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The Art of Individuality
It seemed, back then, that we were always on the move. A single school for a single year; I made friends, established a reputation for myself, and then we packed our entire life into boxes that were loaded onto a truck and driven off to our next destination. It wasn’t a bad life, of course. I enjoyed seeing different parts of the country and experiencing new things. But one seems to eventually lose the thrill of going somewhere new as it falls into an anticipated routine, and one of my most favored questions after a move was, “How long will we stay?”
The most common routine of them all, however, was the new-student routine. This had started the day I discovered that I had a talent for writing, with a painfully naïve fiction story about a unicorn’s escapades in a magical lake. The story was appropriately titled, “The Magical Lake”. Hoping to win a prize for my hard work, my mother and I had entered it in a writing contest where the first, second, and third-place winners earned a tour of a news studio. I was thrilled to find out, several weeks later, that I had placed third, and enjoyed my complimentary tour of the studio.
Perhaps a few months followed, and we soon moved after enrolling in a new school that was about an hour away from our home. This was my first private school, and I much relished my time there as a new student learning new things.
I never did, however, quite understand why we had moved.
Several years later, this was brought up in discussion and I came to a realization—when the judges in the writing contest so long ago had surveyed my writing, they had deemed it too advanced for someone of my age and had given it third place because of suspected parental guidance. That was when my mother knew that our town was too small for me—which I needed to move on and write elsewhere. I had no idea, that this small matter was such a case of injustice. I did, however, appreciate the move, because it would set off a chain of events that would affect my life for several years yet to come.
I attacked the world of writing with renewed passion, dictating to my older guardians as my mind raced, so underdeveloped at a young age and yet already humming with creative electricity. My first official series was known as “The Princess, Her Daughters, and Her Cat”, detailing the misadventures of a royal family and their adopted pet with uncanny intelligence. Steamrollering on through my fathomless imagination, my next creation was called, simply, “Norimarine”, the tale of a mermaid and her daring wish to meet a human. The stories had simple concepts with simple characters, but in my mind they were novels bordering on works of art. I won’t be grandstanding when I say that I was considered good for my age. These books were my portals to different worlds, ones that I knew only in my head.
It was a good thing that I had these new worlds to contemplate, because a few years later, I was dealing with a very new and different reality. Though I had attended a private school in preschool years, I now faced a new challenge in the form of public school.
Of course, I was too young to have fully developed a personality, but my individuality began to emerge through kindergarten and first grade.
After only about a year and a half, I was back in private schools, this time exclusively Montessori. This system suited me nicely, but it was at one of these schools in perhaps fourth grade that I realized I was different from other people. I had a fiery passion for writing, something that I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life, when others were still deciding their careers. My desire to excel in academics stood out like an orange violet. And my expressive, vivacious attitude was much different from the sophisticated older students who acted as if they were already in middle school and looked like young adults. I revered them and hung out with them whenever I could, but it only later occurred to me that while they were my friends, I was slightly less of an equal to them.
It was definitely a step down the ladder. Before entering this strangely diverse Montessori school, I had gone to a smaller, more private place where I often asserted control and taught new lessons to the younger students. They looked up to me, and for that reason I stood out sharply among the others, who were still immature and easily influenced. It was also there that I learned that my intelligence and outlook on life was more developed than most. One incident that stands out among others was the day we were making posters to hang up in our mini-library. I had worked hard on a colorful design that featured a book in the middle of an explosion of colors. Underneath the picture was the statement, “Books are people too!” It was a very proud creation of mine, and I couldn’t wait to hang it up.
One of the older students that served as a constant source of annoyance to me had scoffed at the poster. “Books aren’t people!” he had said, filling me with anger and confusion. He hadn’t understood my metaphor. I was merely trying to say that books should be treated with the same care we treated people. But no one had gotten it.
It was many, many years before I realized that I had made a statement with a far more complex meaning than I should have been able to come up with. I still wonder if the older student had known that and was trying to embarrass me, or if he truly didn’t understand. It didn’t matter, though— the point is, the way I viewed most things were far from “normal”.
I went on to experience what I call to this day “The Golden Years”. Life was getting complicated as I advanced into fifth grade and a school in Colorado. My writing ability was blooming wonderfully, as were my social skills, and it was at this school that I made two wonderful friends. At first, they fought constantly, leaving me helpless in the middle as keeper of the peace, but by my sixth year we were the best of friends with a reputation as the dynamic trio of the school. We did everything together—we even got to know what we called our “second identities” that we defended fiercely and expressed passionately. It was there that I moved into a new stage (not just sixth grade)—my friends, whom were just as wonderfully different, embraced my uniqueness. I became a leader among students. It was an amazing two years in this school, and it was there that I realized that I wasn’t as different as I thought.
It was then by chance, or fate, or whatever name you may give it, that I found myself living the big-city life in San Francisco, California. Only a one thousand-mile road trip from the nearest Colorado city… and any of my friends. We only stayed in ‘Frisco for a while, eventually moving to the more lush Oakland area. A beautiful house waited for us. I had a queen-sized bed, a door leading to a deck that looked out on heart-meltingly beautiful mountains and forest. If you were quiet, you could hear a tiny stream winding its way through the undergrowth. Birds sung every morning.
My school, however, was most of my life, and it was far from paradise. This was a place where individuality was mocked, teased, and stamped out like a burning flame. It was such a wonderful, racially diverse place that I thought I could gain acceptance, but I was wrong. Carrying a notebook to school earned me rude questions like, “Is that your diary?” to which I would want to answer, “No, you idiot. Why would I bring something private to school?” but usually just ignored.
I was humiliated there. Sixth grade, I had thought, was the top of the food chain. But here, I was at the lower end of the spectrum. I ate lunch alone in the company of only a book, scurried through the halls like a scared mouse, faked my way through time spent with girls I knew, and hurried home each night to a chaotic and senseless homework load. Granted, it was the end of the year and I knew no one, but it was still a horrible experience.
Things did change for the better, however. I was accepted into the talent show, a humble singer out of some twenty or thirty. My fellow singers, dancers and instrument-players were happy to welcome me. I even made a friend who passed the auditions with me. Love was kindled.
It must have been destiny calling. Only about two months into our California experience, personal issues called for us to leave—my mother, my sister and I across the country with all our baggage, a cat and a dog in our black Jeep (which we still own today). We drove all the way back, past Colorado, back to a place I could barely remember except for the times I visited my father… Illinois. The place of my birth. I was not sorry to leave California, but traveling so many miles towards an uncertain future would scare anybody. Luckily, we had our family to support us.
We spent many difficult months piecing our life back together. My mother found a wonderful job, my sister and I were enrolled in top-notch schools, and we saw both our parents every week. I made new friends—they were different and perfectly unique, just like me. Time was spent relishing the moments I had—I was where I belonged. Finally.
After many long years spent searching for my identity, I had found it and something else… the truth. I was not freakishly different, annoyingly mature (okay, sometimes). I was human, with all of my flaws, and I loved myself, in all of my passionate, sometimes-quirky glory. I was not the one that stood out, I was the one that fit in—in a crowd that stood out.
My experience in the world has taught me much, but the most valuable thing that it has taught me is not to judge a book by its cover. No one is exactly as they appear. All those years, as I suffered through a self-assumed social outcast existence, I was really just like everyone else—in the manner that I didn’t try to see through my peers’ masks. Everyone, no matter how mature they think they are, always has something more to learn about their selves. And when you do have the courage to lift your mask and let your true self shine through, well, it’ll be scary. After all, it took me thirteen years to come to terms with myself. But don’t worry. I’ll be here, and trust me, I’m an expert in the art of individuality.