Remember when you were young and the clock seemed to snail walk around the hours of a school day? How about the way time seemed to stretch and elongate when you were waiting for a birthday or Christmas morning to come around? Do you remember the explosive breath of freedom upon stepping out into the first rays of summer vacation? Those hot-house days were bottomless; ice cream trickles melting down an arm, a rainbow prism seen through the arc of a sprinkler on a sweltering August day. A bit of child magic.
Viewing childhood from the banks of adulthood is like traveling through a magical time warp, a rose-tinted wormhole. Because in and out of those breaths of freedom and ice cream sundaes, outside the nostalgic hopscotch box, there’s a whole lot of confusion and flailing and mistakes. There are the gut-wrenching hairpin turns of adolescence. There’s heartache and betrayal and feelings that get splintered and broken.
It ain’t easy growing up.
We fall all over ourselves to make sure our kids have only the good bits. The ice cream and the sprinklers. But the truth is, there’s a lot of bad and ugly that goes along with the good, no matter how much whipped cream we use to cover it up. Even if we put a cherry on the top.
I worry at times we are trying too hard to blunt the edges of childhood. I worry we are filing down the sharp corners of growing up in an effort to protect. I worry we are over thinking, over-analyzing and over-sanitizing childhood.
When I was ten, the boys in fourth grade called me Jello Buns one gym class. I was a stick insect at ten. No back, no booty, no bass. I can’t think there was much ass to quiver, but whatever there was apparently wiggled and jiggled enough that for weeks I was Jello Buns in gym.
When I was in high school, the highest status symbol of girlfriend-hood, of couple-dom, was wearing a boy’s class ring. I remember carefully wrapping yarn around the underside of JP’s* ring so it would fit my finger. Then I went and did something sophmoronic and in a fit of misguided honesty, broke his heart. I returned his ring and never wore another, though many around me did. From my goth-flower perch I watched notes get passed in class, conversations taking place behind locker doors, couples tucked under stairwells. I witnessed nervous boys asking girls to one formal dance or another, shy girls lighting up with delight at being asked to prom. No one ever asked me. I spent most of my high school years watching one boy after another trip into love with my best friend.
All of those things bruised. They cut deep and stung and made my heart ache. They also turned me into a writer. Nothing spurs creativity more than ostracization and heartbreak.
Everywhere I look these days I see extreme examples of trying to shield kids from growing up, from experiencing any sort of pain, any sort of awkwardness. We’re trying to spare their feelings. We’re trying to, as my husband so eloquently put it, democratize childhood.
As much as we try, we won’t succeed. Because kids are mean and childhood is vicious. Not all the time, but sometimes. There is a reason why Lord of the Flies resonates with young and old. More than it is vicious however, growing up is confusing. It’s awkward. It’s eighteen years of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. No matter what we do, no matter how fair or safe or cushy or blunt we try to make it, no amount of rules or policy is going to make everyone feel welcome or invited.
No amount of sanitizer we dump on childhood is going to make it any less messy. No amount of bubble wrap is going to protect my son’s heart the first time it gets broken. No policy of inclusion is going to guarantee getting asked to prom. No matter how many coats of rose-colored paint we slap on the idea of childhood, there are going to be black spots that seep through.
Acknowledging the black spots exist is as important as offering a soft landing place when they fall. Sometimes more so.
As fond as my memories of sherbet cannonballs and Red Rover are, there were lots of things that broke me too. But those heartaches and heartbreaks, the ribbing and the meanness, those things also pushed me out of the tiny confines of what I thought I was capable of. Would I have flown as high or free if I had gone to the prom? Who knows. Would I be able to tap into the pangs of those teenage affairs of the heart as easily as I do? Doubtful. All things being equal, I’ll take the person I am. All the teasing and the heart cracks, the banging into doorways and the befuddlement—all of those things are the capillaries which lead to the veins which lead to the very heart of me.
Life is full of experiences, good and bad. Childhood and adolescence are too. We can’t make it fair. We can’t make it all rosy and creamy and good. No matter how hard you try, your children’s memories of childhood are going to be just as mixed and matched as my own.
We need to be careful we don’t dump too many anti-bacterial confines on the whole mess of it. We all need a little dirt in our guts to build up resistance. To get stronger. To make us who we’re meant to be, even if it takes us a few decades longer to figure it out. Even if you don’t get asked to the prom.
*not his real name.
There’s a writing tag on this one because one of the main themes of the novel is the messiness of growing up, of trying to figure out how to get though it all without too many bruises and scars.
13 Comments Add yours
Beautifully written. I agree with you — we’ve spoken of this so often. Our kids are wrapped in bubblewrap, protected from everything, told they are the best, the smartest, and on and on. Are they stronger than we who had to fend off bullies and other nasties of childhood? What have we done?
When I see the level that true bullying (not playground teasing, but systematic bullying) has taken on these days, and the means (the internet) by which it’s spread, I honestly don’t know how kids today cope with it. But the everyday stuff–the not get invited to a birthday party or asked to the prom, not getting a turn with the shovel you want or having to do anything for yourself–we are taking away a whole bit of childhood away, and an important one. The same way that being burned in a relationship can show you what NOT to look for in the next one, even though it feels like your heart is outside your body–kids need to figure out what they do and don’t want by experience, not just by us telling them. And some of those experiences are going to be failures and hurtful and painful–but protecting them in the extreme? You’re right, it’s not helping them at all.
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Reblogged this on BigPillToSwallow and commented:
Growing up is beautiful
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The raw pain of those childhood moments never dull, while the joys of those times do. My forehead can still get hot when I think about those really bad events, but my heart doesn’t beat any faster when I think about the good, lucky days. The good news is that despite all my efforts my kids have had some real heartbreaking childhood stuff to pack away for further years.
I think we need all different kinds of experiences to make us into whole, functioning individuals–sometimes we try too hard to keep the hot forehead moments away when perhaps it would be better to offer a shoulder or a true story or a similar experience to let our kids know they’re not alone. It breaks my heart into tiny, dust pieces whenever my kid is standing alone on the edge of the sandbox, I can’t imagine what that first broken heart is going to do to me. But I also know, from this side of the river, that it will shape them just as much. On a lighter note, a few years ago I woke up from a dream in which I was roles skating, something I did all the time as a girl. And I carried with me this sense of extreme giddiness throughout the whole morning/day after that dream. So maybe your heart doesn’t beat faster when you think of the good things, maybe it beats slower–and somewhere between the fast and the slow, it beats at exactly the right pace?
It made me think of A Separate Peace too, your reference to Lord of the Flies. One of the best lines ever, “Phineas jounced the limb.” Really enjoyed the clarity in this Dina and it triggered many thoughts about my own kids, too. Part of the reason we’re relocating to Europe is so they have that perspective that’s different, as we live in an affluent, suburban area now and don’t want them to you know, get democratized or homogenized. Nice post. – Bill
Thanks, Bill. I think what you guys are doing is fantastic. For me the best part of moving abroad has been the ability to view things through a different lens. If you can offer that to your children? What a gift! You know, I’m pretty sure I read A Separate Peace in school, but I may just need to go and re-read it because all I remember the cover! Obviously LotF was stickier for me…
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Every bump. Every bruise. Every lost opportunity, unfortunate name and heartache made me what I am. I wouldn’t trade the messy of my childhood for anything.
Exactly! (And how nice is it to exact revenge in your fiction by giving that horrible, nasty piece of work character the name of your most hated frenemy in high school ;-). )
I don’t think there’s enough bubble wrap in the world to cushion the blows of mean girls and bullies. I was so glad to leave the school yard dramas behind, only to discover the same mean girls and bullies at work. I guess those school yard coping skills will never get stale (and more honed one hopes)!
That’s it in a nutshell–we need to build up those skills because we need them everyday. If we’re never given that chance to build upon them, the first time that mean girl doesn’t invite you to the workplace cafeteria it’s going to sting like a bitch.
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So right, Dina. Worse, your pay rise or promotion may well depend on have to negotiating with a mean girl, bully or an entire clique – ugh! Never enough practice with school yard politics…’cause really do people ever grow up?
Not really, no.