“That’s Interesting”

When I was young and impecunious, I shared an apartment that was practically under the Williamsburg Bridge, on the wrong side of Delancy, with a young mother and her toddler. Baby Agnes was old enough to, well, toddle about the apartment and have thoughts, but not old enough to speak real words.

One day, she came over to where I was sitting on the couch, carrying one of the brightly-colored advertising inserts that you receive with your Sunday paper, and she began telling me a story. The story involved the pictures in the insert, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, different scenes, different characters with different voices; there were funny parts where she laughed and laughed, sometimes at the story, sometimes at herself. She forgot bits and shook her head in dismay, having to go back and correct herself, and there were parts that had great meaning, that I was supposed to learn from, where she paused and looked sternly at me: had I grasped the importance of what she was telling me?

It was hard to grasp the importance because, although I could tell from her tone and body language that it had importance, she wasn’t speaking in words that I understood. It was all baby talk; it was all her own language that she had made up in imitation of what she heard her mother and I and her father, when he could be home, saying.

I had some rough moments this week. I caught myself making a lot of mistakes – but unfortunately, only after I had made them at my expense and the expense of others. I made the mistake of trying to perfect my work at a human cost; I got sucked into someone else’s games. I didn’t react flexibly to change and tried to convince someone that I was already doing what they were asking me to do, because I really didn’t want to do the extra work of what they were asking me to do, and because I felt stupid that I hadn’t done it already. And I felt like everyone saw through me.

I gave a speech that I wasn’t ready to give. I hadn’t practiced the way that I like to because I couldn’t get the flow of the speech down; I couldn’t write it the way that I wanted it to. So, I never got around to rehearsing all of it, though I worked through the parts that I did like. When I delivered it, I had a great opening that captured the audience’s attention, I made it through my introduction, and there was a part in the middle that I liked, but I felt like the rest of it didn’t flow well and it looked like people were getting bored, so I talked louder and faster, which is never a solution. And then, because I hadn’t practiced, I ran long and had to rush through the closing. Ugh. The evaluation focused on the things I had done well, moving about the stage, the parts that I mentioned above that went well, the organization of the content, with only one negative: I had done a different kind of speech than the assignment, which was true. The assignment was to persuade and I had done an informational speech. And then I sat, embarrassed, while others gave fabulous speeches, and didn’t enjoy the meeting because I was so focused on everything I had done wrong and comparing myself to the other speakers, and imagining that everyone else was comparing me to them and feeling sorry for me. (Nothing makes me angrier than people feeling sorry for me, as if I were an object of pity. Poor girl, couldn’t keep up, we should make allowances for her.) Afterward, as people were congratulating each other, and people told me that they had liked my speech, I heard myself answering that I wasn’t happy with it – a habit I thought I had kicked. Dang! – I told the evaluator that I thought I should do the speech over and he told me No. Let This One Go and Do the Next Speech. Soon. He, of course, is right: back on the horse.

I couldn’t sleep that night, thoughts chasing each other round and round my head. I had been telling someone earlier that evening about how my mother put me into first grade when I was 5 years old instead of 6. We were living, at the time, in a large house on the water, miles from towns and neighbors. Both my mother’s family and my father’s were at the other end of the country and my father was trying to chase away his Vietnam-induced PTSD by working nights and weekends at an emergency room two hours away; so he wasn’t around much and, when he was home, he — like many men — slept or disappeared into his own activities, not really thinking about what it takes to keep a home going or parent three small children. Mom was young (under 30) didn’t make friends easily and was pretty isolated and taking care of a five year old, a three year old, and a two year old. Her solution was to put me into school a year early. I could, after all, read. And I was independent – I had to be, since she hadn’t mothered me for at least two years. So every morning, I got up and took the school bus 20-30 minutes away and went to first grade and every afternoon, I took the bus home again, and then played alone in my room or read or wrote. Or mostly wrapped my arms around my cat and daydreamed, like the little girl my favorite book, Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine.

Putting me in school early wasn’t an unmitigated disaster but here is something to consider when thinking about moving your child ahead: a year is a long time in a young child’s life – for a five year old, a year is 20% of their life — and young brains and social skills grow so quickly at that age. I volunteer to read to first graders on weekends and the children I read to in September behave completely differently than the kids I read to in April, they’ve grown that much. Parents sometimes miss their child’s evolution, as any teenager can point out, because they see their kids all the time and don’t notice the subtle changes. I see my first graders maybe two or three times a month and the changes jump out at me.

And where I’m going with this is that a five year old – no matter how independent – is 15-20% less emotionally and socially evolved than a six year old. Which means they’re going to – at best – feel out of place and – at worst – get bullied by older kids who think they are different (kiss of death) because, well, they are different. And this will be true every year of their young lives – they will always be younger than their classmates, although by the time you’re a senior in high school, the difference has fallen from 15-20% to around 5%.

I responded to this new situation by trying harder, by learning more, by leading the class in academics to prove that I could keep up. And yet I felt backwards socially and emotionally and the harder I tried, the more I struggled.

This early experience – repeated at every new school I attended, and I attended six different schools after that – instilled in me a drive to be a prodigy at everything I do. My reports have to be factually accurate, even if I don’t have time to alert a key stakeholder that I am changing her report before presenting it at the staff meeting. My speeches have to keep people on the edge of their seats and receive thunderous applause every single time I give them. Sometimes I work things to death because I am afraid I missed something, a fault that someone could point out with that annoying Hah-Hah of the bully in the Simpsons. I have to excel at hobbies – trumpet, yoga, chi kung, singing, writing – from the very first time that I do them and every single time that I do them or someone might realize that I don’t belong there. That I’m different. That I can’t keep up.

Even my meditation suffered today. I find myself hunched over, hiding or protecting my heart instead of sitting straight and open. My thoughts race around like gerbils in a cage. My jaw is so tight, my forehead creased. Ooh – I’m thinking again. Dang – thinking again. Shoot – I’m not compassionate enough with myself. Urgh!

And then I thought of baby Agnes – who is now maybe 35 – and how, as she chattered away, I just said to her, “That’s interesting.”

So now, instead of saying, “Thinking” (Hah-Hah!) to myself when I catch myself thinking, I say, “That’s interesting” and then I’m able to let the thoughts go.

That’s interesting.

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