Perceptions-specifically, other people’s perceptions, shape us. You wouldn’t think that would be something a human being would be easily inclined to do — let other’s perceptions shape who we are or who we think we are. But it happens. I know because it happened to me and I’ve spent years working to break free of those perceptions. It’s hard work.
Part of the work is coming to terms with the realization that what you thought you knew about yourself might just be the result of what you were told by other people. You know how we all believe we’re different? Come on, fess-up, you know you think you’re different and that no one really understands you or how you think or feel. We all do. For some of us its a lifetime mantra for others its a ‘here and there’ thing.
I’ve felt it. I’ve known it. That feeling like I was living in the shadow of a person that other people insisted was there but that I couldn’t seem to ‘feel’. That person, the person everyone thought I was but that I couldn’t seem to make contact with, was given birth when I was only six years old.
When I was six, I, like every child at that time, started school. My dad was a career soldier so I was usually always one of the ‘new kids’. I don’t remember if I was nervous about going to school or looking forward to the experience, all I know is that it was a defining experience of my life for most of my life.
I had been assigned to the class of a very sweet lady. In those days teachers were generally older and female. This teacher, I found out later, was one that every child that was part of the community looked forward to having as their first teacher. I didn’t know that but she was small and cheerful and smiled widely when she met our class for the first time. She spoke quietly and because she was petite was about as intimidating as a lamb.
Our class was interrupted early on the second day by a messenger from the…Office! Our teacher read a note and called a name — I don’t remember what the name was but I do remember seeing a tall, willowy young girl with white-blonde hair that hung in long waves down her back stand and walk to the front of the room. The teacher spoke in hushed tones and the child burst into tears. I watched this from my desk close to the back of the room. Its funny but thinking about that now I don’t remember feeling bad for the child. I don’t remember feeling sad or even confused; what I remember feeling is …curiosity and wonder at how freely she cried in front of the class. Six year olds are not always the most sympathetic creatures.
The angelic child wrapped her arms around the teacher and begged to stay. I looked around at the other students and found that almost all of them seemed engrossed in something other than the scene that was playing out in the front of the room. I didn’t know what could have been so riveting to them that they could ignore this monumental display of open emotion but I wasn’t taking my eyes off of it until I understood what the meaning of all of it was.
I still wonder what would have been the outcome if I’d followed my classmates’ examples and pretended to be otherwise engaged. As it was, my pale, round, freckled face was just hanging out there when our teacher, looking from the crying child, made a quick scan of the room. Catching my eye she smiled; “Vickie, would you mind changing classes? My class is too large and a student needs to move to Miss Morton’s class. Would you do that for me?”
Would I? For her? Absolutely. Because, well she was asking and nicely at that. And because it seemed like a helpful thing to do at the time. And because I was six years old and had no idea how the next few steps would alter my perception of how the world worked and what my place was in it.
I’d rather not go into the details of the following year. What I will tell you is that they weren’t anything that a six year old knows how to deal with. Miss Morton was a very old woman and for some reason she took an immediate disliking to me and wasn’t happy until everyone disliked me or shunned me as well. Looking back I can think about some of the expressions worn by my fellow classmates when Miss Morton was acting abusive toward me. They were pitying, some were frightened and others were gleeful. Honestly, I doubt a six year old child understands much of anything about a situation like the one my classmates were forced to witness other than to experience a ‘thank god its not me’ feeling.
Every day I cried and begged my parents not to send me to school. I felt sick and said so. My parents believed, like most parents, that I was just homesick. My father insisted that I was being a baby and just wanted to stay home with my mother and five year old sister. He was partly right. But I was sick. Fear, anxiety and helplessness can and will make you feel sick.
Going to school had become a waking nightmare and one that I unwittingly insisted on dragging my parents into. They didn’t understand because I couldn’t tell them. I was six. Adults were always right and were always obeyed. If I were being ‘punished’ at school it was because I had done something wrong. Even if I had no idea what that ‘wrong’ was. Okay, that’s not entirely true because there was the one time I misunderstood an assignment and instead of coloring the large object on the page the same as the smaller, matching object I lost my mind and colored everything different colors to make them pretty. And there was the time I broke my leg in three different places and was forced to leave my wheelchair in the hall and hobble into the lunch room to gather my lunch. With tray in hand I stood transfixed at the end of the line trying to figure out how to hobble to the table with both hands occupied. On the first step I lost my balance and fell. A sympathetic lunch lady managed to rescue my milk and helped me to a table but by then lunch was, thankfully, over. I hobbled slowly to join my nervous-eyed classmates and smirking teacher who later explained in the most earnest tones that I’d thrown a tantrum and insisted on walking into the cafeteria myself.
Nothing monumental happened that would bring a concerned parent to class but everyday was something else. Most were unknown by anyone other than myself and my classmates. And whether by coincidence or design they were always things that Miss Morton could make appear as if I was at fault.
I don’t remember how I went into first grade but I still carry the memory of how I came out. I came away from that first grade experience knowing that adults weren’t to be trusted. They were the real monsters, they just hid it well. But this is a story about perceptions and now its time to get back to that. Because you see, my parents came to believe that I was a difficult child. Why else would I cry about going to school? They’d talked to the teacher and she just couldn’t understand why I had such trouble. My father came to the conclusion that I was simply a liar and weak and wasn’t to be trusted. A heavy mantle for a six year old girl.
His perception, built on a complete misunderstanding of circumstances, influenced anyone that he’d talk to. I was the middle child, my brother, the only son was oldest and my sister, the baby and pixie of the family was the ‘cute one’. I was the sneak, the one that couldn’t be trusted. My reputation grew with each year as I drew deeper and deeper inside myself. When things went wrong I stopped trying to plead my innocence. I unwittingly became the family scapegoat. I began to believe what I was being told and I was ashamed which made me shy and socially awkward.
Don’t get me wrong; my life at home was tough and, at times, abusive but those times were far between or they came in phases and I wasn’t the only sufferer. My sister and brother had their crosses to bear too. I’m not writing this to garner sympathy or pity. I need and want none. This is about letting perceptions that are built upon the shaky foundations of ‘well, that’s what so-and-so said’ or ‘well, I can’t say for sure but I know if it were me I’d…’
It took years and years for me to slowly peel away the layer upon layer of perceptions that others had unknowingly laid upon me until I reached the raw, but thankfully still there, essence of who I really am. I was lucky. I found myself while my father still lived and one day I told him and my mother everything.
I wish I could say it was cathartic, that my father apologized for not trusting me or even giving me the benefit of the doubt but he didn’t. I’d done the one thing that he couldn’t allow for and that was I had been vulnerable and he hadn’t seen it and he hadn’t fixed it.
By the time I made my ‘stance’ my dad had gone through his own reckoning, having a lot of his preconceived ideas and beliefs ripped away from him. He’d been a soldier since he was 15. He’d lied about his age and enlisted. He served in WWII, had been shot 5 times and captured by a retreating German squad. He was taken POW and was saved from being executed when - the rapidly approaching allied troops forced the Germans to abandon their position - by a quick thinking German doctor lied and told the soldier that came to get my dad that he was already dead.
My dad served in Viet Nam and came home a different man — they all did.
By the time Dad retired, after 32 years, he’d watched his beloved Army change along with the rest of the world. He didn’t think it was for anything good. He admitted years later that he’d been wrong about that. He’d been wrong about so many things. His perceptions had been wrong. He’d believed what he saw based on what he’d experienced. And even though his life experience-especially as an orphaned child of 9-should have taught him the cruelty of people and leave his mind open to accepting the experiences of his little daughter it didn’t. His perception was that I was a child with both parents, a good home, plenty to eat and a chance at what he’d wanted most in life — an education. How could anything bad happen to someone like me?
But here’s the thing. My dad…and all the people he’d impressed with his unworthy perception of the person I was, weren’t the only ones dealing with preconceived ideas and false perceptions. I had to deal with the ones I’d built up about…well, my dad. I was lucky, I took a chance before he died and had a heart to heart talk with him. And though I’m not sure he could ever completely shake his long-held beliefs about who he thought I was it didn’t matter because I had and I wanted to try and do the same for him.
I’m not a liar. I am not weak or sneaky. I had to understand that not telling a truth was not the same as telling a lie about. Not speaking about something that you don’t understand or know how to articulate isn’t the same as a contrived, self-serving falsehood. Being scared of anything that is bigger and badder than you isn’t weakness. Fear is pragmatic and only turns to weakness if you refuse to face it. And while some would call making an effort to stay out of the firing line ‘sneaky’, I call it self-preservation.
My dad wasn’t mean because he didn’t understand, he wasn’t cruel because he chose shaming me as a way of teaching me a lesson. My dad was raised by the military. He parented me the only way he knew how. He had his own demons and devils and I wouldn’t trade mine for his under any circumstances.
Perceptions are-right or wrong-built upon experiences, some we have ourselves and some are borne from others experiences and passed on to us. They may be trustworthy. But, if at any time we find our perception questionable, it might be a good time to ask ourselves how we arrived at that particular perception. Do we believe it because of our experiences or in spite of them? Is our perception of what someone does or says or how they look based on what we know or what we’ve been told?
As a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ let me say that perceptions are pesky things and they don’t relent easily. If they are long-held they take on a reality of their own and become a bit like self-fulfilling prophecies. But, I’ve learned that if you’re willing and aren’t squeamish they do eventually either prove themselves true or they shrivel up and pass away leaving you to wonder just how on earth you ever thought such a thing anyway.