May 212011

When I was in the fifth grade, there was this kid, this boy, with coke bottle glasses and a mouth full of metal braces and a lisp and an affinity for science fiction. He was, obviously, a genius and we all knew it and we all ostracized him. In fact, the only person lower on the social ladder than him was me, and even I, in a chickenhearted effort to be a joiner, mocked him.

One day we’re doing an activity that involves finding words that you can spell by pronouncing letters. Like, “M. T.” for empty or “N. R. G.” for energy. So we’re all sitting there trying to think of examples, and this kid, he looks at me and he goes, “M. L. E.”

I had three thoughts, all, in retrospect, deeply unworthy:

1. Shoot, I didn’t spot that! (My trouble was that I was breaking up sounds by syllable. Failing to Think Outside the Box.)

2. He likes me.

3. Ew.

That last thought had no actual verbal content, only a profound visceral SHOVE, as though his emotional movement closer to me was a threat. Which I suppose, socially, it was. But I look back on that moment from nearly 25 years’ distance and I think, “What would I do today if a guy who was unambiguously smarter than I am, with sweet, gentle manners and a bad lisp used his giant brain to think of something clever about my name, and then told me about it with a shy little smile?”

I think I’d probably tear off my clothes and throw myself into his lap.

But I was a social bottom feeder, 4th through 8th grades, absolutely the lowest of the low. Friendless, rejected, isolated, because kids can tell when a kid is a weirdo, and I was totally a weirdo – a natural introvert, steeped in literary fiction, and living in a massively unstable family of origin where I learned to keep to myself at all costs. My gut-level rejection of this nice kid (whose name, sadly, I forget – I can’t even remember the name of my 5th grade teacher) had as much to do with the emotional survival skills my family was implicitly teaching me as with my desire to ingratiate myself with the other kids.

So deep, so automatic the socioemotional dynamics that shape our adult lives. I’ve utterly let go of What Other Kids Think, but the earliest lessons of emotional safety are more deeply embedded. WOULD I throw myself in his lap?

The difficulty with these early-learned dynamics is that they feel RIGHT – indeed they ARE right, in context; they’re utterly crucial survival skills. (Anyone who grew up in a stable family of origin may be thinking, “What the hell is she talking about?” right now, but I’ll just say it has to do with insecure attachment and whether or not your adult caregiver will be there when you need them.)

All I knew then was that closing the psychological distance between me and this kid was something I feared, dreaded, hated.

How many of us find our adult friendships and partnerships colored and even warped by the failings of our families? And how few of us actually talk to each other about it? When has someone said to you (or you to them), “You know, when I first met you, I didn’t want to talk to you because what if you wanted more from me than I was ready to give? And that’s was only because I watched one of my parents drain the other one dry and I never wanted to feel that way.”

Wouldja talk to each other about it? Do.