Wednesday, October 20, 2010

identity and hard truths

My dad was in the Air Force until I finished seventh grade. When he retired, we moved to Jacksonville, where he grew up. I entered Lake Shore Junior High. Strangely enough, it was not on a lake. It was on Bayview road. It was right next to Bayview Elementary...which was on Lake Shore Drive. Bayview Elementary did not include a view of any bay. In fact, there wasn't a bay or a lake anywhere near Bayview Elementary or Lake Shore Jr. High.

I found this confusing at first, but when I finally learned to quit trying to look for logic where it didn't exist (which, sadly enough, was public school's most enduring lesson), things got much more bearable...for a while. I dunno...maybe they thought the names created an exotic image or something.

I then entered Ed White High School on the heels of my brother, who had graduated the year before I got there. Nevertheless, he paved the way for me. One of the first things they did to incoming students was to herd us straight from homeroom into a line, where we would 1) get our schedule, 2) give you an id card, and 3) be assigned a locker. Lockers were of immense importance. Get a bad one, and any time you needed to grab a book or some homework, you would be doomed to a long sprint through the halls between classes, pushing over chess club members, hurdling over the shorter of the cheerleaders, winding through the labyrinthian hallways, towards your locker, and you would have to do it fast to avoid the dreaded tardy slip (and the inevitable accompanying detention). A good locker, though, was a status symbol...get a nice one, and you would be "da man."

When I got to the head of the locker line, the student looked at my id. "Hey! Are you Mark's brother?" I admitted I was while secretly praying my brother wasn't a jerk to this guy. Things worked out good, though, because I quickly found myself in possession of a front row locker. I joked that my locker was so cool, it would make me the envy of all my friends and help me woo babes. Strangely enough, within three weeks, the locker did become a chick magnet...I was sharing this locker with a pretty hot Junior ROTC chick (whom I have no idea how I initially met, nor did I (sadly enough) ever had the courage to ask out...and I have no idea what became of her).

My brother paving the way didn't just yield me the locker of my dreams. I also had an instant "in" to my brother's group of friends, which meant I had people from whom I could regularly bum cigarettes, I had an already-reserved before-school place in front of the trophy cases, and I had a ready-made peer group of cool kids.

However, the instant peer group did not turn out entirely to be the boon it originally appeared. Yes, there was a social circle waiting for me, but it was also a circle that came with a readily-defined (and in fact required) role: that of the little brother. My brother wasn't always around, but I was still tagging along in his footsteps. I had friends, but I always wondered if, to them, I was Mike or "Mark's younger brother." I always had possibilities for company, but whenever I was around (who I feared to be Mark's) friends, I always felt destined for the background.

So I compensated, and I did so in a fairly pedestrian way: I tried to be unusual. If I stood out in some way, I reasoned, I would be my own man. So, as I suspected I was already slightly weird as a kid, I became fully goofy...which, while it made me stand out, also locked me permanently into the role of comic relief. I also tried to adapt a rebel image, but I did so in fairly predictable and role-enforcing ways, by wearing concert shirts and growing my hair into an awesome heavy metal style (covered earlier)....which just meant I merely became the goofy heavy metal kid

And for reasons I still don't fully grasp, I decided to wear my school...the entire day...every day. Literally, whenever I was in school, I had on my sunglasses. Years passed, and when it came time to take my senior year book photos, yep, I was sporting the sunglasses. This did, in fact, have the effect of making me stand out, but it became more annoying than fun. Eight years later, I was in my bank to open a new account, and the teller stopped in the middle of a transaction, looked at me, and said, "hey, aren't you the guy with the sunglasses?"

It was then that I realized that the sunglasses thing, while it might've made me stand out, didn't make me cool. All it did was lead to yet another image I couldn't escape.

I would like to say that things got better, that I eventually became my own man, and that I became a person of substance rather than image. However, like the whole Lake Shore/Bayview thing, it's more complicated than that. Yes, I was playing the role of heavy metal kid, but I actually was a heavy metal other music really spoke to me. In addition to fitting the "goofy guy" role, I was genuinely goofy...not to the extent which people saw, but it was still there. After all, one of the lessons of the great hair-cutting-off of 1998 was that even without the trappings of my identity, I remained, to a large extent, the same person.

Maybe this should make me feel good, that I've in fact achieved the consistency which many people seek...that I know who I am. However, there are days where I wish I was just playing a role, putting on a front...because if I was, I could change who I was, become someone else, maybe someone with whom people would want to hang, connect, befriend...who would not grate on people's nerves and turn friends into reluctant acquaintances...who people might take seriously...who people would never underestimate or (even worse) dismiss.

If you've read more than one of these posts, you know I am not the world's most optimistic person. I might argue, with my spectacular lack of success on the job market, amongst other things, that my pessimism is warranted. I might also make great pains to be pessimistic in a humorous manner (after all, I do have British blood in my veins). But in spite of however ingrained (and thus inescapable) my pessimism is, I wish sometimes it could just go away...because I know it makes people find me whiny and high maintenance. People tell me as much to my face, and I don't know if they're trying to be helpful, pointing out the obvious, or simply letting me know that they find me annoying.

You also probably know, from being a reader, that I am in fact a little weird. Again, it is legitimate. I tend not to look at things from expected angles, and I try to be unique in my thinking. But however this skill might be a boon in my chosen profession (after all, would you want an academic who always took the expected path?), it also means that I am doomed to the role of the department weirdo. And while uniqueness is, I suppose, a good thing, it's also true that no one really takes the weirdo seriously. Even if the Shakespearian foole spouts the wisest words, he is, in the end, still a fool.

But what choices do I have? If these things are inside me, can I change them? Should I? Can I in fact temper my weirdness while maintaining the uniqueness that serves me well in my scholarship? Is it possible to minimize my pessimism and still have anything resembling my sense of humor? Ultimately, how much of what people see is me?

What is the cost of being yourself?

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