Perception Is Everything

I’ve been following Emily’s blog The Waiting, and she’s doing a great series called:

This week’s theme has to do with Rules.

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The afternoon bus was crowded. Being the last one on meant serious difficulty finding a seat. Today it would prove impossible. What greeted me as I stepped on the bus was something my 10-yr. old brain could not quite wrap itself around. What were they chanting? “Cheater?” Cheater! Who were they shouting at? ME?? It couldn’t have been me. I never cheated.

Growing up as the 4th (and last) child of an immigrant father and a mother who spent her childhood on a small family farm meant that hard work and integrity were valued above all else. Add to that a stint of military service and you can imagine the strict code of conduct which defined my family. That’s not to say that none of us ever bucked the system. But this spoiled youngest child (by eight years, mind you) didn’t dare. Unlike my sister and middle brother, my eldest brother and I always found it easier to go along with the status quo. Bucking the system would certainly prove dangerous to my Princess standing.

Other than being known as a “Goody Two-Shoes” in school (quite interesting what I found here about the origin of the phrase), I also had a father who had become prominent in our community over the years, especially in the school system. Prominent did not equal well-liked for this Air Force Captain turned College Graduate Professor. In fact, there were many who disliked his ideas regarding the education system in our small community. I imagine many of my classmates heard dinner-time conversation concerning this man who was trying to stop some things they considered progress, but which he knew would be detrimental to the education of the youth in his beloved home-town.

All of that may have contributed to the verbal assault I experienced on the bus that day (certainly many would have relished catching me breaking a rule), but the only thing that occupied my young mind was that I certainly had not broken any rules of conduct, school or otherwise. There was a serious misunderstanding here! Surely if I explained … ?

It all started innocently enough. There was this contest. An art contest. Art was never my forte. Stick people and intricate tree branches were the best I could conceive when it came to drawing. Paintbrushes were foreign to me as well, although not to others in my family. No matter your level of talent, all of the 5th graders were required to participate. Earth Day was coming, and we each were to come up with a poster depicting a phrase which we devised and a drawing to illustrate the importance of the Day. One poster would be chosen out of all of the 5th grade classes in our city and sent to compete with other 5th graders around the State for the grand prize.

There was only one rule: The idea had to be mine. I could enlist help with the actual writing and drawing on the poster board, but no one else could conceive of the slogan or the picture itself but me.

At the time I was developing a friendship with a new girl on my street who was a year or two older than I. My parents even asked her to come and “babysit” sometimes when they were out. We spent almost every afternoon together in those days, wandering the woods in the neighborhood, painting each others’ nails, playing Parcheesi, and inventing imaginary games with my stuffed animal collection. (Yeah, sorry, kids, no XBox 360’s existed back in the 70’s.)

I distinctly remember that big, white piece of poster board atop a card table on the screened-in back porch where she and I sat for hours illustrating the idea I had come up with using markers, glue, pipe cleaners, and glitter. It’s true, she helped me some (truly, only some) with the art, but the ideas and even most of the art were mine.

I had followed the rule to a T.

The problem was, none of my classmates believed me. For them the idea was too good, the art too polished. They believed there was no way I had created that poster myself. As you might imagine, I won the contest in my school (I don’t recall where I stood with the rest of the schools or the State, nor did I even care after my school bus experience). In fourth grade I had won the student body’s acclaim and served as President Elect, rising to school President as a 5th grader. Standing on the bus that day, hearing my honor smeared, knowing that every one of my classmates believed I had broken the rules and lied about it, and knowing full well there was absolutely no way I could convince their prejudiced minds otherwise, I broke.

Cursing, crying, I fled from that bus – and from any desire I might have harbored for a life of prominence – never looking back. My mom came and picked me up from school that day. My teacher responded to the bus driver’s concern and called her, knowing I could not ride the bus home in that condition. The other students literally verged on a riotous mob! I had never experienced such raw hatred. And I simply couldn’t conceive why my poster inspired such rage. Back in those days I didn’t understand what makes people tick. I knew nothing of envy or the need some people have to climb over others to make it to the top. My sheltered, loving family had failed to teach me about the evil I would meet in the world around me. But I learned that day, in quite a humiliating fashion.

It’s interesting to look back and see the milestones in one’s life. I mark that day as a pivotal turn in my life’s direction. I never again sought prominence amongst my peers. Middle School I remember as an utter torment, a barrage of disparaging comments directed at me by several bullies in my class. Hated and envied due to my family’s money and public prominence, all I wanted in those days was to crawl into a hole under my school desk and escape the pain.

Things changed for me in High School, though, when I began using a talent that was either less threatening or more revered than art: singing. Joining a small choral group I found my niche in a graduating class of 325 and sang “Yesterday” at the Baccalaureate ceremony. Instead of raving madness, my solo met with applause. But I don’t think I will ever escape the scars from the verbal flogging I received one day on a bus in 1974.

Despite some innate leadership qualities and a propensity for management, one of my life’s goals remains “staying under the radar”. My rehearsed response when challenged? “I am not in charge”. I always make sure the buck never stops with me. I have no aspirations as a public figure; I am not interested in fans or followers, bloggers or otherwise. I prefer my simple life with my family and close friends. Amidst the safety of my life, I discovered a talent for crafts. Crafting (unlike drawing, painting, or sculpting) will not win acclaim or notice, but working with my hands serves as a therapeutic outlet, much like the feeling of accomplishment I remember when I created that poster almost 40 years ago.

The cruelty of those 10-yr. olds may have stymied my creativity for a time, but there is healing in walking through the pain. I continued to follow rules throughout my life and in spite of my “Goody Two-Shoes” status, found a way to win the friendship of my former bullies (ironically every one of them became a best friend by the time High School ended – some I maintain contact with even today).

Our experiences with the rules – breaking or keeping them – may shape the course of our lives, but the perceptions of others often prove to be defining factors in what kind of person we ultimately become.

I hope you’ll share your “Back in the Day” story. As always, God bless, and thanks for reading.

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13 thoughts on “Perception Is Everything

  1. It is a simple fact of life – most of us want things ‘different than our parents’. Either we’re reversing the sins of our fathers and mothers or we’re putting ourselves into constant Reverse….and so, there ultimately is balance in the world….and yes, perceptions are our realities – I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve preached that in my mentoring sessions with young managers. Thanks for sharing what I’m sure is a very unpleasant memory for you. 🙂

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  2. It is such a shame how so much of the bullying and slander that people commit towards each other is motivated by nothing but jealousy. I had a similar experience when I was in second grade. I sang a song at the school talent show, and then some other kid told me that the only reason I did OK was because I lip-synced the words (this was during the Milli Vanilli scandal.) I don’t remember singing as much as I remember how horrible that girl’s comment made me feel.

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    1. Emily, when I was writing this post I was reminded of a friend of mine who I asked to join a choir I directed in GA. She had a lovely voice, but she kept claiming she could not sing. Finally I asked her who had told her that. Without hesitating she said it was a 4th grade teacher who turned her down for an audition for some class performance telling her she didn’t have a ‘good’ voice. It’s not always the kids who speak nonsense into a child’s life.

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  3. Kids can be so mean. I could feel your pain while reading this…many can identify, myself included. With that said, there is nothing wrong with flying under the radar. A quiet, well-lived life is something to be proud of.

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  4. Man! Kids can be so mean. This is what terrifies me now that I have kids of my own. And, it’s amazing how those childhood experiences can affect us forever. And, I love how you put at the end that the breaking or following of rules really can affect our lives in a big way. Great post!

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  5. Pingback: Life In 6 Songs: Vol. 23 (Chenoa and Cindy), (plus a special announcement!) | Running On Sober

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