the gift of being the awkward outsider

Posted: May 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pushing as far as I can back into my childhood, all of my clearest memories are of being socially awkward/uncomfortable, low-energy, unathletic, and generally an outsider.  I can’t recall anything from before school or from Kindergarten, but in first grade, our school got what was to me a truly marvelous system in place.  It stripped away learning as a group and turned us loose with what were called TLUs (I think something like “teaching/learning units”).  For each subject, we received a little packet (1-3 pages, I think) that spelled out projects we were to complete, and questions we were to answer along the way, and a little self-administered test at the end.  One assignment might involve listening to an audio cassette; another might direct specific reading or drawing a map or doing a small experiment of some kind.  Materials were provided, and we could work at our own speed.  I loved this wildly and worked at my own speed way ahead of my peers, only being stymied when I reached the occasional item that required me to work (insert horror music here) in a small group.  Working through my TLUs was a pleasure and a joy.  PE class, recess, and the after-lunch competitive games (teams in lines, racing to the end of the gym and back in various configurations), which were all the favorites of my peers, were things I dreaded, loathed, and wanted to escape at any cost.  One of my best skills was losing or forgetting my gym shoes.  I was an underweight kid, anemic, always tired and never up to the fantastic feats of athleticism that seemed natural to my classmates.

By second grade, I had learned to hide inside of reading.  I would sneak my latest book out to recess and hide by a tree, reading and hoping nobody was going to force me to join in play that wasn’t play for me.

In third grade, my reading-for-escape strategy started getting me reported by my teachers, who complained to my parents that I wouldn’t get my nose out of the book and go play like the other kids.  Some days I made myself join the other kids – we jumped rope a lot, and there was the joy of sliding down the fire escape.  But I still tried to hide away as often as I thought could be reasonably managed.  The other kids seemed comfortable with each other and unfrightened by their interactions, but I was consistently afraid and at a loss for what to say or do, when I tried to be part of their crowd.  On the positive side, I think all the other kids in my class at some point or other got spanked with the board with a carved out handle and a name (Caesar) for either failing to complete work, or some behavior violation, while I never once suffered that indignity (at an assigned time, all the accused had to stand at the front of the room, bend over, and submit to a number of whacks preassigned and announced by the teacher as appropriate for their crime.) So it seemed like my strategy was working.

All my years of public school went on like this, with me focused on the joy of my schoolwork and my books and generally in terror of social interactions, ever the awkward outsider, until I got big enough to be swooped up by a predatory older boyfriend and things got much worse, but that’s a different story for another day.

I’m pondering all of this more recently as I’m beginning to realize:  I think my childhood of social ineptitude, as painful and lonely as it was, is actually proving out to have been a gift to me in some ways.  While I got better at faking my way through and surviving among the masses over time, I’m still (in my own eyes, at least) very much the awkward outsider, different from others around me, less skilled at the give-and-take with people who are not my family or closer friends and coworkers, bad at navigating a crowd.  Here’s the gift from that:  I don’t have big expectations that I will be popular or even noticed, so I don’t get disappointed on that front.  I believe others won’t perceive me as “cool” at all, so on the occasions that they do, it brings me joy, and the rest of the time I’m not bothered.  I generally assume that people say what they mean and mean what they say when dealing with me, so if they are trying to hide daggers  to wound me in our conversations, I am oblivious (I think people with better social skills catch all that subtext, from what I’ve observed, but it seems to make them LESS happy, not more.)

My pastor, who has shared before about believing as a child that he would have a superpower by adulthood, was talking yesterday in the message about how people get disappointed as time goes by – I thought I was going to be more fit by now, I thought I was going to be richer, more handsome, prettier, more important, etc.  I listened and probed my memories – no such experience.  Can’t relate.  I have never imagined that one day I’m going to rise up and amaze the world – I have always felt like a very little person who is always going to be a very little person.  The single exception to that is that when I was working with at-risk kids, while the healthy part of me was just a little person trying to love those kids with all my might, the less healthy part of me definitely developed a “messiah complex.”  I was going to single-handedly save them from the dreary fates that seemed to await.  Even in this, though, I was clear that people weren’t mostly going to think well of me for it (if you pour yourself into kids on the brink, while some will think well of you, more will not understand you, and others will go to great lengths to persistently inform you of how stupid you are for wasting your time and energy.)

While I am blessed (and continually amazed) to have somehow been named a hero by some people I’ve loved along the way and labeled very kindly by some others, all of that comes to me not as what I expected.  It’s a happy surprise, which causes me to hold it tenderly.  My failure to expect popularity, fame, physical prowess, wealth, etc. has paid me very well:  I am an undisappointed person, content with where I am, not resenting my peers in cases where they seem to be doing better.

I think this is maybe one of the reasons Facebook doesn’t make me crazy like it does so many.  When I get there, it doesn’t occur to me to compare myself to others as they present themselves, which seems to be what people with better in-person social skills do.  If I see someone getting something good, I think it is nice for them, and I’m not bothered that it’s different from the good things I get.  If I see someone acting badly, I am clear that it’s not about me, so it doesn’t make me mad.  I scroll quickly on by the stuff that I don’t like and I “hide” the things that offend me (that is NOT the same as “the things with which I disagree”) without comment, assuming it is for someone else and not me.  That leaves me lots of space to connect with people, and – even better for me, really – to read things that interest me.  I’m still Karen who wildly loves to learn and to read.  That’s not different than grade school Karen.  It occurs to me that others are taking Facebook as “the playground,” and God knows I never did understand how to navigate a playground – those are terrifying places.  It is not the playground for me.  I just wander in and take what I like and then get on with my day, leaving the rest with the presumption that someone else apparently likes that part.

I wouldn’t have supposed that years of painful social ineptitude could, in the long run, wind up being a gift.  But looking at it right now, I think maybe it was.  I don’t know how to draw any worth from the opinion of others, since I don’t expect them to notice me at all.  I just get to be happily surprised (if still kind of skeptical) at praise, and at peace with the rest, cozying into learning and words and now God, who doesn’t seem to mind my awkwardness.  I don’t waste time comparing myself to others – what would be the point of that, for an awkward outsider?

That seems like a good thing to me.

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