#4: Different is Okay (27:56)

Exploring the Myers & Briggs type indicator; recalling bullying experiences; accepting everyone for their unique selves.

Seeking Balance, a Personal Journey podcast highlights short stories or poems I’ve written over the course of many years, mixed in with present day observations of life, synchronicities and analogies, tying them all together, as a way to shift my thinking and regain my balance. It is not intended as advice, but perhaps it might inspire the listener to find a common thread and discover ways to regain their personal balance too.

Being born on a naval base, and spending several formative years in military environments I encountered many different people, in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes; belief systems; and scars both visible and not so visible. My siblings and I were raised to believe that people were people, all deserving of the same rights and acceptance, no matter their differences.

I have ALWAYS felt I am somehow different. I have learned how to fit when it’s necessary but that was not always the case. It’s all been a fantastic journey in awakening the woman I was to become.

The Meyers-Briggs type indicator based on Carl Jung’s theories gave me an understanding that I AM different. The detailed explanation of the dynamics of each type can be helpful in work, home, how we learn, in our relationships and more.

Can take the test yourself at the Meyers & Briggs Foundation:

Of the 16 distinctive personality types, I am an INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging). It’s said only 1-2% of the population is supposed to be this type.

I wish I had this understanding when I was younger. I was always “different,” no matter where we were. I stood out like a sore thumb and I knew it. I just didn’t understand why.

My child brain could create reasons why but it wasn’t until I found this type test that as a young adult that I understood and accepted that my “different” was okay. The older I’ve become, the more I couldn’t care less if others judge me for not thinking or acting like them.

It reminds me of a particular time in my young life, when I seemed to be an easy target for every bully...

The Band Camp Cupcake Incident

Adolescence was particularly unkind to me. I was different from other kids. I didn’t fit in, wasn’t athletic, and had little to nothing in common with my classmates. These kids had known each other, in a tight-knit little town, since they were babies. I was a transplant into their world from another part of the country. I became the kid the other kids picked on, bullied, and made fun of. Becoming withdrawn and shy, I lived mostly in the inner sanctuary I had created in my mind.

As junior high school approached, I yearned to fit in and be accepted. Being somewhat musically inclined, I joined the band. This choice further marked me as a target. Along with the unattractive marching band uniform, white buck shoes, and plumed hat, came my first pair of glasses and a hideous haircut my grandmother insisted was appropriate for a girl my age.

Bell bottom blue jeans with t-shirts, long wild hair, fringed ponchos, peasant skirts, and tall laced boots with chunky heels were all the rage in the mid-1970s. If I only had those things to wear, maybe I would blend in. I was wearing homemade polyester dresses with long zippers up the back, hemmed below my knee, with a pair of ugly black pumps to match. My grandmother meant well trying to dress me like a proper young lady (from the 1950s) but had unintentionally sealed my fate as an oddball. I hoarded my babysitting money until I could afford a pair of jeans, which I wore five days a week.

As seventh grade approached, I eagerly attended my very first band camp. My fellow “band geeks” and I gathered at the empty school to learn our music and how to march in a formation. We worked tirelessly to perfect our intricate half-time shows at our school’s football games. Shows virtually no one watched. I had found an activity where I felt some sense of belonging and it lessened the feeling of being a square peg in a round hole. Or perhaps it intensified it.

It was at band camp where I met Alice. We became instant pals. We understood one another and accepted each other for the awkward misfits we were.

The time I spent with Alice and her mother was magical. It was an escape from the reality I had been thrust into through no choice of my own. A rainy Sunday afternoon might find us at a matinee. While we escaped into a black and white screening of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the popular kids were in the next theater, cheering for a youthful Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. Although we had fun, it went unspoken that the cools kids were having more fun, without their parental chaperones. Alice and I read weird books, played weird games, ate weird food, and had odd conversations on topics our classmates would neither comprehend nor find interesting. We were the band geeks.

While the cool kids were putting on football jerseys and cute cheerleading outfits, Alice and I were donning our band uniforms and tuning our instruments. We couldn’t have been happier. I would brace myself for the inevitable mean kid who would pull at my plumed hat and call me an ostrich, or launch M&Ms into the bell of my saxophone while his friends laughed and pointed at me. I didn't care. I had Alice. And she had me.

And then it happened.

Little did I know, as our eighth grade year was approaching, I would lose my dear friend to a horrible misunderstanding.

Band camp meant two solid weeks of getting to spend every day with my friend. We were no longer the new kids. We were rising among the ranks and had an example to set. Alice and I were now old pros at this band thing. Every note of the school anthem was burned into to our memories. We had marching in place down to a science. We eyed the seventh graders coming in, knowing how scared or intimidated some of them must have felt, just like we had the prior year.

On that fateful day, we broke for lunch and filed into the cafeteria. With my buddy by my side, we devoured the lunch prepared for us by our band parents. Alice had left her seat as the dessert was being brought into the cafeteria. Thinking of my friend, and not wanting her to miss out on a sweet treat, I grabbed an extra cupcake covered in delectable chocolate frosting. I carefully brought the cupcake back to where we were seated. The table was covered with the remnants of our lunch, and I did not want Alice’s cupcake to get overlooked or swept away. I gently placed it on her chair then forgot about it.

I was finally fitting in. As I chatted away with the other band geeks who had become my friends, Alice came back to the table, pulled out her chair, and sat on the cupcake before I could stop her.

The cafeteria erupted into shrieks of laughter as Alice stood up, revealing chocolate frosting all over the seat of her white pants.

I was horrified. The thought of her having to get through the rest of the day in such an embarrassing predicament broke my heart. And I had caused it to happen. It was bad enough to feel like an outcast. To be an outcast among outcasts was even worse.

There was nothing I could say, no amount of convincing, praying or pleading that would console my friend or get her to understand I had not intended for her to sit on that damned cupcake. Although she did her best to clean off the back of her pants, she was forced to spend the afternoon marching outside with the aftermath of chocolate all over her ass for the world to see.

The good deed I was trying to do for my friend had erupted into a ball of fire that would destroy our friendship. How could she think I harbored malicious intent to cause her humiliation? Having been the victim of such cruel pranks, my twelve-year-old self could not fathom inflicting that degree of pain on anyone, let alone on my dearest friend. Yet I had unintentionally done just that.

I thought about my grandmother and how upset I had been with her for making me wear clothes that belonged two decades in the past and for cutting my long hair. It was not her intent to make me look like a fool at my new school. She had my best interests at heart. In my mind, her homemade dresses were better suited at the back of my closet than on my skinny little body. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings but I was desperate to take measures in avoiding the ridicule from the very kids who were never going to accept me.

I have carried the harsh lessons of that pubescent summer with me in my invisible adult suitcase. More than forty years later, I still find myself wondering about Alice and how her life turned out. Had I not brought her a cupcake that day, would we still be friends? Or would some other misunderstanding cause us to go our separate ways?

The band camp cupcakes of life start with such sweet intent but manage to make one person look as though they’ve crapped their pants and the other to feel like they are the crap. How blessed we become in maturity when we can recognize the good intentions of others and to brush off what appears to be shit. I am glad my grandmother had that wisdom and still loved me. If I had it to do over, I would have worn the ugly dresses because they were made with love, without caring what anyone thought of me. I would have embraced my unique, inner band geek for the creative, free spirit I was to become a hell of a lot sooner. And I would have placed Alice’s cupcake on the table instead of on her chair.

My early experiences molded how I raised my own boys to accept who they are, to be true to themselves, and to accept others the same way. Both had run ins with bullies and both handled the pressure far better than I did.

I am reminded of two incidents from when my youngest was quite little. The first one, 100 Days, was from when my youngest was in kindergarten.

100 Days

Just last week, one of my co-workers and I had a brief discussion about schoolyard bullies. In our tender years, we had each repeatedly fallen victim to those kids who have some kind of inherent need to pick on others. From as early as age five, I remember having my milk nickel stolen. I can still see the look of horror on my mother’s face when I would come home from school covered in mud, scratches and bruises inflicted by the third grade bully. He stopped the day he chose to torture me in front of my big brother and protector. Tom took many a beating intended for his little sister and threw in some mighty punches of his own.

“Once a target, always a target,” seemed to apply to me as the bullying continued through grade school and into high school where being the brunt of practical jokes and humiliating embarrassments grew way beyond the kindergarten experiences. In fact, it continued into my adulthood. I was in my thirties before I finally learned to stop taking it. One of the most empowering phrases I ever heard came from Erma Bombeck who said, “In order to be a doormat, you have to lie down.”

This evening, I picked up my own kindergartner from his afters school program only to discover that he has been the target of a bully on the school bus lately. Jordan had made a beautiful hat in school today and was wearing it home. It had a big 100 on it for the 100th day of school. The bully ripped it from his head and tore it to pieces. I learned from my young informants at my son’s bus stop that this bullying behavior had been happening for quite a while. This kid throws punches, gets into my son’s backpack, and is plain meanness and destruction according to the kids who witness his bullying behavior. And, he is clever enough to do it when the bus monitor (when there is one) is preoccupied with other rambunctious youngsters. The bus driver has even intervened at times.

As I listened to the detailed accounts of these afternoon bus rides, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. My eldest son always held his own. He takes after his father’s John Wayne toilet paper philosophy of being rough, tough, and taking no crap off anyone. Jordan, however, is much more tender.

Rather than express sadness that his creation had been taken from him and ruined, Jordan showed me the pieces of his destroyed 100 hat, recalling with great joy how he had made it. He placed all the pieces on the table and showed me what they had once been. To him, it was as if the hat were still intact and it was just as lovely has it been that day at school. He was still just as proud of it.

As we picked up the pieces and drove home, I asked my son how he felt when this boy had been mean to him. To my bewilderment, he answered, “I was happy.”

“You were happy?” I asked.

“I was still happy,” he answered. “He did not take my happiness away.”

“When he hit you, did you hit him back?” I further probed.

“Nope. I didn’t feel like it,” my child told me. He saw no point in hurting the other child.

By this time, the tears were streaming down my face; not from what my child had experienced at the hands of this older bully but because of how he had handled it. In his five years of life, this little child held a certain wisdom that some people cannot fathom even as adults. He refused to let the bully take his inner happiness away.

How many times do we allow other people to steal our happiness? Destroy or belittle our accomplishments? How often do we lie down and become the doormats that Erma Bombeck spoke of? We become angry or sad, have a need to lash back, or retreat into solitude. It is hard not to be shaken when we are attacked physically, verbally, or mentally. What took me the hard way to learn with each experience, my child seems to instinctively know.

This next story was written a couple of years later, in 2004, as my young child was being picked on for his choices. It’s called….

Booger Eating Boys and Orange Haired Girls

"The kids at school and after school think I am nasty," my child told me.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because of who I play with," came his response.

There is a boy my child has befriended whom I have gathered is a little on the different side, due to some personal habits. My son plays with him sometimes. In so doing, other children assume Jordan is also "nasty," doing similar things the boy evidently does, such as "eating boogers," which Jordan swears he does not do.

"They act like bullies to me now," he continued to inform me. "Can you send me to a different school?" he asked, looking for an escape from his tormentors.

"The way these other kids act toward you now," I began to probe, "does it make you want to stop playing with this boy?"

"No," Jordan said without hesitation.

"Why is that?" I asked him.

"Because I don't want him to feel bad and I want him to have a friend."

My deadening silence followed his comment. How do I respond to this?

Jordan then proceeded to tell me about the "orange-haired" girl who decided to play with him that day.

"She likes me and doesn't think I am nasty," he said. "She thinks I am great. I think she is great."

"Well, you are great, honey," I reassured him. "You have a kind heart to keep playing with this kid even when some kids are acting this way toward you now. The orange-haired girl must be as sweet as you."

I wanted to know why he felt he was being bullied. He told me that there are children who tell secrets about him into each other's ears, so he cannot hear, and then they point and laugh at him. They try to get him in trouble. They call him stupid. They threaten to chase him on the playground. How do kids learn to behave this way?

These things bother my child, but not how I would have expected. He still accepts these "bully" kids as he has been perceiving them lately. He still plays with the boy who eats his boogers and remains hopeful that the children shunning him will have a change of heart. He just wants to understand why these kids sometimes act as they do toward him. Children who used to play with him suddenly will not. In his heart of hearts, he is no different now than he was when they did play with him.

The day care people assure me that boys tend to play with different boys, unlike girls who form their "cliques." They say Jordan fits in just fine from what they have observed and he plays well with many children. There was some comfort gained in quizzing them.

Maybe my child is just being sensitive in the world of socializing but I still want to know why negative peer pressure can often prevail over a simple, good heart. Why do kids single out someone who is different and pick upon them unmercifully? Why do some teachers go along with the "cool kids" and look the other way? I have wondered these things since I was his age, and I am still wondering.  

Am I raising my child wrong? Do I tell him that the only way he can fit in is by not playing with this booger-eating friend of his? The cool kids are not always what they are cracked up to be. When you are an un-cool kid, it is hard to see it that way. Do I tell him to keep being who he is by doing what he feels in his heart and ignore his bullies? I was bullied. You can't ignore them. I know this. Those kids can turn into full grown bullies, who still go along with their peers, singling out people who are different. They can say and do hurtful things to us even as adults.

It reminds me of that time my grandmother had my long hair cut short and she dressed me from an era two decades prior. She was being kind. But the resulting image was something very different from other kids. The image was ingrained in the minds of my peers so that I couldn't shake it off until I was out of high school. I would never conform to the standards of the bullies who teased me. I was a "geek" because I played an instrument in the band and sang in the chorus and because I was not athletic. I read books that were not assigned and took math classes with kids who were three years older than I was. I was different. Jordan is different. I see it being an individual. Does he? I believe he just may.

I recall how difficult it was to fit in when we moved to our small Kentucky community a few years back, as some unknown person, as an outsider. I had no ties to this place but my soul had urged me to start over here. It took a long time to find gainful employment and the people who would eventually become my friends here. When I did, they always accepted me at face value as I did with them. The ones who didn't, simply didn't matter in my world. Now that I am "established," my presence doesn't seem to bother anyone. I am fine with who I am even if some think I don't go to the "proper" church or belong to the "in" groups. I just try to live right, as I was brought up to do, and learn when I do not always succeed at it. How do I explain that philosophy to a seven-year-old? Or does he already know?

There was a time, when I worked part time at a store. The man who owned it was a church-going, God-fearing kind of guy. He boasted about how much money he gave to his church as he threw hints making me feel I would surely burn in hell for having been raised in a different denomination from him.

One day, a family came into his store while he was not present. They were good, kind people, cultured, and eager to further expand their minds. The family made a very large purchase at the store, and we engaged in wonderful conversation. They came back later for a book they had wanted. This time, the owner was present. He spoke loudly making comments about thieves. Needless to say, they left the store without the desired purchase. The owner was convinced they had come to rip him off based solely on the color of their skin which he was very matter-of-fact about stating.

I'd bet anything that store owner was a bully as a kid. How do I not have contempt for a man who has contempt for me? I know I am wrong to think of this store owner negatively but contempt breeds contempt. We humans even kill each other over it. And one cool kid can convert an entire class into thinking another child is "nasty."

Reminiscing reminds me of a wonderful lady with a gorgeous back yard. There‘s a very old oak tree, and beside it, a maple. Many other small trees and plants, and ivy grow in the shade created by those trees. Many different living beings, surviving in the same place, governed by the same laws of nature in her perfect backyard garden of dreams, as if they were a community. Leaves of different shapes, sizes, and colors, all falling to the same spot of earth each autumn, creating a combined tapestry of awe-inspiring proportions, that one single type of plant could not have created on its own.

Maybe plants are smarter than humans in that we can have such difficulties with that same concept in daily living with our fellow humans.

My Jordan is a small child. He struggles. He knows this sets him apart from the norm. He looks for ways that he can fit in and just be loved for who he is. He continues to be exactly that person regardless of what he feels someone may think of him.

"Do you love me?" he'll sometimes ask, questioning my acceptance of him.

"Of course I do," I tell him.

"Why?" he asks with a puzzled look.

"Because you are my child," I tell him.

"Is that the only reason, because you have to?"

"Oh, honey... you are a kind, good kid, sweet and thoughtful. I love you because you simply ARE."

"Even when I am bad?"

"I don't think you are bad," I reassure him. "You are just discovering who you are and learning along the way. Just like anyone else is. When I correct you it is because I love you and want you to learn to do the right things. If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care what you did. You are not bad."

Perhaps, in his little mind, if he feels that if I develop a negative impression of him, I will no longer accept him. He picked his nose once, realizing I saw him, and looked at me with ghastly horror in his face.

"Lots of people pick boogers, you know," I told him. "Sometimes you just don’t have a tissue," I say laughing, then remind him, "Just don't do it in front of people."

"I don't eat them, like the kids say I do," he tells me.

"I know you don't, honey," I say, putting my arm around him.

"Do you know how to make a tissue dance?" he questions me. "You blow a little boogie in it," he says giggling. A silly joke is his way of showing me he is okay and ready to move onto another topic.

Just as some people single out others in a negative way because they look, act, speak, worship, or dress in a manner other than what they are accustomed to, doesn't necessarily make them bad people, any more than my child disobeying me once in a while makes him a bad kid. He knows this. And I take lessons from him.

Thank goodness for booger-eating boys and orange-haired girls and people who will be our friends no matter what. Through the mire of the forest floor, created by falling leaves mixed with rain and dirt, they continue to be the wildflowers that bloom for us from a place where contempt cannot be bred.

These days I embrace and accept my own weirdness. I do not see myself so much as different as I do unique. And we are ALL exactly THAT! If the early seeds of my childhood had me feeling like a daisy in a patch of poison ivy, the seeds I’ve sown as an adult have placed me in a field of wildflowers, each beautiful in its own way. We alone have the power to do that for ourselves.

Whether you define yourself as an INFJ, ENFP, ISFP… a daisy, a rose, or even an elm tree, you are uniquely YOU and that is okay!

Until next week, embrace your inner weirdo and love well my friends.

Email me at Lisa@VTBalance.com

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