I just came home from an eight-grade graduation, that of the oldest daughter of one of my best friends. Caroline is a poised thirteen-year-old, funny and wry and down-to-earth, studious and good-humored. She presents light years away from how I remember feeling at her age – awkward, self-conscious, exposed. Every moment of adolescence, as I recall it, seemed a moment of skin-crawling exposure to harsh and glaring light. A photo, taken of my mother and me on the day of my middle-school graduation, captures this perfectly. I’m wearing a Gunne Sax peasant dress with bell sleeves, my hair straight and straw-like, my face red from some skin treatment I’d been rubbing on in hopes of removing every blemish before the big day. I’m squinting into the sun, smiling. It’s a small smile, an awkward smile, a please-get-this-over-with smile. Everything about the picture screams to me how much I wanted to hide, to get in the shade, to escape attention. My mother, next to me in early-70s batik (complete with headscarf), looks relaxed, even drowsy. (And no, it wasn’t from what you might suspect given the era and the batik.) She, at forty-three that day, was comfortable in her skin; I, at thirteen, was decidedly not.
Mary Pipher and Carol Gilligan and many others have written about adolescent girls, about what happens between age eight or nine and high school. Formerly confident, funny, quirky, good-at-math girls become what they think society wants them to be – quiet, deferential, reserved, not getting better grades than the boys. All too often, girls pack their real selves away while they go on a journey of self-discovery.
I’m not here to further that discussion. Not that it doesn’t interest me, but it’s been done. No, I’m writing this because I can’t stop thinking about something Caroline’s school priest said during his remarks at the graduation. He spoke in the context of the gospel reading, in which Jesus leaves disciples with the message to love one another. You don’t have to be Christian to take to heart the message of the integrity within each of us. We tell stories, the priest said, and we listen to them. What matters is which stories we choose to tell and hear. As much as we can, he told this morning’s graduates, we need to choose the stories that allow us to be our best selves. The stories in which we’ve acted out of love and caring and generosity of spirit. The stories in which we’ve felt most alive.
I wish I’d heard that message at age thirteen. I had the support and praise of my parents and teachers, but, like many of the girls Gilligan and Pipher write about, I had gone underground by then. I thought it was cool to be aloof and dispassionate, so I tucked my enthusiasms away – so far away it took time to find them again. The girl who once wrote plays and directed (rather bossily, as I recall) her classmates in acting them out, who shared her make-believe with any grown-up within earshot, who didn’t particularly care what people thought, had become shy and full of insecurity. I still wrote, but I hid what I wrote, and I tried to make my stories conform to what I thought was cool. Having a boyfriend, or Chunky platforms, or the right lip gloss. It took almost twenty years for me to find the real stories, those that had lurked quietly in storage all along.
Even before attending Caroline’s graduation this morning, I’d been thinking about adolescence. I’ve hit a block in my writing life, and there’s nothing like writer’s block to bring on the uncomfortable feeling of being under the spotlight. But you know what? In some way, much as I chafe at it, I need that awkwardness, that exposure.
I’m not under any illusions that Caroline – or any of her classmates – has sailed through without a gawky moment. I still feel uncomfortable sometimes – who doesn’t? I still tell myself the negative stories, listen to the harsh voice, fall sway to the critic and judge – just as Caroline and her classmates will. But I’ll always remember what I heard this morning. Almost thirty years later than I’d like to have heard it, but you know what? I was still listening.