I walked into a painting class recently, a small class of only 10 people. The teacher, who I hadn’t met before, came right up, introduced herself, gave me some directions and invited me to sit anywhere. As I walked into this scenario, I noticed the teacher and I noticed what chairs were empty as I made a quick calculation about where to sit. I took my coat off and said hi to the person immediately next to me and then started gathering my supplies as directed.
After a good five minutes while I was gathering supplies, I suddenly heard a voice I recognized, looked down the table and there sat Beryl from my writing group. I had walked right past her to get to my seat. And she was seated facing the door I came in, so one might think I would noticed that person as I entered. I noticed no one! We were seated at a giant U shaped table and about twenty minutes into the class, the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves. Sitting right across from me was Tarren, another person from my writing group.
My writing group meets weekly and although we all don’t make it every single week, we all make most weeks. I know these women. I would recognize them anywhere. How is it I can come into a group of only ten people and not pick out the people I recognize immediately? This has got me thinking about my upbringing and who I was as a child. I was a very shy child—I can hear you (who know me) laughing—but it’s true. When I was out in the world I didn’t speak unless spoken to, I was terrified to start kindergarten and when we moved and I had to start eighth grade in a new school of strangers, I was so scared I vomited and my mom drove me to school—knowing it was a case of nerves, not a virus.
Imagine this extremely shy girl in a big boisterous family of four boys and one sister, with a step father who yelled a lot and a mother who wasn’t home a lot. As I look back on those days, I can remember the sensation of looking out at the world as if from inside a box with a slit for the eye hole. I felt like I could see what was going on around me, but I wasn’t a part of it, I wasn’t engaged. I think because the world was such a scary place for me, and because I was born into the family I was born into, I learned to be safe by staying out of the way and not being noticed—and I think, not noticing.
My stepfather was not known for his parenting ability. His tendency was to yell, to put down, to degrade. To be fair, my sister and brother, who were his children, would give you a very different picture of him, but I have come to realize that he treated the four of us who were not his children very differently than he treated the two who were his children. I think now that he was one of those people who could not love children who were not his own. All four of us have similar stories of how he berated us, belittled us and in general made us all feel like we were just not good enough. For example, whenever he explained something to me, if I had a hard time understanding it, he would tell me to, “stop playing dumb.” Well. Let me tell you my reaction to that! I of course, said nothing to him—but inside my head, I ranted! I raved! I told him I was NOT playing dumb. I WAS dumb. So there. As you can imagine, growing up believing you are dumb is not a good place to start from.
In order to not be a victim of his tirades, I said little, trying to be like the wall paper, there, but not noticed. He made up nicknames, particularly for my brothers. They were not nice, loving nicknames either. They were names you would be ashamed of having your friends hear. They were names that would make you feel bad about yourself. I was a very empathetic child. I would be so angry at my step dad for humiliating my brothers. My impassioned diatribes would go on at length—though no one ever heard them. For a short while I kept a diary and wrote them down, but I certainly never uttered a word aloud to anyone, and I kept that diary under lock and key.
So as I look back at my childhood, I guess it is not surprising that I could walk into a room of ten people and not notice the two I knew. It didn’t pay to notice the hurtful, sad and degrading ways we were often treated as children, and it sure didn’t pay to be noticed. I have long wondered if that is one of the reasons I now like to act. I get so much positive attention for it—maybe it’s filling the empty spaces from my childhood. The journey is long… and never ending… and I look to a future filled with more detail, and so, a more enriched life.