Further to a discussion* with a good friend** about school gate politics (post to follow), I have been thinking about how people become socially aware.
For me, as the youngest pet of a large family, school was just an extension of my already strange social life. I was still called clever by the responsible adults; as one of the youngest in my school year I still led games for older children. I was confident that everyone was my friend; what was there not to like about me?
Surprisingly, I managed to keep this going for all of primary school. I was popular, despite being a swot. I had many friends and was interested in all the exciting new experiences significantly elder siblings introduced me to. Fond memories of listening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on my eldest brother’s hellishly complicated radio rig; reading Robert Graves Tales of the Greeks at the age of 6; staying up late on folk club nights and joining in shanty choruses from the age of 4 to… well, now really. Totally average childhood. You can all identify with that. What, you can’t?
And, that, when I think on it, is where the problem was. I had all these fascinating distractions from growing up, that just seemed a lot more interesting than getting obsessed with pin-ups, or manufactured music, or any of the other frankly tedious things my other schoolies seemed to be devoting their attention to as we grew older. I stayed entranced by ALL the diversions the world offers if you open your eyes, and most of the others grew single-mindedly boring, to my view. Secondary school arrived and suddenly I wasn’t popular, my friends seemed embarassed by my presence, and I eventually became aware that *I* was the misfit, not them.
It took quite a few years and a total breakdown for me to understand that I never could be someone who fitted in, who knew the necessary pop-culture tender to join in any group, who enjoyed the company of my peers. So I learnt the art of seeming to belong. To sit & listen until I understood enough to make one pertinent comment, then another. To not talk about the things I was really interested in.
Honestly, I look back now and want to shake my 16-year old self. Why hide yourself? I want to ask. Don’t feel shame for being different, rejoice in your non-conformity!
But, of course, I wouldn’t have listened. BELONGING to a tribe is essential at that age, and any stupid adult who tried to tell me different would have just received a glazed look.
But here’s the thing. I knew then, that I was the misfit. I knew that any pretence of belonging was only a facade. It did not matter, as it meant I got to live through every school day without the appearance of isolation. It sufficed until I found people who I didn’t have to pretend in front of. Well, not all the time, anyway.
I’m now 40, and having been a parent now for 4 years I have re-discovered the fact that I am different. I have to mix with many other parents who have children the same age as mine, and the ones who have become true friends I value and cherish. There are however many more who I must converse with, I must spend lengthy periods of time with, and I feel like an alien suddenly transferred to a world where not only black is white, but running is marmalade and dogs are quantum mechanics. It’s bizarre, as I feel like I’m observing my teen self again but without any of the emotion. It truly does not matter whether we get on or not, we see each other regularly & make the correct socially appropriate noises and that’s an end to it.
My beautiful Son & Daughter, what am I teaching you? Should you make all the right noises at the right time & suppress yourselves? Should you learn the useful skills of small-talk, and sociability?
Or should I teach you to be true to what you are, to spread your passion and love of the bizarre? Should I help you to use your wings, or teach you to disguise them?
Or is there a middle way we can find together?
**If you can’t have a row with them (and still be comfortable), they’re really not a good friend