It’s a cool fall morning.
My father is driving me to school for the first time. I remember when my mother would drop me off at elementary school. It was a non threatening school front. We went right inside and ended up in our class for the day.
Middle school was different.
As we pull up to the side of the school my gut gives me a small twist.
Pop: You ready?
Me: Yeah I guess so..
There was a lot of chatter in my head. Trying to pump myself up, trying to be ready to face an ocean of kids. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see any friends and standing there awkwardly alone in front of the school didn’t seem like a great option.
As I opened the car door cool fall air hit me. Closing door behind me I slowly made my way up the sidewalk to the front of the building.
The ocean of kids washing around outside the building were mostly strangers to me, and I didn’t see any of my normal friends.
The next thing I know we’re in home room. A friend of mine, Cameron, was sitting behind me, but again everyone else was a stranger.
I remember getting a sinking feeling when I saw my schedule. It was complicated, and as I looked through it the intimidation factor started to sink in.
I did notice we changed classes every 45 minutes.
I liked that. It meant I didn’t have to sit in the same seat all day. That, along with my new music class, was comforting to me.
Middle school ended up being a mixed bag of shit. My attempts to organize this time period in a have been futile. Afterall, how do I summarize an experience that consisted of daily challenges, growth experiences along with long periods of time where I was daydreaming?! As I sit here and think through the experiences, thoughts, feelings, crises, classes, yelling matches, trial, error, and growth I feel more productive glossing over the day to day and heading straight for the meat and bones of this time period. How did I feel inside? What strengths did I feel were emerging? What was happening to my passions? Why did I start experiencing depression? Do I still hate school?
Questions that need to be answered to continue the rope called Growth.
So what do I know?
I was in that school for 2 years.
Computers were starting to be more heavily used in school.
The Razor phone wasn’t popular yet.
The iMac G3 apple computer was a thing.
It was a huge challenge for me intellectually.
I found a good group of friends that helped me through class and life in general.
I developed my passions further. My passion for running, music and introspection.
Some new strengths emerged like problem solving and critical thinking.
Growth is a continual process, no matter what direction it’s going in.
I experienced depression and it wasn’t what I expected.
School and a Dung Heap
Learning when I was younger was usually a forced issue. I remember not wanting to read or write. Learning math seemed to be ok, until algebra, but what I enjoyed the most involved gym class and band class. Aka something that involved action, not sitting and listening.
I suppose there were a few bright points such as science class, but the majority of the time was a struggle. I found the information boring and uninteresting. On top of which I didn’t know how to study what I had learned in class. I understood what the teacher said but when I went home to look over the information it was like reading a different language.
My study routine was mostly staring at a book or doing homework. My hair was usually a mess after I was done simply from frustration.
The level of responsibility was suddenly increased and so was my anxiety to do better in school.
When this happened it made the bubble that was my world rapidly expand. Whether I liked it or not I was forced to get out of my comfort zone.
When I was in english class I would often have to write short stories. The problem wasn’t the writing but making sense of what I wanted to put down on paper. I actually enjoyed the writing process but when I eagerly shared my story the teacher often didn’t understand what I was trying to say. Not only would this make me a little sad and confused but I didn’t quite grasp what I had done wrong. Regardless of the outcome in the class I retained my regard for writing.
Playing my instrument became second nature to me and I was able to pick up new music easily. My ear to hand to eye coordination seemed to work pretty well. Not to mention when I was playing something I really enjoyed, I felt it in my soul. Music excited me like few other classes. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t playing music I didn’t choose. The whole act of playing filled me up. This feeling happens to be universal when I know I’m really enjoying something. That feeling is like beacon, if I feel the same way about something as I do about playing music I know I’m doing the right thing. I like to call that my soul language.
The flip side of enjoyment came algebra or advanced math in general. I remember my first class.
It was… dreadful.
Class consisted of various demonstrations on the board and then a paper passed out to work on. I had no clue what I was doing. On top of which I was placed in an advanced class. There was a day early on when I was completely lost and no clue what the hell was happening. This might be a nightmare but I believe the teacher called on me to answer something which I replied with, “I have no idea.”
When situations like this happened throughout my school year I could tell it left a mark. I would attempt to break the anxiety of not knowing by taking a breath and trying to re-read the question. I would ask for help when I could but overall situations like these would get the best of me. I would eventually give in and put whatever answer seemed most logical.
Whether I liked it or not school work had a profound effect on me. Now that I cared more about what I was doing in school I began to try working harder on what I didn’t understand. Problems arose because I started to create bad habits surrounding study habits and the work I was trying to understand.
Instead of asking how I could do better I just tried to get my homework done on my own. My fierce need for independence didn’t see to rise up until the frustration level did. I can remember sitting there beating myself up trying to remember what happened in class. I would scour the book, look at half written notes and scan my brain for any clue it could provide.
Nothing. As I became more frustrated by this process I dug deeper to try and take care of it myself. I knew I should have the answers! I should be able to do this! Why the hell can’t I get this crap done!
I knew in my head I had the ability to do the work I just didn’t understand why it was so difficult for me to understand. More frustration led to less talking and more thinking.
Isolating ourselves isn’t a show of strength. Having the guts to be vulnerable enough to say ‘I don’t know’ is terribly important. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and an even tougher one to teach.
How’s this for entertaining. I don’t remember any of the grades I got during this time. The fuzzy memory of looking at the report card has only one feeling attached. Disappointment. Talk about blocking out the past right?
I can see now how my adult self has been shaped by these few years. Reflecting on the weakness and need for total independence can show me how to build the opposite strength. To reach out and ask for help. Create relationships with the people that know what I don’t know. Sounds vaguely familiar. Like a leadership book…
School work wasn’t the only challenge I faced down. With a new school there were new kids. Kids I didn’t know.
I had always been quiet around people I didn’t know but because I had been in the same school for so many years I was in my comfort zone. It simply never occurred to me that things would change.
I’m pretty sure the first day I became sharply aware of my social anxieties was the first day of school. I wasn’t a stranger to big crowds of kids. After all the playground was FILLED with kids. I have no reasoning for being nervous about this new school. I only remember being, uncomfortable.
I remember walking through school wanting to know who everyone was and be friends with them. I wanted to be part of ‘the group’. Whatever that means. I remember seeing the older kids walking around, being cool and hot. I just wanted to be included and welcomed!
Seriously is that too much to ask?
I suppose it is when those other kids came from a different school. They started with different friends and had a different experience growing up.
Enter in new vocabulary, the clique. I didn’t know it at the time but those kids often didn’t want to get to know me because they already had friends. It was weird having a new friend. Someone they didn’t know or who might come across as silly and weird.
My defence was to retreat into my head when I needed to and brought myself back out when I was on safe ground again.
When I did try to interact it was usually met with half laughs or just being ignored. I remember a few kids in the class that didn’t care what was said about them. They wanted to put their two cents in the conversation no matter what happened. That was always interesting to watch.
As you can tell being social turned out to be difficult for me. I didn’t know how to start conversations, I didn’t know how to continue conversations and I didn’t know how to do ‘comebacks’. If someone made fun of me I wasn’t able to say something funny or nasty back to them. I say that because it seemed to be a right of passage.
Having guy friends turned out to be good. I ended up hanging out with the strange kids. The ones that didn’t mind talking about nonsense and accepting you for who you were not who you projected yourself to be. I guess we were part of the misfit group welcoming anyone who was the oddball out.
On top of all these social nuances I was introduced to love and girls. This new minefield was a constant battle of I need to pay attention in class and oh my god it’s a hot girl sitting right next to me act cool, act cool, WHY AREN’T YOU ACTING COOL DAMMIT!!
Yeah it was ugly, but only in my head. As with most things other people never noticed the often incredibly loud battles I had with myself.
My experiences ranged from being super attracted to some of the ladies that walked the hall to being absolutely terrified that they would make eye contact with me.
So for the next few years there was a constant push and pull with wanting to be part of the ‘cool kids’ and wanting to have a really hot girlfriend. Both of which seemed constantly out of reach.
I saw myself as a little weird and even goofy. I didn’t act like most of my peers, and they often didn’t understand the conversations I would have with them.
Yet through these awkward periods I would learn what I needed in order to grow. I think it was partially because of school, and partly because of my parents that I created good social habits. Look people in the eye, smile, and give a strong handshake. The fundamentals of meeting new people. I couldn’t constantly do this in school so it was only helpful to a point.
During this time I was in a constant state of feeling weird. I often didn’t have someone to talk to as I walked the halls. Eventually something happened that interested me.
Someone else started speaking to me.
I remember the first time it popped up. What I now call my thinking voice appeared one day during english class.
I’m sitting in a hard uncomfortable chair and watching. The room felt dim and stuffy. My teacher, an odd excitable lady, squawking out instructions in the classic Charlie Brown ‘adult’ voice.
Then my own voice echoed in my head for the first time. I don’t remember what I said. It was like I was sitting in a big cave yelling out things to say only to hear an intelligible response.
It’s entertaining but slightly distracting. My teacher might have given me a verbal lashing for not paying attention, but I didn’t care. I had a new friend!
From that point on my voice would keep me company throughout the day. Whenever I felt anxious about something, or if someone poked fun at me I at least had my voice to help me through. Cool, calm, patient and understanding.
If I ever had a problem or a question I didn’t quite understand I would sit and think through it. Gabbing away with myself trying to understand the problem.
When I was listening to the conversations of the kids around me I would often listen and comment to myself. At this point I didn’t dare interact with them, I didn’t know what I would say and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
At this point in my life I was too interested in my internal conversation to hold onto much. It was simply a technique I used to process thoughts and feelings that I didn’t understand. I didn’t have any need, at the time, to write anything down.
The start of my life wasn’t about learning these massive lessons. It was about physically experiencing life. Living in my body, figuring out how to handle myself, talk with other people and deal with the emotions that I experienced every day. It was learning the basics of life.
I didn’t expect myself, nor did I want, to have any grand vision for the rest of my life.
The most I wanted was to be with friends, walk through the woods, play and listen to music, and contemplate life while laying in the sun.
I don’t think I can be labeled as introverted. I was outgoing in my own right, but I was also very thoughtful of what was happening around me. I wasn’t very vocal about what I was doing or thinking. My experiences through this part of my life were my own, not to be shared with the world around me.
Like I said before, when I did share it was often in a format that the kids didn’t quite understand. I would be visualizing what I was talking about while I spoke and get ahead of myself, effectively telling half the story.
A good example would by the speeches.
Imagine the scene from Rudy, he’s standing in his bedroom as a kid reciting a speech given by one of the coaches of Notre Dame. He had passion, excitement and recited it clearly. This is how I imagined myself speaking. With gusto!
I don’t doubt that any of the speeches I thought of would come out in this way but when I opened my mouth to motivate people around me I froze and my words would be lost. I knew I was capable of speaking with this passion but even when I was alone I had a difficult time verbalizing.
When I was around friends or family I would be a chatterbox. Always in motion and full of energy. I would have to be part of every conversation.
Yet when strangers came around I would clam up and get nervous. It was a push and pull experience throughout this time and even though I wanted to interact with others I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Expressing one’s needs and wants becomes essential as you grow, and I believe that with my inability to talk to others I got used to ignoring my own needs and wants.
Purpose and Depression
Early in life, like everyone else, I experienced a plethora of emotions. Most of which were happiness, joy, fun, laughter, anger and frustration. One in particular rose up during my early childhood years but I didn’t become conscious of it until middle school.
I was awake. Eyes closed buried under the covers. My room was dimly lit from early morning light. I didn’t know what time it was but there a noticeable emptiness.
It sat in my gut like a black hole, draining my emotions from my body. I didn’t feel heavy, sad, happy, scared, I just didn’t feel. I wasn’t hungry or full. I was empty of life.
I got up out of bed and started my day.
The feeling was foreign and strange. I didn’t have any want or need in my body. I was truly empty and I didn’t know why. I would have been content to sit and stare at the wall. I knew somewhere inside of me there was a plug for this black hole. I wanted to find it because I didn’t enjoy feeling empty.
Actually… I didn’t feel anything.
I ate even though I wasn’t hungry. I moved even if my body didn’t want to move. I was irritable even if I wasn’t mad.
I was stuck.
It took me the majority of the day to pull myself from this void. I didn’t understand, why did this happen?
My depressive mood frustrated me. I didn’t like it and I didn’t understand it, but it wouldn’t be the last time it happened.
My weird depression. Those days of feeling empty were frustrating. I didn’t want to do anything. Video games, eating, walking around outside. I wasn’t tired, I just didn’t have any interest in anything. It was perplexing to me. My idea of depression was when you were really sad all the time!
My periods of depression came and went. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how.
Looking back I’ve noticed these moods usually came up only when I didn’t have something to accomplish that day. I knew I had to keep breathing and moving but what else was there to do?
I was lacking purpose. I didn’t have much reason to wake up in the morning unless something fun and interesting was on TV, or I had a new game I wanted to play, or my parents were going to drag me somewhere.
Without a purpose I was empty.
I knew inside that something needed to change, but I didn’t have the capacity to understand.
I never spoke about this to anyone. I didn’t know how. From my perspective I didn’t have anything to talk about.
I didn’t know I was purposeless.
Passions, Strengths, and a Story of Growth
As I grew through these few years I developed a better emotional process that helped me discern what I enjoyed from what I didn’t.
At this time it was pretty easy to say, I like this, or I don’t like that.
That was the easy part.
Clearly I loved playing music. I was passionate about it and it filled me up. No one needed to dissect my feelings to know that. I made the most friends in band class, and I was a good musician.
What was harder to find out were the passions that had yet to develop. When it came to writing I knew I enjoyed it. What got in my way wasn’t my poor spelling but the structure of class. I was often stifled by giggles from other kids, time limitations, or the subject we were learning about. During my time I had only one experience when I wrote something that was clear, passionate and a good story.
I was in fifth grade and was handed a writing assignment. The topic escapes me but I do remember visualizing the story as if it were happening in real time.
I remember the fire in my head and my hand. My hand moved as if it were possessed. The story was about my house, family, and a fire. The coming apocalypse outside and the raging fire that was our house formed a story that clearly impressed those who read it.
I was at home with my parents. Apparently my teacher gave me an ‘A’ and I ended up winning first place in the class. I even beat out the smart girl!
I remembered that passion through middle school. I tried to copy it but there never seemed to be a time that applied. So I ignored and stifled it.
If you ask my parents I was in perpetual motion as a kid. I had energy to spare. all. the. time. Because of my insurmountable energy levels my parents put me into soccer. I don’t remember why, but it turned out to be something I enjoyed and it helped to burn off some energy.
During middle school track and field was introduced. The program was in the process of being created and when a sheet came around to sign up for spring track I was all in.
Expressing myself through movement turned out to be very helpful in a lot of ways.
Through physical challenge I was able to process emotions, let go of anxieties and learn the limits of my body.
Physical feelings of cold, pain, exhaustion, and determination flowed through me like liquid fire. The people I met during the first track season helped me understand the basics of running. The taught me how to push harder even if I was in pain. Eventually what people told me to do faded from my ears and the memory kicked in. Both physical memory and a mental memory. Clear, and precise. It was a language I understood, something without words.
It’s no wonder I liked movement more than sitting and learning. Movement was more visceral and energizing than mental memorization was.
Through passion also comes strength. I ended my elementary school days understanding that no matter what I did I would always persevere until I finished what I started. No matter how tired or frustrated, I would push through until my task lay complete. I didn’t care if it was perfect, I just knew I needed to keep moving forward.
This Grit applied in everything I did. There was obviously a lot of trial and error. More error than anything, but I didn’t get stuck in a moment. I didn’t get stuck on not understanding something. I just kept moving forward.
Looking into this more thoughtfully I realize how much this was an instinct more than a conscious decision.
With my new gift of introspection (can also be labeled as consciousness) I now had access to something new. My critical thinking skills started to come to light. I was able to think through problems more effectively by working through a process.
Instead of verbally talking it out I would sit there and fiddle with different techniques until I found something that worked. Although I usually stopped there, the point is that this process emerged naturally and without forcing it.
I’ve found that anytime a skill emerges in a natural way, it’s usually a strength that is trying to define itself.
My world in middle school is a book in itself. The problem isn’t tracking down the events that transpired. The problem becomes expressing the internal changes that occurred.
As I work farther and farther into my memory new thoughts and ideas emerge but always a consistent rope ties them together.
I was growing. Always growing, re-creating and building myself. This part of my life is a simple series of knots and loops that emerged from the process of growth.
My last memory of middle school comes on the day we ‘graduated’.
Marching from the school to the next door recreation center was short and hot. The late noon sun blazed down on chattering kids as we marched in line through the doors.
We filed into the large space and took seats in the stuffy building.
With a general feeling of excitement we all sat and listened to the proceeding ceremony.
I remember the heat and the sweat and the excitement.
If I close my eyes I can feel the hard chair I was sitting in, my friends chatting next to me.
We were off to high school, and this was the school administrations way of sending us off to the next chapter in our lives.
Hopes were high that day, and we were all grateful the ceremony was short. The memory fades out during the ceremony, but the feeling remains.
It’s like time itself has reversed and I’m in my childhood body again. It’s times like these I have to be careful. When I’m in this mode I can often lose track of what I’m doing in the present.
A sly smile spreads over my lips.