I would like you to click play on this youtube link and read while listening to this song on repeat, because that’s what I was listening to on repeat while I wrote.
Once upon a time, I worked with a little 4 year old girl who was the kind of 4 year old girl you just knew was destined to be Homecoming Queen. She was adorable and sassy! She had pretty clothes and shoes, and carried herself with total confidence. You’d of thought she had it made, right? One would have thought that she had lots of friends who fought for her attention every day. But, surprisingly to me, HQ had a really hard time making friends with the other girls in class. Instead of idolizing HQ or wanting to be her — or even just be near her in the hopes that some of her sparkle would rub off on them — her classmates’ collective response to her was more along the lines of a nope. Not this time, HQ! Confounding nature — the Alpha/Beta “Wild Kingdom” order of things that school usually resembles — the other girls rebelled against social anthropology. They didn’t wait in line to swing with HQ on the playground, they weren’t vying to sit closest to her on the rug at circle time, they didn’t compare their outfits with hers, even if they had the same butterflies on their dresses. And it was sad, because you could see how being alienated not only confused this little girl, but in a cyclical way, it fed into the caricature that she was embodying. Homecoming queen. Imperial. Better.
HQ found this rebellion perplexing because in her universe she was a princess! A special purple unicorn princess with pretty, benevolent king/queen parents who doted on her. The mom was maybe the nicest and loveliest woman I have ever met. Dad was kind, and big brother was “a pretty big deal.” They were, in fact, the perfect family. And I just felt for them. Because they clearly were only trying to raise a confident, adorable “mighty girl” who in their eyes was perfectly perfect just the way she was.
It was working, too, because HQ did have a lot of confidence, and an innate sense that in the proper order of things she should be always winning. She should be winning, at the very least, in this tiny microcosm of civilization that is the preschool classroom. I mean, she had great hair! Long, full and wavy. She wore the sweetest, tidiest dresses. Her snacks were wholesome and homemade and packed in the fanciest containment systems. The boys looked longingly at her chocolate chip muffin and strawberries at snack time. The girls watched her eat daintily with a level of frustration they were too young to understand. I guess they hoped she might spill something all over her sweet pinafore dress.
Sometimes a girl would play with her for a little while and together they’d shun the other girls, establishing friendship based on exclusion, a trick they were learning really well. All it took to pull that girl back from HQ and re-establish the pecking order were a few scathing words, or some crocodile tears. “You can’t play with us,” the other girls would say. “You’re being mean to us,” they’d cry and one of them would fetch a teacher. We teachers would do our utmost to get the girls to view all their classmates as friends. We taught empathy, we played cooperative games, we read stories about inclusion. We wracked our brains, but this was bigger than us.
What was HQ to do? Pretend to be someone else? Not see that she was something special? No. She continued to hold her head high. She carried herself with dignity. A 4 year old’s dignity. When HQ made comments like, “Angie’s snack is yucky,” or “James is messy,” oh how I wished I could wave my magic wand and make it all go away. “Kids, look over there! Do I hear the garbage truck rumbling down the street? Let’s go see!!” Come by me, look here, watch this, what am I doing now?!?
Distract, confuse, defuse… but, no.
Getting HQ out of one hole, only found her digging another. And there came a morning at drop-off when I watched her almost completely shut down, actually falling asleep at her cubby. I did my best by her. I stayed with her all day. I promised her I would be there for her, right by her side. I’d work with her all day and then, to my absolute chagrin, she’d say something like, “Angie is stupid”… and Angie was right… around… the corner! I’d cringe and smack my forehead.
But, look, HQ was just fighting back. Like a queen!
HQ’s situation bewildered and troubled me as I thought about how this might affect her future. Would she learn from her peers and take off the tierra? Would she tilt her nose higher and pretend to float above the riff-raff. Would she find herself, make friends with kids who weren’t hinging their own self esteem upon her perceived successes or failures. Would she become a mean girl? Would she humble herself, learn not to brag, cut her hair, decide to make mistakes secretly on purpose? What options were left to her?
How would she ever, I wondered, climb out of this box that she had become quite trapped inside of?
How do any of us?
The little boxes have been a central frustration of my life. I’ve been in them, put in there by people who just needed to define me and move on. I’ve watched people put themselves in their own box and lower the lid (gosh that sounds coffin-like). We know what these boxes are. They’re our ‘brand”. Sometimes they are placed right upon us over our heads.
Geek. Jock. Popular. Loner.
We grow up: Wasp. Yuppie. Hipster. Helicopter mom. Tiger mom. Snob. Cool. Antisocial. Actually, the boxes don’t change that much.
Some people expend great amounts of energy to fit into a box; control their brand. They can be found at parties or playgrounds –it makes little difference–sharking out the “right” group of people to stand by. They’re the ones on social media tagging group pictures of every social event they attend.
I see why people accept their box. Some even step right into it and are grateful to be there. Their box suits them. They are safe and comfortable and in good company, surrounded by other box people who love them. So good. Their box is a home and that’s a great thing.
There are good boxes and less good boxes. And by now I’ve given myself away because clearly I’m not one of those who have found a good box that fits. I’ve always found so little comfort in the box that whenever I’ve been in one I’ve sabotaged it. The box makes me feel tight. I can’t breath. I sneak out or I take an ax to it. That leaves me alone more than I would like. But I haven’t found my box yet. And how can I lie down in it until I find it? I’m getting closer. I love my family. My husband and three children are the one thing I got right. It’s the other corners of my box I’m working on. I have high hopes for myself as a very old lady, finally comfortable, box or no. It’s taken me longer to figure out that in my case the box has to be built by me, with my own hands: board by board, nail by nail. I aspire to perch cheerfully atop it, inside will be all my favorite things, and I can climb in and out with ease.
Little HQ came back the following year of preschool. Some of those girls were no longer in her class. That helped. But something else helped. She was even more herself than before. Instead of a princess, she was lots of things. She wore brightly colored mismatched knee high socks with her dresses. She wore her brother’s hand-me-down batman cap with a pink furry winter jacket. She liked purple sunglasses and she liked Pokémon. She played with whoever was playing a game that interested her. She was kind when she felt like it. She played alone some of the time. She played gleefully with classmates some of the time. Everything she did was “fine.” It’s fine, she’d say. I’d hear her talk her playmate-of-the-moment out of a finicky mood with the simple words, “It’s okay.” “It doesn’t matter,” she’d note when we’d work on her letters or numbers. “Weeelllll… it matters a little,” I’d tell her as we traced and wrote the letters of her name, her hand in mine when she’d allow me to guide her, just to get her started. However her name came out, it looked pretty good to her, as far as she was concerned. She seemed to me both firmly unconcerned and completely confident with her brand. I didn’t feel any boards around her and that was fine by us.