Personal Statement

Personal Statement

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Potpourri: Science Fair Update and "The Boy Message"

"They" won first place.  "They" being "the team."  "The team" being "my son."  "My son" being "the kid who said that he didn't want to win Science Fair but only wanted to get an A."

It's always like that, isn't it?  When they want to win, they don't; when they don't care if they win, they do.  Somewhat afraid that Mr. Perceptive will pick up on the recurrent theme - care less, succeed more.  But there's something to be said for retaining one's sense of perspective, keeping things loose and staying out of one's own way. 

Mom could have benefited from that wisdom back in the day.  When I was a kid, I got in my own way - a lot.  A LOT, a lot.  I took myself too seriously and, all too often, was too paralyzed by fear of failure to take care of business.  I no longer blame myself for this, though.  I blame society.

Hey, that's what we're supposed to do in this day and age, right?  Blame the external rather than the internal?  But there's some logic to my reasoning.  Recent studies have identified a phenomenon that rings all too true based on my own childhood experiences:  intelligent girls above a certain age (puberty-plus) have a tendency to reject new experiences and opportunities to learn new skill sets, relative to intelligent boys of the same age.  And here's the theory (which I think is spot-on):  girls are considered perfect until proven otherwise.  Particularly as they ripen to an age where the Four Horsemen of the Irresponsible Teenager Apocalypse (sex, drugs, alcohol and fast cars, in varying combinations) may tempt, the feedback that they get from parents and other adults is, "You're an exceptionally good, bordering on perfect, kid.  Stay that way.  Don't screw up."

That's a lot of pressure on a young girl.

Boys, on the other hand, screw up ALL OF THE TIME.  Screwing up is their default setting.  From an  early age, they break things - in their environment, and occasionally on their physical person.  They don't just break things - they obliterate them.  They don't tend to listen - and when they do listen, they don't always mind.  So here's what they hear (well, when they are listening), pretty much from the get-go:  "You're a generally good, if somewhat flawed, kid.  You're capable of being even better.  Tomorrow is another day."

The result:  boys are more inclined to tackle new challenges from a "nothing ventured, nothing gained" perspective.  What's the worst thing that could happen?  I fall on my face.  Well, that's okay.  I fall on my face a lot.  Literally and figuratively.  Doesn't mean that I shouldn't try.  This could be the time I remain standing.

For a certain type of girl, though - the ones whose necks are bending under the weights of their halos - trying is dangerous.  Because trying could lead to failure - and girls aren't supposed to fail.

I distinctly remember one time in middle school where I fell on my face.  Actually, I fell on my butt - on account of how a boy pulled a chair out from under me.  I liked (as in "LIKED liked") said boy, and thus I was devastated by his cruel treatment, as I thought it signaled disinterest or, worse, disdain.  (With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that the chair thing could have been a come-on.  We are talking about a twelve year-old boy here.)  Also devastating:  the laughter of my classmates, which could have moved me to tears, but instead it moved me to do something else.

I swore.  Out loud.  Something that I NEVER did, because good girls didn't swear.  But I was so overcome with negative emotions that the word (or phrase - I honestly don't remember what I said) just kind of oozed out - and then hung there in space, like it was in a word bubble, and everyone pointed at it, and snickered, because Perfect Kathryn just made a swear.

Fortunately, the teacher recognized this as the anomaly as it was, no one got sent to the office, and, really, all was right with the world.  Except it wasn't.  I was mortified.  Of the "feign illness to avoid going to school the next day" variety of mortification.  I had FALLEN.  On my REAR.  In front of PEOPLE.  Who heard me SWEAR.

They might even think that I'm HUMAN.
Hindsight has given me all kinds of perspective on the incident, to wit:

1.  Not my fault that I fell.  HE pulled out the chair, so shame on him.  Gravity being what it is, I really had no say in the matter.  So, not a personal failure - unless you count susceptibility to gravity a failure (which, as a perfection-obsessed twelve year-old, I might have done).

2.  People laughed.  So what?  Half of them were laughing because they thought it was a funny bit (and, looking at things from a more dispassionate perspective, it WAS a funny bit - classics are classics for a reason).  The others laughed because someone who they deemed as having everything on the ball was demonstrated to be all too human.   Okay, guilty as charged - I am human.  And I never have been, and never will be, perfect.  But if people react to what they perceive as evidence of a chink in some otherwise rock-solid armor, well, that's sort of a compliment, isn't it?  It means that they have been noticing and coveting the armor.  Folks usually don't tear someone down unless they think Someone has something that they want.  And, at the end of the day, it's the others' choice to point fingers and be mean - that's their insecurity showing through.  Doesn't necessarily reflect on the pointee.

3.  Same thing with the swearing.  I slipped up.  Happens to the best of us.  Probably made me more interesting to a lot of people.

Yeah, I can say all of the above, with the benefit of hindsight - and after having lived with boys for a good long while.

Ironic, isn't it?  Girls are, in general, perceived as being paragons of good behavior.  (One of my elementary school teacher friends referred to them as "spacers" - as in, "I have fourteen boys and only eight spacers, so I'm forced to put some of the boys together.")  And as a reward for that behavior - we are given a complex.  Boys get their hair ruffled before they are lovingly pushed back in the direction of the game in progress.

I'm not saying that boys have it perfect.  Read the book "Real Boys" if you want to know how we're doing our male children a disservice.  (How often is the push back into the game not as loving as it could be - and how often is it accompanied with words to the effect of, "Rub some dirt in it, and quit complaining," reinforcing the notion that boys shouldn't demonstrate emotions, or even admit to having them?  If that sounds like a football coach comment, bing, bing, bing - dirt-rubbing advice comes courtesy of the spouse's high school coach.)  But, if you impart it properly, and without gender bias, the Boy Message is, to my mind, the far more positive one. 

I put my own "girl spin" on things, giving Thing 1 and Thing 2 the Boy Message plus the counterpoint to the Girl Message.  You're going to screw up.  When you do, learn from it, and build on it.  If people tease you because you screwed up, take a step back and consider why they are carrying on the way they are.  Do you make fun of them when they screw up?  Well, don't dish it if you can't take it.  Better yet, don't dish it at all.  Just be nice to people.  Accept and appreciate them for the flawed but generally A-OK folks that they are.  More often than not, they will return the favor.  And take ownership of the fact that you, too, are flawed but generally A-OK.  Don't hold yourself out as being better, or being more than you are.  Brattiness breeds brattiness.  And a little self-deprecation never hurt anyone.  But don't take it too far.  When self-deprecation crosses the line into self-teardown territory, it ceases to be disarming and can be just as annoying - and just as pretentious - as tooting one own's horn.  Remember, you are generally A-OK.  It's not cool for anyone to dismiss or discount this fact - and you are included in "anyone." 

Now, it's an unfortunate truth that some people are going to be bratty even if you go to great lengths not to be.  But that's on them.  Take it as a sort of backhanded compliment, and then take a mental walk in their shoes.  If you notice that someone consistently makes fun of you for being smart, they probably think that they are lacking intellectually.  If they tease you about your clothes or shoes, they may think that their wardrobe or footwear doesn't pass muster.  So pay them a compliment (a legitimate one - don't reach).  Notice when they make a good point in class, or when they look particularly sharp.  There's a slight chance that yours may be the push that starts to turn their self-esteem around.  There's an even better chance that your name will come off of the "people to harrass" list.  But, if nothing else, you took the high road - and that, in itself, is a victory.

From this dialog (well, it's more of an instructional series than a dialog - but I am pleased to report that there is minimal eye-rolling, at least at this preteen stage) comes our rather quirky sense of parental expectations.  We don't care if you win or lose the election, as long as you run a clean, issue-based campaign.  We don't care if you score, but we had better not catch you criticizing others for not scoring, and you need to put forth a reasonable amount of effort, because it's not fair to your teammates if you don't try.  They would like to win, so your options are to apply yourself to the task at hand or get out of the way and try another activity on for size.  (Other parents on the soccer sidelines:  "GO, GO, GO!"  Me on the sidelines:  "PAY ATTENTION!")

Hopefully they get something out of my little pep talks-slash-"how to's".  And I certainly have learned a lot from observing boys in the wild.

Field research continues.  I am the proud recipient of a lifetime grant.

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