Behold a Self-Made Man

When I was a junior in high school, the computer that scheduled classes made a mistake and placed me, and one other girl, in an English class that was otherwise boys. To this day, I wonder whether the mistake was that the class was mostly boys, or that two girls had ended up in this class. The class was taught by the football coach and almost all the boys in the class were on the football, basketball, or wrestling teams. I still remember the look on Coach’s face when he entered the classroom and spotted Ana and me, like tiny sea otters afloat in a sea of testosterone. He offered us a chance to transfer out to a more gender-balanced classroom. Ana and I exchanged glances across the classroom and smiled. We’d stay.

Coach promptly moved us into the center of the front row of the classroom where he could keep us under a watchful eye.

One of the boys in the class who was not on a sports team was a new kid. I found him attractive because he was exotic and spoke with the cutest accent. I don’t know what caused his parents to move 20 miles south from Canada to the U.S., but I was glad they had.

When I met him, my brain immediately went bonk and my “cute boy” alerts went off. I liked his confused way of spelling (the teacher refused to cut him a break for using British spelling for things on account that he would spell the same word in the British fashion and then, in the same paragraph, in the Amercian fashion – I made the case that was because he was Canadian, after all, but it cut no ice). I liked the different way he saw the world. And I particularly liked something unusual about his rhythm – sometimes, when talking with you, his eyes would open a little wider, and there’d be a cute hitch in his words, a minute micropause, not quite a stutter. It caught my attention. Cute boy alert, and being a teenaged girl, all my alarms went off.

There was a catch-phrase that flashed through my peer group that year – probably coming from a SNL character by Steve Martin – “what a spaz” accompanied by jerking a limp wrist to the chest. You said the words dismissively, about other people, when they were clumsy or inept, especially if you were referring to someone who was not physically clumsy or inept, but just emotionally or socially inept. Sometimes you didn’t even say the words, just a sketch of the gesture implied the same thing, allowing you to engage in social commentary from across a room.

One day, this cute boy used that gesture and I laughed affectionately, saying the words aloud: I got him, he could see that I caught his reference, we were sympatico, see? He looked at me strangely and suddenly a penny dropped. That cute hitch in his words and his walk, the way his eyes sometimes widened, these were the results of a spastic twitch. A twitch, I realized, that grew broader, more noticeable, when he was stressed out. He must have been particularly stressed out that day, for it to resemble the broad gesture that we all used so carelessly, not even realizing what it parodied, and that we were being derogatory towards people who had little choice about how their bodies behaved.

Suddenly this gesture that seemed so funny when we used it, seemed unfunny. And cute boy went from just being a cute boy, to earning personhood, moving from the category of object to be pursued, to the category of a human being that had to be treated differently, with care.

We all experience what is called the Jo-Hari window. Imagine a window with four panes.

  • In one, you see a reflection of yourself that represents what you know about yourself that others know about you, where you are aligned: that this boy was a boy, that he was from Canada.
  • In another, the reflection shows you the hidden, what you see in yourself that others don’t see: the effort that I now realize he must have put into controlling his twitch.
  • A third shows a reflection of what others see in you that you don’t see in yourself: that he was cute and that his unusual rhythm made him attractive.
  • The last pane reflects your untapped potential, the undiscovered country: things that you don’t know about yourself and that others don’t see in you either.

When that penny dropped, and I got a peek at his hidden pane, I felt as if a whole area of my mind had opened up, and my heart grew three times + two: I discovered within myself a compassion that I had not realized previously and that, I am guessing, no one else saw in my shallow, teenaged girl self either.

I think of this as enlightenment, and it strikes unexpectedly like this, if you allow it to.

“A half-deaf, bald, one-handed,
Stuttering, pint-sized, pimply,
Pigeon-toed, cross-eyed man,
when mocked by a lying pimp,
A thieving murderous drunk,
Of his misfortune said:
“I’m not to blame – you think I asked to be like this?
But you!… the credit’s yours.
Your Maker gave you nothing.
Behold! A self-made man.”

– KASSIA (Byzantine Greece, 9th century) From the Penguin Book of Women Poets

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