Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.