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One day in first grade I showed up to school wearing a dress my mother had made. It was an ensemble, really, with appliqués and rickrack and matching ribbons for my hair. I assure you, it was adorable. It was also completely wrong. Every other child in my class, boys and girls, wore jeans and a striped T-shirt that day. How did they know what to wear? Were they in cahoots?
In second grade, my mother made me a Winnie-the-Pooh costume for the school book parade. I loved it, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you could just throw on over your street clothes. After the parade, I went into the bathroom to change, and promptly dropped my regular clothes in the toilet. I was stuck wearing that Pooh costume for the rest of the day. I was seven years old and gaining a reputation as a fashion nightmare. It was time to make some changes.
I survived the rest of elementary school by reading novels behind my school books and imitating the characters between the pages. It was better to become someone else, I figured, than to be myself. Girls in books knew how to dress, or didn’t care about such things. I became obsessed with Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Maybe I was destined to be an actress or a dancer. I perfected my arabesques and wore a lot of pink, just in case. Later I decided it might be more fun to be a sleuth like Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden. I snuck around a lot during my Harriet, the Spy phase, and was as feisty as Jo March while reading Little Women. I was a chameleon.
In junior high school, there was a brick wall outside where everyone gathered before the first bell. The more timid kids practically hugged the front entry, the better to be seen by adults should chaos break out. Stoners huddled on the far edge, sneaking cigarettes and plotting crime. In between were clusters of unforgiving, surly kids fueled by the questionable nutrition of breakfast bars and cold cereal. As a seventh grader, I approached this wall carefully. I still hadn’t figured out who I was, and I didn’t know where I fit in this world. My early strategy was to find a spot near the center, somewhere between the marching band and a group of boys who seemed mostly distracted by a desire to grow facial hair. I sat on the cold brick ledge and cracked open whatever novel I was reading at the time. I was careful to choose “cool” books: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Stephen King’s Carrie, Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, any story with angry, unhappy teenagers would do. I wasn’t self-aware enough to understand that I was reading the world around me. That wall was filled with socs and greasers, with kids dreaming of revenge, with mean girls, with boys crushed by boredom, with confused girls seeking an identity.
One morning, I was so engrossed in my book when the bell rang that I continued reading as I walked into the school. Predictably, I walked smack into a pole in the middle of the front hallway. People laughed, some cruelly, and I was struck with the deep humiliation that comes from making an ass of yourself. That’s it, I figured, I am now the girl who can’t successfully walk down a hallway. But then a guy, kind of a cool guy, spoke up. “She’s always reading,” he said. “She’s a reader.” It was a matter-of-fact observation, not a judgment. And he was right. After years of trying to be someone else, my true nature was revealed. That boy had me pegged. I was a reader. I could live with that.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Schedule your gift now. And join us on Dec. 9 for writing hours at Lighthouse and the first-ever Lighthouse Read-a-Thon. Thank you!