Some people are convinced that the childhood voices of our siblings are the ones that keep hanging about us so heavily when we get older. Reminding us when we've gotten too big for our britches. A lot of people say it's our parents. Or schoolyard bullies.
But introverts are their own best bullies, and, for them, these voices come from anywhere or nowhere at all.
me, one childhood voice that followed me into adolescence and even
adulthood came from a staff writer for The Atlanta Journal
Constitution. I know she didn't mean it.
I was nine
years old and I was reading the Sunday paper. I needed to know things. In the Lifestyle section, I came across
an article entitled: "What your name says about you." Subtitle: "The first impression you don't even know you're making." There was a brief lead in paragraph followed by a list.
I didn't expect my name to make the list. It was 1989. About 15 years before "Emily" would become the most popular baby name five years in a row. When we stopped at gas stations, my name was never on mugs. Never on keychains. Never on novelty license plates. I scanned the list anyway.
There it was. Emily. My heart skipped. I glanced to the right and saw Sideline Sitter? Emily. Sideline Sitter. There amidst the Matthews (Ambitious) and the Lauras (Trustworthy) and the Jennifers (Talented) and the Henrys (Unconventional) was Emily. Sideline Sitter. Printed in black and white for the entire metro Atlanta area to read. I was crushed.
Maybe it wouldn't have struck me so hard or stayed with me for so long if I didn't believe everything I saw in print. And if it didn't ring true. Sometimes. I'm embarrassed to even say it. Sometimes I was a sideline sitter. It hadn't seemed so dire until I read about it in the paper and knew it was bad news. Bad, bad news.
I thought about this moment and this childhood voice again the other day when I read a heartbreaking article by Sasha Weiss. About Anne Hathaway, of all things. The whole thing is worth reading, but especially this one section.
Weiss writes about a touching scene in a new, autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knaugaard. (In case you're keeping track, we are now four degrees removed from the original scene. I am citing an article that is citing a novel that is citing a real-life incident.)
Karl takes his little daughter, Vanje, to a classmate’s birthday party. She is a shy and introverted child, but she longs to play with other children, and looks forward to the party with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. She chooses to wear a new pair of sparkling golden shoes. When she arrives, she is thrust into a room with other children, who are all playing wildly. Karl watches her as she tries to figure out how to break in:
For a while she stood observing them. Then it was as if she had decided to take the plunge.
“I’ve got golden shoes!” she said.
She bent forward and took off one shoe, held it up in the air in case anyone wanted to see. But no one did. When she realized that, she put it back on.
Suddenly, in the middle of reading an article I'd clicked on almost accidentally, I was sobbing. Sobbing, and sobbing, and sobbing. In that brief moment I saw every awkward social encounter of my entire life. All the times I blurted out non sequiturs from the sidelines. All the times I desperately hoped that someone would notice my golden shoes but didn't want to have to point them out.
I also cried for the years that I spent in the plain old brown shoes when the golden ones felt like too much pressure and for the friends who dug the golden ones out of the closet and insisted that I put them back on. The friends who have pushed me out of the sidelines from time to time.
I'm still more comfortable on the sidelines. And more than more comfortable. More content. But if I met that staff writer today, I'd tell her that she got it wrong. Emily is not a sideline sitter. She is an observer. An active listener. She gives feedback. And from where she sits, everyone is wearing golden shoes.