A song on the radio made a huge impact recently. The premise is that we remake ourselves as we grow, learn and explore. I have definitely done that.
I was an abused child. Both of my parents beat me, humiliated me, isolated me from my peers. My older brother pinched me, kicked me and called me names. My younger sister mocked me, taunted me and regularly lied to my parents, accusing me of hurting her and then smirking as severe punishment was inflicted upon me.
If I had been asked to measure my self-esteem, it would have been a big, fat zero. I believed myself to be not just stupid, but an idiot. I was told that I was incapable of succeeding in anything, I am believed it.
Nevertheless, I was expected to receive the highest marks on all my work. Or be punished.
It didn’t make sense: if I was stupid, how was I going to get those grades?
Fear of punishment motivated me to study, study, study.
Despite being the invisible student in the room, I somehow pleased my teachers. I couldn’t speak in a loud enough voice to be heard, but when called to go up to the board, I excelled.
I set goals for myself at a young age, goals that my family said were impossible for me to achieve.
The only place where I felt safe was at school. I was scared of my teachers, afraid I’d disappoint them, but I revered them so much that I yearned to be them.
In high school I tried out for badminton, bowling, basketball and softball. I was the top badminton player in the school. I was good enough to be on the best bowling team.
Despite my short stature, I was a great defender in basketball, primarily due to my sharp eyes and quick hands. Softball was the exception: I was terrified of the huge ball, and even though I could easily send a hardball soaring, I couldn’t get the softball too much beyond the pitcher’s mound.
I had begun changing my self-image from the incapable idiot to a surprisingly good athlete.
My grades were good enough to earn a state scholarship that paid 100% of tuition at any college in California.
This surprised my counselor. She had called me into her office before the scholarships were announced to tell me that I’d never graduate from college and that I should be looking for a job.
I was determined to prove her wrong. At the end of my first semester at the community college, I made an appointment with the counselor to show her my grades. I was gloating. I love watching the surprise on her face.
When I was finally allowed to leave home for college, I now had the opportunity to take charge of my life. I shared a room in the dorm, which was my only restriction. I could eat whenever and whatever I wanted.
I chose my classes and professors. I stayed up late studying. I found people like me who welcomed me.
I dated. Tried to join a sorority, but didn’t like the wealthy, stuck-up girls.
I got contacts at the university’s vision clinic. They hurt and I was terrible at sticking them in my eyes, but for the first time since I got glasses in fourth grade, I didn’t feel like a freak.
I made my skirts and pants in modern lengths and styles.
As best as I could despite being poor, I tried to look like my peers.
I went to football games, I got an on-campus jog watching the desk at a residence hall. I was in charge of others for the first time in my life.
On a walk across campus, I heard music that drew me in. It came from the Neumann Center, during a Catholic Mass. Something about the guitars, drums, piano and other instruments, plus the joyous music spoke to me. I began spending more and more time there, even going on several retreats with them. Religion took on a new meaning. It was no longer about fear and punishment, but love.
The most difficult part of my journey was when I had to return home after graduation. Once again, I was subjected to the emotional and physical abuse of parents and siblings. I was a young woman who was treated as if she was a not-very-bright child.
My goal was freedom.
First I had to get a job. That wasn’t easy. Back in the late 1970s, women were expected to work in offices, teach or be a nurse. I had no office skills and couldn’t stand being around sick people.
I wanted to teach, but had no money to pay for college. And, there was a glut of teachers looking for jobs.
I got a good job with the federal government doing something that I had no interest in and no skills at knocking on doors and demanding back taxes. But, I made a career out of it in order to first, buy my own car.
Having transportation meant that I could escape. As soon as I had enough money, I wanted to buy a car. But…I had no credit history so my dad had to cosign. He wouldn’t let me buy the car I wanted, instead insisting I get a Ford Pinto. I rebelled by choosing the ugliest one on the lot.
Next was an apartment. As I drove about as part of my job, I kept an eye out for available apartments. I visited rental offices. In time, I narrowed down my search to a nice complex in San Bruno. It was close to the freeway, a requirement so that I could drive into San Francisco for work.
Moving into my tiny studio allowed me to be free! My parents no longer had any say over my life. If I did see them and they became abusive, I could leave.
I had reinvented myself as a self-supporting woman, one who was successful enough to have her own car and apartment.
From then on, my self-image morphed almost continuously.
I was a successful government employee. I oved into the teaching component, where I led studies in tax collection.
I met the most marvelous man in the San Mateo office, who is still my husband 49 years later.
I added wife and then mother to my resume. I didn’t know how to mother, and especially didn’t want to be a replica of my own mother. The local recreation department offered classes in parenting. From them, I learned how to teach my own kids, how to come up with activities, how to offer support and encouragement.
It wasn’t always easy and I made mistakes, but I tried to learn from each.
When my kids got older, I returned to college to earn an AA degree in Early Childhood Education. I loved the coursework.
Then I transferred to Holy Names College where I completed an Elementary Teaching Certificate.
When I did get hired, I put in long hours on curriculum, bulletin boards, grading. I wanted to be an excellent teacher, for my students, yes, but also to prove to myself that I could.
By the ripe old age of forty, I was an entirely different person from the shy, frightened kid that started elementary school.
I have continued to work on my self-image, even as an older woman.
I do what I want to do when I want to do it. I am in charge of my life. I have a loving, supportive husband who had encouraged me to explore a variety of interests.
I am proud of who I am today.