School-age memories keep bobbing up in my mind murk, unbidden, like confusing prophecies in a mental Magic 8 Ball. These vivid non-sequiturs rattle around knocking other more helpful, useful thoughts off-track. I find them peculiarly derailing.
I do not habitually dwell on the past. But I have found myself thinking about younger me a lot. There is a loss of self-identity which can come with parenthood, particularly for those who do not work outside the home. Despite my youngest child being five years old, I haven't fully recovered myself, but I am slowly returning. Perhaps school-age me is my blueprint for reassembly?
I was weird, then. Not freakishly so, not an outcast. Low-level weird. Like now, I was introverted, but not shy. I had a strong preference for the one-good-friend mode of friendship, and avoided being part of cliques. Groups of girls, in particular, I found exhausting and slightly unfathomable. I was sporty, serious, studious and funny. I had direction. I did not suffer from angst. I was not very susceptible to peer pressure and, even as a young girl I was sure of my place in the world. I had no trouble living and acting in a way that felt right, even if it set me ever-so-slightly apart. It's strange that I have a much clearer sense of me then, than nearly-40 year old me (I like her better, too - the confidence, in particular).
I was "good" at school and very rarely in trouble. So when I wrote "*** is a big, fat cow, by Anoushka" in foot-high chalk letters on my primary school fence, it was uncharacteristic. Given my track record up until that point, it's not surprising that I remember this incidence of admittedly minor disobedience, but it isn't the trouble (a whole heap) that I got into that stands out for me. I felt entirely justified and without regret. The "***" in question bullied me for a time and while she may not have been a "big, fat cow", she was certainly unpleasant and deserving of some fence-based libel. I remember trying different things to stop the bullying: physically fighting back; avoiding her; appealing to mutual friends; explaining to her that she was bullying me, but it didn't stop. Finally, it was the embarrassment of being called out on some lumber that seemed to knock the bullying on the head. I don't think I learned any clear, moral lesson from the incident, but I felt more independent and brave afterwards.* Independence and courage. I'd take more of those right now. Good things happen when you take the initiative and step up.
And sometimes they happen when you are sitting quietly. In my early middle school years, there was an unbreachable divide between boys and girls. The girls were incredibly cliquey, existing in well-organised gangs with shifting codes of conduct. The boys spent break times trying to kick footballs at our heads, or playing games designed to maximise the chance of their bodies slamming into the asphalt. I didn't play football and I really couldn't understand how the girls could tolerate all the shrieking and inconsequential talk that seemed to make up much of their play. Instead, I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench, acting as an informal, one-girl buddy system. I was largely untroubled by this and don't remember feeling particularly left out. On the contrary, I was peculiarly involved in the lives of my schoolmates, male and female. Their friendships ebbed and flowed, and whoever was upset, rejected or tired would come and sit with me and we would talk. I was rarely alone or lonely.
That's a good system for an introverted kid, isn't it? Finding, making and keeping friends when you are an introverted stay-at-home mum of two with additional caring responsibilities is tough. I need a bench.
In other posts, I have alluded to my many years of planning to be a doctor. It felt like a vocation, although my late-teens realisation that it might damage me in some way, was probably well-founded. I handle stress less and less well as I get older, or perhaps there is just more of it? There's definitely more of it. As a child, though, I was a streamlined bullet train, single-focused, barrelling inexorably on towards my final destination: medical school. I carried a small first aid kit in my pocket at primary school, purchased with my own money and supplemented with supplies from home. In the event of any playground injury, I would act as self-appointed triage, deciding whether the wounded party needed to be taken to the school nurse, or whether to sacrifice one of my beloved antibacterial wipes/plasters. See? "Weird". What is weirder is that my role was largely accepted. Friends would limp over to me with gravel-studded knees, seeking an assessment.
I had a kind of authority. It is a trick which I have been able to repeat in certain other niches of my life, but which is currently missing. I don't miss the authority, and I certainly don't yearn for power and control. I miss the confidence, though. The feeling of acting within one's area of competence. Does parenthood erode that? I think it can. I imagine we are all on a bell-shaped curve with a few preposterously self-confident individuals with amazing levels of clarity and self-belief at one end, some poor, wracked and defeated souls at the other, and most of us occupying the swelling belly of the curve. We sometimes ride the highs of witnessing our child offer their rice cakes** to a friend, unasked, and we sometimes sob into a loo roll, wondering what turn of events led to you having a 4 year old on your lap while you wee. Throwing a child with extra needs into the mix increases the frequency and amplitude of those winning peaks and losing troughs. But rather than feeling like I have lost authority, perhaps I should revel in the fact that sometimes I get to feel like a superhero. "I took both boys to a restaurant! Everyone kept their clothes on! No one had a strop because I wouldn't let them eat their pizza under the table!".
As well as the current gauzy nature of my own identity, these school memories were almost certainly sparked in part by our youngest son starting primary school last year. Watching him unfurl into three dimensions has been marvellously compelling.
School years are meant to be "formative" and, of course, they are. There are lessons to learn and life experience to accumulate. But what is hugely apparent, when I interrogate my own memories, and watching my son enter only his second year at school, is that even as tiny humans, we are already fully-fledged people, our personalities rich with strengths and flaws and quirks. I see Oz bending to quietly encourage a stage-shy friend to perform in the school play. I see him glaring at the word he has written because the penmanship is not how he would like it. I see his quiet observance of rules and regulations. I see how unafraid he is to challenge ideas which offend his logic or which conflict with some prior learning. I see the warm hug he gives his teacher at the end of the day. It's all there, already...his Ozness.
I'm still here, too. Just a bit fractured and jumbled. I think I should try and relax, and enjoy being adrift in a sea of indeterminacy. Soon the tectonic plates of me will realign. They are shifting already. I might give some of them a nudge in the direction of the girl with the chalk in her hand.
* It's interesting that I decided to sign this particular piece of graffiti! I like to think I intended to stand by my words but, more likely, I just failed to think through the probable consequences of signing my name.
** Alright - crisps!
Want to read more? The parental milestone no one wants to achieve - the loss of your child's comfort object.