I heard rapper Fat Joe tell a story of how, on his walk home from school every day, he used to have to fight a group of bigger kids and how the experience made him tougher and always willing to fight, no matter how high the odds seemed to be stacked against him.
I had a similar experience — but I wasn’t fighting.
When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my mom noticed that I blinked a lot when watching television. She took me to an eye doctor and the doc had me fitted for a pair of eyeglasses, bifocals to be exact. The glass in the frames was really thick, and they had that little half-moon extra on the bottom half, I assume for reading purposes.
AB Day elementary school began requiring uniforms one year. The school uniform industry is a cash cow for the clothing companies. Kids are always growing out of their clothes. I was growing out of my stuff in the same school year, and my stuff wasn’t getting replaced.
So, imagine an awkward, growing boy, wearing thick bifocal glasses and a too-small school uniform in the early 90s. If you weren’t alive or old enough to know back then, know this: Tight clothes on men was the opposite of cool. A teen rap group named Kris Kross had helped popularize baggy clothes worn backwards. My school uniform pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t be in the in-crowd.
Also at that time, bifocal glasses — or any glasses, pretty much — didn’t make for grown & sexy. Glasses made you a nerd, a geek back before needs and geeks were idolized as tech & Silicon Valley celebrities. In the neighborhood I’m from, no one had even heard of Silicon Valley, and no one owned a computer. Wearing glasses meant no sports, no girls, and no swag (before swag existed).
There was a popular TV show then called Family Matters that started Jaleel White as Steve Urkel, whose description fit mine to a T. Google Urkel and see for yourself. The only thing Steve Urkel had that I didn’t have were the suspenders and Steve’s full confidence is his nerdiness; I was surely embarrassed about mine.
The half mile walk home down Stenton Avenue every afternoon was pretty quiet. All the kids hung out near the corner stores which were back near my school. Most adults were still at work at 3pm. It was just a quiet, solo walk through a lower-middle-class neighborhood.
Except for this one group of girls.
They were a few years older than me, probably students at Ada Lewis middle school. They’d be hanging out on a stoop near the halfway point of my walk. I remember the first time I encountered them. Some of the girls noticed me but didn’t think anything of me, but being the age they were, naturally there was a ringleader. And I had the ringleader’s full attention.
Clapping her hands and stomping her feet, the ringleader was joined by her friends in raucous laughter. Steve Urkel must have come to life, and was walking around Mt. Airy. They err every entertained.
I remember walking home one day and the girls seemed to be preoccupied with something; their backs were turned as I started to pass. One of the girls saw me though, and pointed me out to the ringleader, who started laughing as if someone had plugged her into a power outlet.
These girls didn’t do anything to me or impede my progress, they just pointed and laughed as I walked by humbly, knowing that they were not laughing withme. I didn’t see them every day, maybe just once or twice a month for just that one school year.
When I turned ten, I started wearing contact lenses.
Looking at how it’s classified now; I guess you could call the stoop girls situation bullying. I never felt bullied though. I know I was being ridiculed — this had happened at school sometimes also — but I didn’t feel down about it. I don’t know exactly why that is. I didn’t run home to shut my bedroom door and cry. I never told anyone it was happening. I didn’t feel like I needed help or someone to rescue me from the situation. I just endured it and kept walking.
If I were to see those girls (now women) today, I wouldn’t have bad energy for them. Who knows, maybe I’m the only one who even remembers that it even happened. And, I’ll be honest — had I been someone other than myself and seen me walking by, I probably would’ve laughed too.
Not as hysterically as the one girl, but still.
For Your Game
- Anna tells me that people become experts at the very things they themselves have struggled with. That makes perfect sense when you think about it; the battle to get ahold of a personal weak spot leads us to consume and learn and try as many techniques as we can find. This is how the mess becomes the message: You have personal experience, from the same struggles the other person is feeling now, and you made it through. That is the exact formula for expertise. Experiences like these led to me writing The Super You.
- This was an early test (or showing) of my equanimity: mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. I wasn’t as bothered by the small-scale public ridicule as I’ve seen some people (kids and adults) become when the group is making fun of them. I could have easily taken a different route home and avoided those girls, but I never did. I think that equanimity as a kid led to my lack of a need for general acceptance from people to this day. After poverty, the fear of criticism is the biggest fear humans have. Lose that fear, and you’re not held back by what you think people will think of you.
- When I got those contact lenses, I went from being the boy all the girls laughed at to being the boy all the girls (in the fifth grade) were looking at (or so it seemed; I blame some of it on the before-and-after contrast of my physical presentation). I didn’t know how to deal with it. New problems. You see, handling a challenge is not the end of your work: Now you have to learn to control and direct the new skills you’ve developed (or the new attention you’ve garnered). I’d developed the new skill of “not being a geek” — which meant I had to manage the new-to-me possibility of a girl actually wanting to talk to me. That took me some years to figure out; now I give back by teaching it.
What’s the biggest personal struggle you’ve overcome? What are you doing to help the next person who has that same challenge? Reply and share with me.