Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guest Speakers

My third grade teacher liked to invite guest speakers to the classroom. Frequently, the guest speakers were students' parents, who would talk about their jobs and their lives. Sometimes this worked out well, as when Mike's mom came in with his developmentally disabled little sister and talked to us about developmental disabilities; this was a sobering antidote to the retard jokes that formed the backbone of much of our third-grade humor. Sometimes it did not work out so well, as when Lindsay's mom, a Mary Kay rep, came in to talk about Mary Kay cosmetics and handed out samples of a Mary Kay perfume called Risque. Why anyone thought this would be appropriate is beyond me, but at the time, I was delighted. As a little girl, I hungered after grown-up, feminine glamour, and I treasured the small vial of perfume, which came housed in a small cardboard card like this, except that instead of being stark and tasteful, it was black and hot-pink and featured an illustration of a disembodied fishnet-and-stiletto clad leg. I kept it in one of the several small dishes and baskets of clutter that used to sit on the long side table in my parent's foyer, and one day, it disappeared, apparently thrown out by my father, who didn't realize that it was a precious object. (Or perhaps he did realize it was a precious object and decided that his seven-year-old daughter should not have as a precious object a vial of cheap perfume called Risque.) My mother, panicked as always by my distress, said that we could call Lindsay's mom and see if she could give me another sample, but this never happened. I missed my Risque, on and off, for a fairly long time, but I eventually forgot about it. (I did not know, by the way, what "risque" meant, but I didn't worry about it too much. As a young child, one encounters many words and many things that one doesn't understand; I recall simply ignoring these things or, alternately, creating strange, tenuous explanations out of the knowledge I did possess, and not being particularly bothered by the strangeness or tenuousness. In terms of "risque," I associated it with the word "wrist" - they sounded rather the same, and one does put perfume on one's wrist after all - and I left it at that.)

Another guest speaker of questionable educational value was a mom who was a Color-Me-Beautiful-type consultant, and she did sample season analyses for a couple of the volunteers (girls, of course). I was not one of the volunteers, but I inferred from what she told them that I would be considered a Winter and thus ought to wear cool colors like turquoise and hot pink and avoid warm colors like orange. It was the eighties, and I loved Jem and the Holograms, so this information would have been just fine with me had I not been wearing orange that very day. Most of the clothes I wore as a child were from Japan, Laura Ashley, or the consignment store, so I was frequently slightly out of step with how the other children looked - more prim, usually, and with fewer brand-name logos. This particular outfit, though, was one that I really loved, because it was trendy and from a department store and very much like what the other girls wore. It featured cotton clamdigger pants in a sunset-colored plaid with flowers and a T-shirt printed with a matching plaid/floral graphic on the front. It did not say "OP" or "ESPIRIT" on it, but it was in that vein, and I was proud of it. That day, though, I was horrified, and I shrank as small as I could in my chair, hoping the season lady did not see me, an obvious Winter, looking ugly in my Autumn outfit. How, I thought, could I have been so dreadfully stupid? How could I have chosen these wrong colors? I burned with shame for having looked so ugly all this time when I thought I looked cool, and for having made such an awful, misguided choice. The pleasure of the outfit was utterly ruined. I castigated myself for weeks for wearing it in the first place, and I don't think I ever wore it again. I averted my eyes whenever I saw it staring at me from the depths of my dresser drawer.

Some of the guest speakers were not parents, but simply people that my teacher had unearthed somewhere. A French man, for example, came in to tell us about France and what our names would be in French. What a different time and place that was! Now, I can barely imagine a classroom in which the majority of the students have standard Anglo/European names - James, Michael, Judith - with French counterparts. My Japanese name, of course, has no French counterpart, so the guest speaker, prompted by my teacher, told me the French word for part of its meaning, neige. The word sounded squat and ugly to me, and distinctly unfeminine, and I was dismayed and embarrassed for days, and also enraged that my teacher hadn't thought to tell him my other name, a standard European one that could be rendered prettily in French.

The very worst guest-speaker incident, though, was when the textile lady came in. I don't know where (or why) my teacher got her, but she worked for Vera, and she talked to us about scarves and so on. I was very excited about her presentation, partly because the lady was pretty, partly because it was about glamorous fashion, partly because my parents collected quilts and lace, and partly because we had some Vera items in our household - some placemats, I think, and maybe a scarf or two. I raised my hand insistently - I wanted to tell this pretty Vera lady about all these things I knew and had. My hand had been up for some time when the guest speaker, walking past my desk, took my wrist in her hand and forcibly lowered my arm. I sat, my hand on the desk where she had placed it, frozen with shock and humiliation. I thought I might cry or throw up as I saw myself through the scarf lady's grownup eyes, a pushy little kid who wanted to say all sorts of stupid know-it-all things. I was mortified at this horrendous picture of myself, mortified that the scarf lady had shown everyone exactly what she thought of me and the things I had to say, mortified that my teacher and my entire class had witnessed this shame, which continued to burn for months, however much I tried to forget it.

I'm not entirely sure why I have told you about these things; I'm not sure what I meant to tell you when I began writing this post. With my little baby closer to being a kid every day, I have been thinking a lot about what it was like to be a kid myself. While I do not generally remember myself as an unhappy child, it is clear that, seen in a certain light, my childhood was wracked with emotional distress. I was almost constantly in the grips of serious anxiety, most of which I kept secret. I never told anyone about the problem with my orange clothes or how mean the scarf lady was to me - or about the time when my preschool teacher made a disapproving face when I banged the toilet lid down too hard by mistake, or about the time when my first-grade teacher said I was rude when I yawned loudly without covering my mouth. I could not see these events in perspective, as tiny, meaningless incidents, or as mild failures of adult judgement; also, I could not laugh them off. All I could think of was my own shame and humiliation - how horribly wrong I had gotten things, how badly I had done. I don't know if this is what childhood is like for everyone, and, whether it is or not, I don't know what sort of intervention could have alleviated my grinding, ongoing stress. I would do anything, though, to protect my own baby from such feelings. My most dearly-held hope is that he will be able to move through the world with more humor, more aplomb, and more true happiness than I did as a child, and that he will not have to wait until full adulthood to gain the balance necessary to safely negotiate all that is pleasant and unpleasant in life.


h.a. said...

Wow, I could have written that post. I have been thinking about those incidents lately; remembering how the shame and anxiety quickly overtook the excitement of going to school. (Until I eventually developed a Bad Attitude, which helped some.) The time my kindergarten teacher punished me in front of the class for leaping out of my seat in excitement during a puppet show. She frog-marched me to the back of the class and made me sit there with my head down. I still sort of sting when I think of that. Lacquer-clawed fiend. God, I love being an adult.

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