I met my husband on the track team in undergraduate school. We had been dating for about 2 months when he asked if I’d like to come home with him for the weekend for a family gathering and meet his parents. Because I really liked this guy and thought he would be around for a while, I agreed. The meeting was pleasant enough although his family was super bizarre, and coming from me, this was saying something. I remember walking around the family room and seeing a “National Merit Finalist” award on the wall that had his name on it. My eyes darted back and forth from him to the award as I tried desperately to make the information fit in my head. “Whose is this?” I asked. “Mine,” he answered in the same nonchalance he typically assumed. Something was wrong as this just didn’t fit into my understanding of this guy I was falling in love with. He was a simple, humble jock who was really good at high jump but sometimes needed assistance on even the easiest assignments for school. It was all good, he was witty, loved good music and was good to me, these were the reasons I fell in love with him; that he couldn’t find Saudi Arabia on a map was irrelevant. As I looked around the wall I realized there were other awards, many other awards including a National Athlete Scholar award. WTF? Who was this guy? “No, really….” I asked.
As it came to be, I wasn’t dating a dumb jock after all. Tim has a refined ability to downplay his high intelligence under a veneer of self-deprecating humor and mumbling. As I stood staring at the array of plaques on the wall I couldn’t decide if I was angry at the deception or impressed that he had done such a good job. As we sorted through the details he reminded me that I once took the time to explain sales tax to him. The thought was embarrassing and I felt like an asshole. I was guilty of the one thing that others did to me on a regular basis, that that I found so annoying. Based on the limited information gathered I had prejudged Tim and placed him in a mind box, one that neatly organized my prejudices and labeled him with a helpful stereotype. Dumb jock, good guy; there. We got over it and despite the fact that he was incredibly smart, he still married me and we will celebrate our 25th anniversary this year.
I often revisit the theme of identity in my writing. I am privileged with the perspective that comes with living amongst a perpetual grouping of 15-17 year olds. It welcomes regular opportunities to analyze my own journey at this age. I recently had a student who wore a jacket covered with patches, the largest of which quipped, “Hail Satan,” on the back. The young girl doesn’t worship Satan, she’s messing with those who want to confine her. I loved it! I found her thumb to the nose to be funny and refreshing. Too bad she is years beyond many of her peers whom I’m sure think she kills small animals. Moving into stability from the chaos brought forth an endlessly clashing multichotomy of my perceived identity. My straight friends thought I was a stoner, my stoner friends thought I was a geek, my geek friends thought I was a jock, my jock friends thought I was a punk and my punk friends thought I was straight. No one got it right. Years after graduating high school I ran into a former high school coach who was flabbergasted that I had majored in chemistry in college. He seriously just stared at me like I was lying to him.
I like to think that self-awareness came early for me and I gave up trying to appease or explain. It wasn’t worth the energy. I was surprised that I had so easily labeled Tim (but come on guys, those of you who know him back me up on this) and knew that I too must be doing the same that had annoyed me so much in my younger years. It has become my mission to see people. To see how good I can get at disregarding my immediate judgments and get to the core. Some prejudices are easier to maneuver than others, I’ll admit. I want to teach my own kids to not take the easy path of a stereotype. I bite my tongue when my son says, “this jock at school is a total asshole,” because I too find the stereotype easy and suspect there is probably some truth to the label but I want him to dig deeper. I want him to define the characteristics, not label the person. That I expect this of a 14 year old is asking much and it is still more than many adults still give me today but I know I am right on this one.