Project 14 – Day 2: Childhood

Day 2 of Project 14 will be dedicated to writing about my childhood and upbringing, which only ended recently.

I’m going to tell this story backwards, from the end, instead of the beginning. My childhood ended about a month ago. Before then, I’d always thought that it was over when I first became a teenager, when I turned 16, when I could vote or drink, or when I first moved out – artificial boundaries that society tells us make us adults. But part of me always whispered, “no, not yet.” Part of me never really felt grown up.

But a month ago, I knew it was over, with the same certainty that someone facing an avalanche feels in knowing that he will be buried. I fell to pieces. A guy I’d loved dearly had left me (in a very decent, polite, if surprising way), I wasn’t ready for my professional exam, I was behind in school, I had a million things to do and only enough energy to shut myself in my room and cry my eyes raw.

I was a mess.

I didn’t feel smart, I didn’t feel lovable, I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t feel happy, and most of all, I didn’t like who I was any more. And this was a big deal, because even through the uncertainty of preteen-ness, the ravages of teenagerhood, and the scary newness of university, I was always certain of myself, and that I liked myself.

Suddenly, I wasn’t and I didn’t.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am the daughter of immigrants. My mom and I joined my dad in Canada when I was two, as my dad had come over earlier as a PhD in Chemistry candidate. My parents worked really hard when I was younger to establish us, and times were tough (my dad likes to tell the story of how he came to Canada and basically lived on cereal for a month). My parents spoiled me in every way they could, though. They spent every moment they were free from studying for three degrees between the two of them or working to spend time with me, they staggered their classes so one of them could always be with me, and they even took me out to McDonalds as a treat when I did well, even though we really didn’t have the money for it. They would put off work or coursework until after I slept so they could do things like take me to the library to read, or teach me math (I still remember my dad being more proud of me learning to multiply at seven than they were when we got our citizenship) or teach me to ride a bike.

I think my parents always felt a bit guilty that they couldn’t give me the toys a child usually has, but I had a pretty rich childhood. I spent a lot of time at the park, playing with my friends, or reading in the library. I built castles out of the leaves, adventures from my imagination, and ghosts from whispers on the stairs. I also spent a lot of time alone, which is an ability I lost as I got older.

While it lasted the normal span of time, my elementary school career seemed far longer than it should have, probably because I changed school so often. I made friends in my first school mostly because when I was six or seven, making friends basically consisted of meeting new people. I switched schools in grade two, when my parents graduated and found jobs in different cities, so while my mom and I were settling down, I got my first taste of what being the new kid felt like. I switched schools again about three weeks later, when my mom found us our little one bedroom bachelor pad. Then, I really became the awkward new kid, who also was too smart for her own good and a bit (okay, a lot) of a teacher’s pet. I’m pretty sure I was bullied in that school, but back then, my memory was very good at forgetting things I don’t want to remember. I honestly remember the books I read in the library next door to the school more than I remember the people or my teachers (but to be fair, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are hard to match up to). When I was in grade four, my parents then bought our house, and I moved schools again, to a newly built school where most people were refinding friends anyways. There, I learned the art of actually making friends – it involved having something in common with them and actually spending time talking to them.

My little sister was born around this time, and while I had been my mother’s stalwart pregnancy companion ever since I started asking for a sibling for Christmas two years prior and since my dad lived in another city, my own life interfered with my plans to be the best big sister ever. It was a messy time.

I switched schools again at the beginning of grade five because I was diagnosed as gifted. To those not familiar with the term in the Ontario Education system, it designates students who memorize and absorb knowledge much more quickly than normal, so they’re put in special classes to allow them to focus on the other four levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: applying, analysing, evaluating, and creating. When I was in school, we so-called “gifties” were identified by IQ tests, and they pulled the top 2% out, which effectively created classes of people like me – people who were wildly intelligent, potentially mostly teacher’s pets, but perhaps more than a little socially awkward. It also created, to my eternal mystification, an uneven number of boys and girls – in my grade five class of 18 people, there were three girls including myself.

Nevertheless, in this school, I had my first real best friend, and met my first real sociopath, who, unfortunately, were the same person. My selective memory still worked during this time, because while I have vague memories of being miserable at school, I can really only remember the good times. My selective memory also won’t let me forget that I was a bully during these times. Since the only time I’d been left alone in my third school was when I fought back (and I got really good at it),  I had a really bad reflex of causing physical pain whenever I thought anyone was bullying me, even if they were just lightly teasing me like boys are wont to do when they’re preteens. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve made my peace and my apologies for it a long time ago, and learned some better conflict management tools in the mean time.

Grade five and six were my first real brush with drama, the kind of stuff people sell trashy high school dramas on. But they were a mere baptism, compared to the drowning that happened in middle school. My best friend and I got into a massive fight at the beginning of grade seven, and between us, we essentially split the class into two. It continued like that for a solid two years, with the boys on her side and the girls on mine, and the two of us alternating between sniping at each other and ignoring the other group’s existence. It got to the point where the teachers were very quick to catch on to the obvious split and were smart enough never to force the two sides to work together. It also made for some really interesting romantic situations.

I made my first real friends during this period, who I still talk to today, and I also learned the value of keeping myself as far out of the drama as humanly possible (which, I also learned, is not very far when you are the main target). As strange as this sounds, this is the first time I’d really cared that other people didn’t like me, and it was interfering with my emotional well-being. I developed a thicker skin, and just focused on having fun with my friends – I was thoroughly enjoying the novelty of having more than one close friend.

High school was actually a much more peaceful, and drama-free experiment than middle school. We used to joke that we were all too busy to really be bothered with it, especially around grade 11 and 12 when we were applying for University (My high school was known for being really “nerdy” – I think we had the highest percentage of gifties in the city). I really came into my own during this period. I met another wonderful group of people (guy friends included this time!), had hobbies and extracurriculars that involved other people, was really challenged for the first time in school with many teachers that both gave me room to explore and fascinating subjects to think about, and fell in love for the first and second time. It wasn’t free of drama, but after two years of constant sniping, it was wonderful to know that most people didn’t care about me or liked me. I’ll always look back fondly on it, even though I hope it’s not the best four years of my life, like some people say it is.

High school made me more than a little arrogant, and I believed in my own invincibility. I was brilliant, capable, independent, and someone people expected to do well, someone I expected to do well. However, if high school inflated my ego to unbearable proportions, University created a slow leak that suddenly exploded last month. Don’t get me wrong, I made some awesome friends, but I didn’t immediately find the same wonderfully supportive circle that I did in high school. I also learned that when I don’t immediately share all the same classes with people like I did in middle school and high school, creating and deepening relationships is difficult and a lot more work. I didn’t put as much effort into my relationships as I should.

I also carried a lot of arrogance about my intelligence, forgetting that I had once thought that potential without hard work is useless. I managed on a bare modicum of work in high school because I devoted a considerable amount of time in my extracurriculars. Nothing was ever too much – until I reached University and refused to admit that everything was becoming too much. I as a person changed, but my habits or personality didn’t change with it. I also combated feeling overwhelmed by taking more on (I’m not sure why either).

It came to critical mass last month. Suddenly, after the catalyst of the break up, I’d lost control of my life. I could no longer pretend that it wasn’t too much work, too much stress, too many expectations, too many things making me sad, too few things making me happy, too many things left undone, too many things left unsaid. I felt lower than the worm crushed underfoot after the rain. I was getting 70s and 60s for the first time, I failed an exam for the first time, and I felt so hopelessly lonely yet so guilty for reaching out to the people I did reach out to because I’d neglected those relationships so badly.

My childhood is over now. I no longer believe that I am invincible, that I can do everything, that things in life will just come to me, that I am perfect and that the rest of the world is wrong. I now believe that I am good, but I can be a better person. I now believe that I have to work really hard for what I want, and even if I do put in that work, I might not get what I want, and that’s okay, because the work itself is the reward. All the natural ability and previous experience means nothing if I can’t manifest them in results. I now believe that if I think the world is wrong, I need to work to change it myself and not expect it to correct itself.

I also figured out my priorities, properly, for the first time. If you’d asked me two months ago what they were, I would’ve said school, finding a good job, my relationship, family, friends, and having fun, which is pretty standard. Now my priorities are me, my family and friends, my education and learning, finding a good job, and being happy. The difference might be small, but to me, it’s profound. I’ve never been on my own list of priorities before, but putting myself at the top makes me go to the gym instead of hanging out with my friends for a little bit longer, or saying no when I really can’t do something. With my education and degrees further down my list, I feel like I can do better at them because I’m no longer terrified of failing. I’ve recognized that putting myself first means I can celebrate my singleness with a carefree heart, and do whatever I want for my own good and forget about being rude. I can cut ties with friends who don’t enrich my life, and reconnect with those who I genuinely care about. Most of all, I’ve learned a very important distinction between having fun and being happy, which are two different things: having fun doesn’t necessarily make me happy for long, but if I’m happy, I’ll always have fun.

I know for sure my childhood is over because I’ve lost that innocence, that faith that everything will work out. I know now that I have to take responsibility for it and work it out myself. And yes, I think it’s a ridiculously obvious lesson that people have been telling me all my life, and I’m probably a late bloomer in this respect, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I think some people continue to be children long after they call themselves adults. I’m just thankful that I learned this lesson before I screwed anything up permanently, and I can continue with the rest of my life.

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.

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