Don’t Be Yourself, and Other Lies Sixth Grade Taught Me

*Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Right before my 11th birthday, we left Brooklyn and moved 3,000 miles across the country. I was a fish out of water, during a year that’s probably best known for teaching people that yes, you can absolutely feel embarrassed 90% of the time and still live to tell the story.

We moved just in time for me to begin middle school. Just in time for the sixth grade Hobby Fair.

I mean, first of all, can we talk about this? A HOBBY FAIR? Huh?

A twist on the standard middle school science fair, intended to share that 11 year olds have a vibrant extracurricular life filled with crafting and sports… I mean, how is that even a thing? Does it still exist any other schools? Anyways, how that fit into the educational landscape, I have no idea, but there I was, a recent New York transplant with glasses and thick eyebrows, who had up until that point, never realized that I was supposed to have been cultivating an interest in something outside of school and hanging out with family that would seem socially acceptable to fellow sixth graders, never mind glamorous enough for a giant, three-paneled poster board.

Having been raised in a cement jungle where my childhood toys were routinely stolen off our porch, I had never attended a school or been a part of a community where team sports or volunteering or some fabulous weekend habit like horseback riding was even a thought in people’s minds. Yes I was from New York City, but not the portion that Blaire and Serena sat at the Met steps to discuss, where lavish after school activities were commonplace. Sure I took dance classes for a few years, just for fun (you should see my moves now — available for weddings), and had dabbled in some gymnastics lite lessons for a year before we moved thanks to an obsession with Dominque Moceanu from the 1996 summer Olympics, but calling any of those a genuine hobby at that point in my life was being pretty generous.

At 11, my actual — and only — hobby, if I was being really honest, was reading and writing.

I remember realizing this, talking it through with my mom at home, and being completely horrified that that’s all I had to show for myself at age 11. BOOKS? That was it? That’s all I did with my time outside of homework and school academic clubs? I mean, that was true, for the most part, but it didn’t really seem to hold enough gravitas for a table in the school multipurpose room. How do you put that on a poster board and not get made fun of mercilessly by kids who already think you’re a nerd with a weird accent and are having enough trouble understanding why you now have to go outside to different buildings to switch classes instead of everything being inside, in one building, like in places where, you know, it snows.

Nope. I wasn’t officially confirming what I assumed my new classmates already were well aware of.

My mom and I brainstormed. I was desperate.

I did have those gymnastics classes I’d taken briefly before we moved. Perhaps I could cobble enough together from that experience to make it seem like I’d already had this storied love affair with gymnastics, instead of being a late bloomer to the sport because actually most people from Brooklyn don’t think to send their little girls straight into tumbling classes at birth like in other parts of the country?

And that’s exactly what we did.

It felt a tiny bit dishonest, even though everything I shared and glued to that damn poster board was true. In hindsight, it was sincere enough since I would eventually settle in to my new hometown (sort of) and go on to take a few more years of gymnastics, leotards and all, making it a plausible hobby. At the time of the dreaded Hobby Fair, though, the story still felt a bit thin, and I felt like maybe, as an 11 year old in a foreign place grasping for something that made sense and made me feel less like an outsider, that I needed to do more. To get out there and discern what I could be good at and involved in besides memorizing American history facts and reading about the Babysitters Club.

Ironically — and maybe as a result — the majority of my life since middle school has been spent as someone who relishes a packed schedule, being involved in all things, volunteering and working hard and having side projects. I won’t begin to blame all of that on one, uncomfortable hobby fair experience, but maybe it helped kick me forward, in its own small way. And while I still loved reading and writing as an adult (I mean, that’s basically my career, and what I studied in college), reading has been the one activity — the one piece of my identity from childhood — that slipped away ever so gradually as I moved into into adulthood.

While I never stopped enjoying curling up with a good book or wandering through bookstores by any means, I did struggle to prioritize that interest against more social or “important” activities in my life. But in the last year or so — 20+ years after Hobby Fair-gate — I’ve reclaimed permission for staying in on a Friday night and doing nothing but reading a good book, one that doesn’t necessarily have to teach me something or be a nod to a greater geo-political crisis or world issue. It no longer feels necessary to seem cool or worry about what anyone else thinks about my decisions or interests.And as I found myself poring through a book on a flight earlier this week, I realized that I’d now proudly declare reading a hobby. In fact, as an older millennial in 2019, it’s not unusual to share book recommendations on social media and join virtual book clubs. I want a bumper sticker that says “YES! I READ A LOT!”

Just kidding — I hate bumper stickers. But you get my point.

I wish I could go back and tell 11 year old me not to be so embarrassed for being myself. To not try and search for something else, something that wasn’t authentic just because I wanted to blend in. We don’t have to be embarrassed for being our true selves — goofy, nerdy, silly, loud — whether we’re 10 or 50.

Also {and this is not really the point of this essay but perhaps an added lesson}, perhaps the interests we held as kids, the ones we loved deep down in our hearts, that fed our souls naturally without a lot of pomp and circumstance, before things like getting artificial “Likes” and paying bills became necessary, are still important and worthy. Maybe those are the glimpses into ourselves that as adults, we need.

Book club, anyone?