If I could tell my daughters anything right now, just one thing that would get them through their lives- I would tell them to be themselves. Sounds easy, right? But when we think about all the selves we think we become, throughout this lifelong journey, that can be a pretty tall request.
When I was 5, I was little Shana. The talkative, happy girl was I. I didn't know at this young stage that I was different, I just thought I was Shana, with my two little brothers, a mom and dad, and Smitty, our German Shepherd. My personality was becoming apparent; surely not matured, but maybe developed enough for a five-year-old. I loved to play in the yard, and talk to new people, and dance, and my mama even points to my handwriting from when I was young, saying, "look, Shana, this is where you wrote: 'things we sale.' " (yeah, wrong word, but you get it)
Then I got older, and three siblings became five. I was a ten year old girl, moved to another city after my parents split, and it brought me to another life. I was suddenly charged with being the big sister/little mama. We were poor in finances, but rich in spirit, as Mama found ways to introduce us to different cities and states, cultural festivals, and yummy foods from all over. Welcome to Charleston, where the culture is as thick as the okra soup stirred in many a pot. The culture was so deep, in fact, that we were a loose screw begging to be tightened in all the populace around us. And suddenly, I became more different. My locks swung lower, my tie-dyed skirts and Birkenstocks were not the popular garb; but they fit me, and I loved them.
So, as I worked hard to fit in a new place in a new city, we were fortunately exposed to what the world had to offer. Two more siblings were soon added to our brood, and seven children unfamiliar to this new environment were now a part of it. Mama never missed a beat in showing us what she could. In turn, we met that beat with a syncopated resonance of relaying our life lessons with others around us. Sometimes, our peers appreciated our differences. And other times- more times than not- these same peers turned into bullies.
I should not use that term so recklessly. Bully is a harsh term for children. There are some that meet that definition- true, but sometimes it is merely a child (with a child's mind) that is reluctant to understand another's journey. They simply do not know how to explain why you are so different from them. And they act out in ways that are confusing and hurtful to them and the victim.
I won't speak for my brothers and sisters, but as an adult, to reflect on those impressionable years of adolescence, became a truly cathartic moment. I feel like I'm fine now, but when I encounter glimpses of my past and it emotes feelings of remorse and sadness, I have to wonder: did I really heal from the angst of childhood? Have I grown at all? Clearly, I haven't forgotten, but have I forgiven? Finally, was I true to myself?
And then I wrote an inbox to someone. Someone who I felt made me sad when I was in middle school. Someone who seemed to have it all together, and seemed to be popular and well-dressed and liked. Not liked, but loved. I let it flow. Through tears I wrote to them how I remembered the meanness. I wrote to them how I recalled the sobs of my confusion. And I was not expecting what happened next. This person called me. On a Thursday night, while their kids played in the background: while I sat at my laptop perusing social media, they called me to apologize. And their apology was more than authentic. We think we are the only ones in our situation, but if we just observe and listen, we can see that the aggressor is also a victim. They are being harmed, too. Someone is doing it to them, too. We talked, and they explained how they felt threatened all the time from other aggressors, and that what they remembered most about me is that I was so smart and different and they envied me. Me, how could anyone envy me? The poor girl with all the brothers and sisters and not enough stuff to go around.
And then, as I sat with the phone in my sweaty palm, it hit me. Sure, I was different, but I was a girl who wanted to love everyone. I was a girl who wanted everyone to love me back. I too often sought out the approval of others, and at the same time, they saw in me what I have always been: the different one. There is not anything wrong with being different, when you can own who you are, it makes you that much more special. Maybe, at times, young children are intimidated by embracing differences. But as we go through life, we begin to see what is important about one another. Your character and its strength is your most powerful attribute. Use it to your advantage. Don't compromise who you are to agree with others. Little do you know, you may be what others aspire to become. Not because they want to be you, but because they desire to be as free and as comfortable as you are with yourself.
There are many aspects of my personality I wish I didn't attempt to thwart to fit in with others. Circumstances may change, but, fast forward through all these years, and I can confidently say that I'm still the little girl who loves people and food and playgrounds and German Shepherds. And I love my girls most of all, and I will use all that I have in me to be the encouragement they need to maintain their true selves, without interruption.