A huge milestone high school reunion is approaching for me in a couple of months.
Like most of us, I have come a very long way since those days. I have always been a square peg other people tried to fit into the round hole. I had my brief developmentally typical moments when I wanted to fit, but for the most part, have resisted being just like everybody else for the majority of my life. I guess to more accurately describe myself, I could even say I was always the hexagonal peg. Not fitting in may have been difficult at certain stages of childhood and young teen years, but I believe it has served me well, and has helped me develop characteristics of which I am proud.
It’s no secret that adversity toughens us and helps us grow. Most of us have had our share, or more than our share. As I think back to those junior high and high school years, I surprise myself. I have a lot of gratitude for so many people who crossed my path during those years. Back then I didn’t appreciate them much, or their influence on my life.
I want to thank the mean girls and the “popular” girls. The mean girls taught me to use my words, instead of expressing anger physically. ( If you listened to my mother’s version, I used my words almost immediately and never stopped.) I have to give credit to the mean girls who helped me hone my verbal skills and even my sarcasm, to put them in their place, though I was really quaking in my boots at their threats and sometimes at their overtly physical actions when away from supervising adult eyes.
I need to thank the “popular” girls with the right clothes, with the hairdos that seemed to emerge from magazines, with the appearance of such self-assurance that I would have given anything for, with the trail of boys who had crushes on them, with their little cliques of friends who delighted in excluding outsiders. . It was only in my 60′s, through Facebook reunions, believe it or not, that I learned that there were plenty of people who considered me their friend, who wanted to be my friend, and even a bunch of “boys” who had huge crushes on me and who thought I was pretty. I certainly didn’t think of myself that way in those days. I was a trendsetter in many ways in high school, it is true,, but at the time, thought more people ridiculed me, or were puzzled by me than actually admired me. It turns out I was wrong. Still, I thank those “popular” girls for strengthening my resolve to be unique, to express my opinions without fear of reprisal, to dare to be different.
This post can’t be done without remembering the teachers to whom I have utmost gratitude and who helped me be who I am. I had plenty of professors who influenced my thinking and my life, but I don’t think they made as big an impact on me as some of my high school teachers. Perhaps it was because I was at my most impressionable age in high school. Perhaps it was because I did stand out somewhat in my enormous New York City High School, and not so much in college. My first college was a haven for odd shaped pegs and individualists, and later on, I was attracted to and hung out mostly with those kinds of people.
I want to remember and thank the teachers who are still prominent in my memory. Their behavior might seem odd, or even risky nowadays. Thank you to Mr. Guidarelli, who invited me to listen to opera with him and to appreciate it. Thank you to Mr. Dante Pocai, who spoke to me in Italian and even though half of what he said went over my head, gave me great confidence in myself and a great love for languages. Nobody got why I liked Mr. P. Thank you to Mr. Posner and Mrs. Kalman, who pushed and prodded me to join the French Drama Society where I was the only young person for a long time. Thank you to Mr. Maiman who critiqued my writing, who made me feel like a real writer, and who encouraged me to seek awards, publication and to join a Poet’s Coop. He kept in touch with me for years after high school. Thank you to Marilyn Brown, a former nun, who told me “The poet knows God”, though I adamantly replied that I didn’t believe in God, and her answer was, “Then He knows you and you will find that out”. Thank you to the teacher whose name I am sorry I don’t recall, who invited me to her home for dinner several times, said wonderful things about me to her family, and made me feel valued and special. Thank you to Mr. Berman, who had long adult discussions with me about literature and life, and who didn’t ever treat me like a kid. Thanks to Cathy Ribaudo, who pushed my limits and encouraged me, though initially embarrassing me by using my poetry in class lessons. Cathy later became a friend after we had our first sons. She once thanked me for “challenging the norms of this and every other New York City High School and for always making me think”. She had little idea what that comment meant to me.
To this day, I tend to find myself attracted to other pegs who don’t fit the places into which society tries to force them. As the director of an adoption agency for decades, my greatest satisfaction came from helping people who didn’t quite “fit” the norms established by more traditional agencies, but whom I felt would make great parents. Our agency worked successfully with people with disabilities of all sorts who had been first turned down by some other agencies.. We were the first agency in CT to have a significant number of gay and lesbian clients. Now as a coach, I also derive great satisfaction from helping those who feel themselves to be “different” in some way, whether they identify this difference as a positive part of themselves, or whether they are someone hurting because of a mindset they have assumed and want to change.
What about you? Have you always “fit”? Have you been someone who is comfortable with fitting (and that’s ok too) or someone who has thrived by carving out your own unique space and identity? I want to hear! In looking back, to whom do you feel gratitude for helping to shape you into the person you now are?
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