Perception Is Everything

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

Remember the Time

This week’s theme has to do with Rules.

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The afternoon bus was crowded, so being the last one on meant serious difficulty finding a seat. That day it proved impossible. I stepped onto the and my 10-yr. old brain tried to wrap itself around the words they were chanting. “Cheater?” Cheater! But who were they shouting at? ME?? It couldn’t have been me. I never cheated.

I grew up in small town Virginia, the 4th (and last) child of an immigrant father and a mother who spent her childhood on a small family farm in nearby Chester. In this family, hard work and integrity were valued above all else. That’s not to say that none of us ever bucked the system. But as the spoiled youngest child by eight years, I didn’t dare. Bucking the system would certainly prove dangerous to my Princess standing.

Other than being known as a “Goody Two-Shoes” in school (interesting what I found here about the origin of that phrase), I had a father who had risen to prominence in our community over the years. But prominent did not equal well-liked for the Army officer turned Graduate Professor. In fact, many disliked his ideas about the education system in our small community.

While some of that may have contributed to the verbal assault that met me on the bus that day (certainly many would have loved to catch me breaking a rule), the only thing occupying 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 had all started innocently enough. There was 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 as foreign to me as the language of my forebears. No matter your level of talent, all of the 5th graders were required to participate. Earth Day was coming, and we each had been assigned to design 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 was. 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 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 a little with the art, but the idea and most of the artwork 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. That day I had been announced the winner of 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 that day’s experience). In fourth grade I had won the student body’s acclaim and served as President Elect, rising to school President the following year. But 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 little minds otherwise, I broke.

Cursing and crying, I fled from the bus – and from any desire I might have harbored for a life of prominence. I never looked back. My mom came and picked me up from school that day. I will never forget the raw hatred I experienced. Back then, I could not conceive how my poster had inspired such rage. But 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 darkness I would meet in the world outside. But I learned that day, in a devastatingly humiliating fashion.

It’s interesting to look back and see the milestones of a life. I mark that day as a pivotal turn for me. I never again sought prominence amongst my peers. Middle School was a 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 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. I joined a small choral group and found my niche. I sang “Yesterday” at the Baccalaureate ceremony and instead of raving madness, my solo gained applause. But the scars from the verbal flogging I received one day on a bus in 1974 may never fully heal.

Despite some innate leadership qualities and a propensity for management, one of my life’s goals has been “flying under the radar”. My rehearsed response when challenged? “I am not in charge”. I always make sure the buck never stops with me. I am not interested in fans or followers, bloggers or otherwise. I prefer a simple life with my family and close friends. Amidst that safety, 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 of whom I remain in contact with 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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14 thoughts on “Perception Is Everything

  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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    1. Thanks for the comment! Yeah, that one was an unpleasant memory … but just a memory now. No more teeth to wound. I guess 40yrs. of perspective go a long way. 🙂 Take care!

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