a long time to learn this one.
Here is the story behind that picture.
In 5th grade I attended Brooks Elementary School in Medford, MA. This was the third of four elementary schools I would attend. The academics were far from stellar. I remember my teacher explaining her grading system to us. “If you turn it in on time, it’s an ‘A’. After that it’s a ‘B’. After that a ‘C’.” And so on. My parents were growing alarmed. One weekend they told me they were taking me to a private school for admission testing. If I could get in, they would figure out a way to pay.
I did get in and that must have felt like a mixed blessing to my parents. We were not wealthy and paying tuition meant taking out expensive loans, but my parents were committed to giving me the best possible education. (At this point, please forgive any typos or grammatical errors in this story. It really was a top-notch education. You know, some things stick, some don’t.)
As the start of school drew closer, I became increasingly nervous about becoming a private school kid. Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Would I have the right clothes? Of course I wouldn’t have the right clothes, I thought. I had public school clothes. I asked my parents if I could get some smart clothes to start my smart school, but their money was all tied up in tuition. I would have to go as I was.
But going as I was seemed unacceptable. I called my grandmother with the same question. She offered to buy me one new outfit to start my new school.
The year was 1983. You may recall a new TV had recently aired called Silver Spoons, in which Rick (then Ricky) Schroder played a rich teen living in a mansion with a train among other things.
In my mind, Ricky was the quintessential rich kid and I knew I needed to dress like him to make a good impression at my new school. Yep, that’s me in the second row, far left. I choose the most business-y outfit I could find for an 11-year old girl. If I could have afforded a brief case I would have bought that, too.
Day one of 6th grade. I walked into the classroom and someone laughed. I mean it. Someone looked at me and laughed. I felt like everyone laughed but it was probably just one or two kids. Still, that was all it took for me to sink to the back of the room and avoid talking to anyone else for the rest of the day.
It was a small class, and I was a misfit, but that year I made one close friend. I’ll call her Hannah. We were best friends and that year was pretty good after all because of her.
7th grade. Our class bumped up to the Middle School campus and we received an influx of new students. One of them I’ll call Rachel. We hit it off instantly. Hannah, Rachel, and I were three peas in a pod. So it was weird when I would call one of them to suggest we all get together but they were already hanging out. This happened a few times but I was slow to catch on. Rachel and I carpooled… but she stopped speaking to me in the car. I was getting a severely cold shoulder that left me stranded in middle school feeling very alone. I began noticing every eye roll, every insult, every private joke that kept me on the outs. Walking down the hall I kept my eyes on the floor and my shoulders slumped.
Guess jeans were the fashion standard that year. Still desperate to fit in but unable to afford the expensive clothes worn by the popular girls, I remember buying a pair of Jet jeans. Please don’t confuse these with the JET jeans worn by celebrities these days. My Jets were decidedly off brand. I thought they were cool enough. Jet sort of sounded like Guess… I guess.
I was a timid Jet jean girl in a Guess jean world. And the 8th grade girls noticed. There was one 8th grader at my school who dressed like Madonna. I mean a full-on, 1985, “like a virgin” Madonna. She was terrifying. She and her crew noticed the Jets. More importantly they noticed the way I was always alone and afraid to make eye contact. That made for some lonely months of being teased openly and relentlessly about my clothes. I hated school. I got stomach aches and wanted to stay home. One day on the bus back from sports I sat alone in the front row behind the driver while Madonna and her friends pelted food at the back of my head. I remember thinking if I just stayed quiet and didn’t look at them they would stop.
The sad irony is that my parents were shelling out tons of money they didn’t have to give me a fantastic education but all I could focus on was becoming invisible. I never engaged in class. I never raised my hand. I was so afraid of people seeing me, and not liking what they saw, I tried to disappear.
In high school, I tried out for the musical. How does a girl afraid of being seen decide to do something like this? At the time it wasn’t obvious to me, but now I see that being on stage gave me an opportunity to be someone else and that was fiercely attractive. I was one of four freshman to make the musical and from that point on, my life changed. People noticed me, and I liked it. I started making eye contact with people in the hall wondering with hope, “Do they recognize me? Have they heard me sing?”. But what I wanted them to notice was the character I played. Still not me.
The result of my middle school experience is that I have spent too much energy putting up walls so that people wouldn’t see the real me. My biggest fear has been being vulnerable. Even as I felt compelled to work with middle schoolers so I could improve their experiences, I hated talking about what got me there. In truth, I could tell kids my story, but not other adults. Too risky. Even as I formed a successful curriculum development company, I worked from behind my safe wall. Everything I wrote was “We, at Cognition House, strive to blah blah blah.”
A dear friend pointed this out to me and this is what she said: “All of this stuff you created, it exists because of you. Don’t be afraid of being personal about your work. It’s all about Michelle.”
“But isn’t that vain?” I wondered. “Won’t people think I’m a jerk for promoting myself so much?”
Won’t people look straight at me and maybe not like what they see?
And she said, “if they don’t like it, they’re not your audience, so who cares?”
With that, I stepped out from behind my wall. I stopped trying to play the role of Professional Business Woman and started being Michelle. Michelle In the Middle. You can hang out with me there if you like. It’s a place where we can be ourselves and talk honestly about all things Middle School from memories both good and bad to how to survive as parents of Middle Schoolers. Just when I thought I was done with The Middle, I’ve got a sixth grader. Middle School is back in my life only this time I’m going in proud. Does anyone have a pair of Jet jeans I can borrow?
If you liked what you read I hope you’ll visit me at Michelle in the Middle and on Facebook.
Smarties, don’t forget to register for our Children’s Theatre Seussical Family 4-pack – YOU could be a winner, but you have to enter to win! Thanks for playing!