Thursday, October 28, 2010
LIFE AND THE BELL-SHAPED CURVE Part I
“Grandma,” Chris said, “I’ve got to ask you some questions for a survey we’re doing in my social studies class.”
“Fire away,” I told him, setting down a couple of cookies and a glass of milk for him and a cup of coffee for myself. I figured I couldn’t help him with his math, but I might have a chance with Social Studies!
The questions were mostly about “the old days,” - my old days, to be more specific: what did I do without television to watch, what kind of games did I play during recess, did we have any games like Nintendo. I answered the questions easily and gave him a picture of life before electronics. But I was actually stymied at his last question: “Grandma, who was your idol when you were growing up?”
Now this conversation happened long before “American Idol” hit the airways, so I wasn’t then inclined to think of an idol necessarily as a performer the way we do now. Nevertheless, I thought it would be easier for him to understand if I chose someone he’d at least heard of, rather than try to explain who someone in the ancient past was. And since I supposed he really wanted an immediate answer, I just picked a nice safe name out of the air and offered, “Frank Sinatra.” Chris seemed satisfied with my reply, and with his hunger temporarily at bay and his survey completed, he gave me a kiss and headed out the door toward home.
However, as I cleaned up the crumbs and put the milk away, one name kept coming into my mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson. I couldn’t help but think that my real choice would have to be Ralph Waldo Emerson, but what a strange choice for an idol! I thought it made me seem odd, but after all, who would judge? Why couldn’t I have strange idol?
At work the next day I polled my co-workers as to their idols, hoping one of them would have someone as far out as my choice was. No one did. Sylvia picked Elvis, not a big surprise since she carries around an Elvis tote bag and key chain. Lucy pretty much lives in the 1940’s and her choice of Betty Grable was really predictable. Ron, our aging baby boomer-accountant said Jim Belushi was his idol. And Debbie, our young receptionist, looked as if she might swoon when she squealed, “Ricky Martin.” The rest of the folks gave equally predictable answers; every one of them thought of idols in terms of entertainers. It did appear just as I thought: I was the odd man out. I could see that I was sitting on the edge of the bell-shaped curve on this one.
I have always wanted to blend in, not stand out. In school I did not want to be called on to answer a question or to write something on the blackboard. I didn’t want other kids to know I got straight As. I was painfully shy, and few beyond my intimate group of friends even knew who I was. I was, in fact, a nobody. I grew up thinking of myself not as “different” but just as a rather solitary person who would rather not be in the spotlight.
The fact of the matter was that somewhere way down inside me was a little streak of contrariness that took issue with a whole lot of things. But I was the good girl my folks expected me to be, through elementary school, then junior high and finally through high school, the counterbalance in our family to a major-tantrum-throwing sister. After graduation I accepted a scholarship to college out of town and moved into a dorm. Now I could call the shots in my own life and I felt so free. But what happened, of course, is that I just followed the same pattern of being the nice kid, quiet, unassuming and one that few people knew.
In the second semester of my freshman year, we were required to take an American Lit class. We studied many great American writers and finally were assigned Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance. This essay spoke to me at the deepest level. I had no way of knowing that his essay was going to be my epiphany. It seemed to reach into the undercurrent of discontent that had been simmering in me throughout my childhood. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words seared through my soul, separated me from the beliefs of my parents and showed me that I was something more than a cookie-cutter image of them. I was stunned with the impact of his words. I took them for my own and felt I would never again be the same.
When summer came, I still hadn’t gotten Emerson out of my system and during that summer I ran around the house acting for the world like a Baptist preacher in front of a church full of sinners. I had discovered “IT!” No, it wasn’t a religious conversion but it surely was a new birth. And I preached “it” – self-reliance - as dramatically as I could. I wanted my parents to have no doubt about my changed life. I shouted to my mom, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” My mother blanched and bit her tongue. I waved the American Lit book and declaimed, “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” My mother with her orthodox set of beliefs was sure I had lost my reason. I followed her from room to room reading, “Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law.” And then I laid on the final indignity, “I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you!” I was only 18 years old and I thought I understood the world.