05 September 2007

It's Cool to be Weird, Part 796

Recently I received what easily qualifies as the best note EVER, from a former student who thanked me for teaching her to be a nonconformist. Basically what this means is that I can now quit teaching forever, because I set out saying something along the lines of "If I can teach just one student that it's cool to be weird….." And apparently I did. So now I can go raise honeybees, if there are any left, or maybe go breed sled dogs in Alaska and live with them in a giant house, as per my life plans in third grade.

Being thanked for teaching someone to be her awesome weird-o self? My immediate impulse was to send the note on to my 7th grade science teacher, with some Karate Kid reference to the student becoming the teacher, wax on wax off…. the way of the FIST, SIR! You know what I mean. Seriously, though, if I could be a Mr. Miyagi for weird kids, I wouldn't even need those sled dogs.

When I chose to teach middle school, specifically, in spite of everyone – including guest speakers in our college classes, teachers themselves – expressing their sheer fear/hatred/repulsion for any human between the ages of 12 and 14, I chose it because middle school is the pinnacle of being told to be everyone else. Which is why it sucks so freaking bad. God, middle school sucks. Everyone is giving you messages about how you should act, how you should talk, how you should look, how you should think… and surprise! It just happens to correspond to that time in your life when you are walking, talking embodiment of the words AWKWARD, WEIRD, and UGLY.

To make it worse, there are a select few… maybe five or six in your grade, maybe more, if god really hates you… who completely understand exactly how to fit in. They wake up at 4:00 am to wash and curl their hair and eyelashes, they pick out their perfect outfits weeks in advance and only wear them once so all their clothes still smell like fresh mall, they know just when to say devastatingly clever things and when to shut the hell up, and everyone loves them. These people, as it turns out, were put here on Earth as a sole reminder of what a total freak you are.

This is where that lesson of "Be weird! Be a freak!" comes in handy.

I learned to be weird in middle school, and it was probably the best lesson I ever learned. I really think that allowing myself to be weird – relishing, even, the label – in middle and high school got me out of a lot of destructive conformist crap that pushes girls into all kinds of problems: eating disorders, addictions, depression, bad relationships. I wasn't immune, but I was, I think, less vulnerable to that stuff than the normal girls were. Because I didn't care.

All through middle school and high school I cultivated the image of the weird girl. I loved being that girl. By college it was getting a little old, especially considering the fact that I went to a college full of total freaks and social retards and was still constantly told I was weird. Somewhere along the line, I stopped being proud of how weird I was. I stopped thinking of myself as the weird girl, really, and started being surprised when people told me how weird I was. (Which STILL happens all the time. I like it when the sassy black girls at work say it, though. "Giiiiiirrrl, you CRAZY." That's currently my favorite compliment. I get it a lot.)

Lately, I've been thinking about what happened to that weird girl. She got very un-weird for a long time. I was good at English and teaching so I became an English teacher. Not weird at all. I moved to New Mexico with no friends and no job – a little weird – but promptly got a job and health insurance and recipes for casserole. I started worrying about haircuts and manicures and my car and my retirement savings. Not weird at ALL. You might even say I was frighteningly UNweird. Last spring I wrote that if 20-year-old Molly met 26-year-old Molly in a dark alley, she'd punch her in the face. Very possible. I also think that if 15-year-old Molly met 26-year-old Molly, she'd go ahead and slit her wrists right then.

I remember telling someone, years ago, that I would never burn my old journals because it would be a betrayal of my former self. That girl, Molly in 1995 and 1997 and 2001, she trusted me to keep her thoughts and worries and little poems safe for her. She trusted me to honor and remember her. Well, wouldn't it also be somewhat of a betrayal of my former self to get too normal? After all, my biggest fear, at 15, was that I'd grow up to be mediocre.

Luckily, in the last few months, my inner Weird pushed up through her watery grave of normalcy and snapped me right out of the box. It is not normal to go from a successful and (semi) well-paying career in teaching to a crappily paying job as a bank receptionist, but that is exactly what I've done. And it's been somewhat amazing. When people at the bank find out that I was a teacher, they look at me with a big squinty eye, trying to judge if I'm a liar or just plain retarded. "You know that you'd be making a hell of a lot more money teaching, right?" Well yeah, of course I do. Some of the people I work with are even envious, telling me that they always wished they had a job that really touched people's lives. "Was it wonderful?" they ask. "How could you leave?"

Honestly, I have NO answer for that question. I have a bunch of things I tell people, but none of them are exactly true. The truth is – and it's WEIRD – is that I followed my intuition, and my intuition said that this was not a year to teach. This was a year to do other stuff. What other stuff? I have no idea. It hasn't been easy, either – I admit moments of crying into my latte, walking down Franklin in the rain, two steps away from being totally despondent – but I'm trying to trust my intuition, trying to trust that something amazing will come out of this all. In retrospect, I hope, I'll look back at this time in my life and say, "Yeah, of COURSE I couldn't teach then! I had to do this and this instead…." Whatever this and this end up being.

In the meantime, I'm learning a lot. After all, I've never not been a teacher, and it's very interesting to get a glimpse of a different world entirely. It's reassuring, too, that I can be good at answering phones, because it tells me that my instincts about myself aren't totally off-base. I'd probably be good at lots of things. If I go back to teaching, it will be because I want to, not just because that would be the normal thing to do, not just because that's the only thing I know how to do. Ironically, being a receptionist opens up a whole slew of life options for me, not that they weren't there before, but I was too narrowly focused to see them.

Ultimately, taking some time to be weird again shakes up my world view, reminds me of how much I take for granted, how much I assume, and helps me to question all of it. It's been a completely valuable lesson, fifteen years after someone first granted me permission to be weird. As it turns out, it's even harder to be weird when you're old than it is when you're in middle school, just as graduate school is probably a lot harder than 8th grade classes are. Maybe when I look back on this year, that this I had to do will be what earns me my PhD in weird.

Maybe, when I open up my Wax On, Wax Off School of Weirdness, I'll make them call me DR. Miyagi. STRIKE FIRST. STRIKE HARD!