Thinking Back

I’ve been asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t enjoy my early years, hated middle school and despised high school. I didn’t start to truly enjoy life until I met and married my husband. The years we have had together have been the best ones of my life.

As a child I was sulky and miserable. I was born eighteen months after my brother and walked in his shadow even beyond college. I knew that my mom worshipped and protected my brother, and so I wanted to be exactly like him. I played sports of all kinds as a kid, which meant endless hours of kickball with the neighborhood kids, whiffle ball in our backyard, along with badminton, sledding,  and snowball throwing. While I was a decent athlete, I could not throw as hard as my brother did and so found myself with reddened palms time after time.

I was one year behind my brother in school, which meant being held up to his academic standards by teacher after teacher. I don’t know how much time my brother spent studying. For me, reading, writing, science and history did not come easy. I didn’t learn to read independently until fourth grade, but once I mastered the skill, you couldn’t keep a book out of my hands. Spelling didn’t make sense. How can cow, how, now and show have the same root, but sound differently? Science and history required memorization, something which did not come easy to me. I spent hour after hour on homework every night, rereading the same passages time after time. There were two subjects in which I excelled: math and languages.

We were as close as kids could be. Partly because we spent many hours together inside the house during the winter, during which we played board games, that I always lost, built castles with Lincoln Logs and had epic battles with armies of plastic men. We built igloos and had epic sledding hills that crossed three backyards. We explored the woods behind our house, jumped off boulders and climbed trees.

Neither of us had any mechanical skills, so while my brother was a disappointment to our father, I equally disappointed my mom. My brother had no interest in changing oil or tires. I had no desire to learn how to cook. Both of us spent time watching and getting yelled at when we didn’t pay attention.

I did not play with dolls. In fact, the only dolls I ever owned were several of the fancily dressed kind that simply rested against my pillow and a mechanical one that rolled about on skates. I was not allowed to play with the first because my mother feared that I would mess them up. She was probably right. The skater required batteries, which were expensive, and so not available. Barbie came out when I was a young teen, but I could only afford a cheap plastic cut-off whose arms fell off and whose “skin” was translucent.

My sister was born when I was seven. There was enough distance between us that we had little in common, and so we did not spend time together other than the sharing of a bedroom. It was probably my fault, as I put no effort into befriending her, finding her unable to do and uninterested in the things that I enjoyed.

That is one thing that I would change. I would find a way to embrace her, to search out those activities that we could have done together. She was into playing with dolls, walking them through pretend worlds and relationships that I could not understand or relate to. But what if I had tried? Would that have erased some of the years between us? Would it have brought us closer together? Part of me wants to believe that it would, but another part of me remembers how much my mother cared for my sister. How much she protected her and fussed over her, and then I’m not so sure.

School was one of many places where I felt most alone. I did not have playground friends, so spent much of my primary years sitting on a bench against the wall, watching others laugh and giggle and run around like nuts. I remember hating Valentine’s Day. While I had cards for everyone in my class, I seldom received cards in return. I was never invited to birthday parties and only once went to a sleepover when I was in middle school. My mom bought me new pajamas for that affair, as mine were old and faded. But I had been sheltered from the world of teen magazines and gossip television shows, so when the girls talked about kissing and hair and clothes, I had nothing to contribute. I felt even more isolated after that.

In eighth grade I transferred to public school and fell in love with my teacher. Mr. Bennington was kind and patient, two qualities that I desperately yearned to be the receiver of. When asked to do a research project on a college that we might like to attend, guess what I did? I found Bennington College in Vermont. I was proud of myself until I turned it in, and then I was too embarrassed to talk about it in front of the class. That is something else that I would change. I’d find a college closer to home as my target and report on it.

I went on my first date in eighth grade. Our school had a prom-like affair in mid-year. A dorky boy asked me out and I accepted. (Of course, I was also a dork!) I did not know how to dance and was uncomfortable with his touch. The evening was long and painful.

I was a shy child, not just in Kindergarten, but all the way through most of my college years. I was the kid in the class that no one knew. I did not raise my hand to answer questions, did not seek help from my teachers, and did not go up to the front of the room for group activities. In fact, I remember scooting down in my desk when my reading group was called and sitting there while all the others had the teacher’s attention. Yes, it held me back. As I sat in my chair, I yearned for the teacher to notice that I was not in the circle and call me forward, but she never did.

If I could have chosen my desk in middle and high school, I would have sat at the back of the room, I so feared attention from the teachers. Unfortunately teachers generally assign seats by alphabetical order of last name, so I ended up somewhere down the second row. That is something I did change when I returned to college as an adult. I always sat in the first row so as to better hear and be seen. It helped me build confidence and so I succeeded. It is also something that I did not do as a teacher. I let my students pick out their seats and then left them alone unless they were being disrespectful of the right of others to learn.

One thing that I would change, if I could go back in time, is to make a better effort at finding and keeping friends. Because I was shy, I was not one of those kids who was sought after to be part of a group. On occasion, someone did approach me and initiate conversation, but I never was the initiator. Imagine how different my life would have been if I had had the courage to walk up to someone and simply say, “Hi.” Wow! Even now this is hard for me.

As a college student I had more success in building relationships. I did not get to attend the college of my choice because my parents would only let me follow my brother to the one he had chosen, which, it turned out, was a good thing. He joined a fraternity, which had a support group called Little Sisters, and they took me in. Because of being a Little Sister, I had invitations to parties, actual dates to events on campus, and a place to spend Friday and Saturday nights.

Unfortunately I chose an impractical major. I entered as a math major, thinking I’d study statistics and find a job working with data. I pictured me sitting in a room with charts of information before me and knew that this was something I could do. The problem is that when I went to college, the women’s liberation movement had not yet evolved into a force, so it was no surprise when the math department chair called me into his office and told me that no company would ever hire a woman because all we wanted was to find a man and get married. I left his office and changed majors.

If I could repeat that day, I would defy him, earn my degree in math, get hired, and work long, happy hours doing something wonderful with numbers.

Instead I took a serious look at how many credits I had in each subject area, keeping in mind that I had to graduate in four years as that was how long my scholarship lasted, saw that only in Russian could I do that, so chose that as my new major. I told myself that I could get a job as a translator, without taking into consideration that I was too shy to ever speak Russian outside of the classroom. And that there were no jobs for Russian translators.

What I should have done was stuck with math and defied the chair, but women didn’t do that back then. We were raised to be compliant and to think of being wife and mother, not employee.

After college I returned home and joined the real work force. The one in which the only work experience I had was sitting behind the desk in a college dorm was meaningless. I had a hard time getting a job because I had no office skills. I was a poor typist and could not operate any of the machines in use at that time. When I did finally find work, it was at a furniture store, unfortunately as a customer service operator. I had to answer phones and had to pacify upset callers. I hated the job!

I’m not sure what I could have changed about that except for going way back in high school and sticking with my one and only typing course, honed my craft, and then I would have had marketable skills years later.

After that I was hired by the IRS as a tax collector. Not a job for a shy person, but I will credit the experience as helping me move past my fear of meeting and interacting with unfamiliar people. I had to knock on doors, walk into businesses and drive around San Francisco, up and down those hills and in and out of all types of neighborhoods. I learned to sit in my car and practice what I was going to say before walking into those situations. It was valuable experience for later on when I became a teacher.

There were two great things about that job. First, I made enough money to buy a car and then rent an apartment. That gave me freedom to simply be. I was in charge of my own life, had the ability to get myself places, and made decisions about where and how to spend my money. I learned to cook rudimentary things, just enough to survive. The second most wonderful thing was meeting Mike, who later became my best friend and husband.

Being married to Mike is one thing I would never change. He brings light to my life. He has been my strongest supporter in everything I have set out to tackle. He has been a role model for how to be as a person, wife and parent. Without him, my life would have been unrecognizable. He has never once held me back, never discouraged me from trying something new, never stopped me from tackling college courses or conferences or workshops.

There are things I did as a parent for which I am proud. For one, I always prepared breakfast for my kids. Most days it was a hot meal, but there were times when they preferred cold cereal, and I let them eat it even though, nutritionally, it was not the best choice. I packed their lunches except for once a week when they were able to buy lunch at school. I drove them to swim lessons, soccer, baseball and softball, all of which I supported as team mom, scorekeeper, coach, and referee. I attended parent-teacher meetings when needed, and even though I was working, took off to go on some field trips. During the summer months, when they were younger, I worked with them on academic skills in between swim lessons and soccer practice.

On the other hand, there were things I wish I could take back. I was not the most patient of parents. When my kids got angry, I didn’t know how to handle it. In my growing up years, anger was met with anger, tantrums with spankings, yelling with hurtful, cruel yelling. That was the only model I knew and so, despite what I read in parenting magazines, when my patience ran thin, I resorted to the poor models of behavior that I had benefited from. I wish I could replay those events and this time, instead of reacting poorly, simply walk away. Calm down. Allow my kids to calm down. And then later on, talk about what caused the anger and seek out appropriate solutions. If I could have done this, I would have been a better parent.

I am glad that we cannot revisit the past just to do it all over again. There is no way that I would choose to repeat any of my previous years of life. It would be terrifying to be a child today, faced with all the terrors that today’s kids deal with. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco were not the temptations back then. Kidnappings probably happened, but the news was not filled with story after sad story. I feel sorry that today’s children do not have the freedoms that I had to ride my bike through neighborhood after neighborhood, going miles from home, without worry.

I would not want to be a teenager who wants nothing more than to be a mechanic, being forced into college prep classes because that’s all that is offered. To want to be a nurse’s assistant, but having no opportunity to learn those skills. To want to be a doctor but unable to take advanced placement classes because my school does not offer them.

So, to answer the question, would I want to go back and redo my life, the response is a resounding no. I have worked through the issues that burdened me as a child, teen, and older adult, am happy with who I am at this point in time. I love my husband and my grown up children. I love my grandchildren. I love being able to write, to having enough savings to travel, and spending time with my husband doing things that we both love. I have a good life, filled with things to do and people to see. What more could a person want?

 

About Terry Connelly

Terry Connelly is a retired high school English teacher. She earned her BA and Single Subject Teaching credential from California State University of the East Bay, in Hayward, California. She taught for 18 years at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California. She was gifted to work with both College Prep students and those with learning disabilities.
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