Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some thoughts on being a freak
Although I've been concerned about the transition to middle school as Egbert prepares to leave his tiny elementary school, there are two things I'm looking forward to: one is the gifted program teacher, the guy with the funny name (not too many names contain Ws, Ys, Zs, and a silent T), whom Egbert has developed a little guy-crush on, and who is just about the coolest teacher ever (I mean, how many teachers do you know with the Elvish glyph for "Gandalf" tattooed on their forearm?); the other is the possibility that there will be a peer group of other freakish kids for him to relate to, as the entire fifth grade of his school totals only 26 kids, and he's the only freak.

I've already discussed some of the ways in which he's a freak there: an atheist in a school full of religious, the only one who won't say the pledge... but he's also one of the most academically-advanced kids in the school (and you know how well-liked THAT makes you), and just... different, in innumerable ways. Even the other smart kids have mixed feelings towards him (he got into an argument with one girl, formerly his best friend in the school, over whether Phillip Pullman intended to destroy the church by writing the "His Dark Materials" series. He got a little over-emotional about it, which didn't help).

Since I didn't go to school past the third grade, I missed out on the whole peer group thing during that apparently most-important peer-group period: high school. But it didn't matter. I'd not have had a peer group in the rural school district we lived in even if I had gone. After all, I did belong to 4-H, but a lot of good that did me: I was invited to the home of one of the other girls--once. And, I went on a weekend trip when our 4-H district was hosted by another 4-H district. We participated in various activities such as bowling (that's the only one I really remember, because it was so traumatic). I was so weird, apparently (I'm still not sure how or why) no one would speak to me--not even the girl whose bedroom floor I slept on. She just stared at me blankly whenever I said anything.

I also took gymnastics at the local Y. One day in class a few girls were whispering together and finally one of them asked me to read the sign on which the gym rules were posted. I assumed that they were trying to make the point that I had broken a rule, so I looked at the sign, saw no rules I'd broken, and asked what I'd done. They told me to read it aloud, so I started to -- only to learn that, oh, we just wanted to see if your parents taught you to read. So much for that potential peer group.

I finally found a sort of peer group when my parents sent me to a summer camp for freaks (well, they were Unitarians, but same thing, for the most part). (Actually, I got a scholarship and raised most of the rest of the money myself, by making and selling butter (what kind of freakish way to raise money is that for a 16-yr-old?)). But, finally! I found other kids who not only knew who Phil Ochs was, but could also play his songs! Who went on protests at nuclear power stations! (yes, that was a camp activity--as was swimming at a nude beach). Although I was extremely shy and introverted, I deliberately signed up for the scariest workshop (improv drama) as a way of breaking out--sort of a self-imposed shock therapy. It did work, and I had a great time, and went back the next year as well, but none of those kids lived anywhere near me, so no real peer group there, either. However, I did finally know that I wasn't going to have to live in a cave when I grew up.

I'm not super worried about Egbert finding a peer group, really. While I still may be somewhat socially maladroit in consequence of my lack of childhood experience in relating to peers (an important skill,  I was recently informed [my somewhat defensive response: "I don't think normalcy is something to aspire to"]), there are advantages as well. For one thing, as an outsider, you develop strengths that popular kids don't: more empathy, more compassion for underdogs, and the ability to see things from a different perspective. Of course, one of the biggest advantages is not needing to depend upon external validation for one's self-concept (because, you ain't gonna get any). There are other advantages as well--you don't discriminate against others for not being like you, and your tastes are not limited to those of whatever group you are oriented to. So, for instance, while I lacked for same-age peers, I've always had friends of all ages, and to this day have more friends who are not my age than those who are, and my life has been more interesting because of it (well, I assume so, anyway).

Egbert already has more going for him than I did--he's less of an introvert, so he's less isolated to begin with, and has more self-awareness than I did--he already knows he's a freak, and he accepts that. He also has a more forceful personality than I did at that age. And while I tended towards accentuating my differentness as a defensive mechanism, he just goes about his way without regard for judgment. It is my hope, though, that Egbert finds more friends in middle school (he does have friends that he's known since preschool, but they go to different schools, and scheduling/logistics are always a problem) with whom he can share his enthusiasms and ideas, and have fun with. I don't care if they're his age, or have horns or blue hair. I just want them to be smart, thoughtful, kind, think for themselves, and appreciate him for who he is. If not, he can just be a freak. Worked out okay for me.