Monday, June 11, 2007

Family's important, but... II, Me

Well, if I'm going to talk about my family and try to deconstruct us, I believe it is only fair to begin with me. To that end I am posting a personal essay I wrote for a college class a few months ago. Warning: It is long.

“Promise”


Growing up, I was somewhat of a prodigy. Talking at six months, walking at nine months, reading at three; there was little I didn’t do early. My father likes to tell the story of informing my kindergarten teacher on my first day of school that I was reading at a sixth-grade level and that I was far advanced for my age academically. Obviously, she was skeptical if not outright disbelieving. Parents are always bragging about how smart or talented or beautiful their child is; that’s their job. After that first day, though, and as the school year went on, she admitted to my father that he was right. Unfortunately, being intelligent doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes and that isn’t always the easiest lesson to learn.

My first few years in school were unremarkable. I fit in, had friends, and was as normal as any other kid. Things began to change by the time I got to third-grade. My family had moved several times in the previous two years and I started having trouble adjusting. I was becoming very conscious of the fact that I didn’t fit in with most of my peers. I thought differently and had different interests. I was also becoming very awkward socially. My friends could be counted on one hand…with one finger. This was also about the time the teasing and the mocking started as well as the many attempts to inflict bodily injury upon me. I got pushed around and knocked down a few times throughout school, but I was able to avoid anything more serious, not for a lack of trying by many kids, but because I was blessed with fast legs. I put them to good use running away from many bullies.

As school went on, I continued to excel; it was never a struggle. Learning was easy, especially since it was so rare for me to be given a chance to push myself. Our education system is designed for the people in the middle. Those on either end of the spectrum are left to fend for themselves. Some teachers tried, though. In fifth grade, I was allowed to skip ahead to the sixth grade math book. Even that was a joke, though. I had all ready done algebra, trigonometry, and some calculus at home. The best part was that the following year, I had to go through the same math book all over again. When I got to high school, I met with the administrators and came up with a plan to graduate a year early. If it had been allowed, I could have graduated two or three years earlier.

Besides being able to run quickly, my intelligence was my best defense mechanism. It became my shield. I could always count on being smarter than all of my classmates. I took great pleasure in always having the right answer. Seeing the confused look on someone’s face when I used words that they did not understand or the angry look when I proved them wrong on some point was my guilty pleasure. Making other kids feel stupid did nothing to endear me to them, but I didn’t care because it wasn’t as if they were clamoring to be my friend anyway.

The only problem with putting on armor is that there is always a chink. By constantly reminding my peers that I was smarter I set myself up in the position of not being able to make mistakes. Anytime I was wrong about something, the all ready relentless taunting reached new heights. I worked hard to be perfect, to make no mistakes. If I had any doubts about an answer, I wouldn’t say anything. This led to me becoming more withdrawn as I became petrified that I would say the wrong thing. Doing that and looking stupid became my greatest fear. If I looked stupid, my armor would crumble away leaving me exposed for who I really was, a scared boy desperate to be accepted.

While I enjoyed learning about any subject, science and math were my passion in those days, especially anything related to space. I read voraciously about NASA, the ’69 moon landing, and the solar system. Combined with my love of science fiction – Star Trek, Star Wars, Isaac Asimov, and more – I dreamed of traveling amongst the stars. I wanted to work for NASA’s space program. As I grew older, I even dreamed of starting my own private company and building the first faster-than-light ship.

My parents, my teachers, and most everyone who talked to me for more than a few minutes knew that I was destined for great things. I was going to cure cancer. I was going to solve world hunger. I was going to be the first man on Mars. I was going to change the world.

Things changed when I became a teenager. For a number of reasons, I became very angry. My parents divorced when I was twelve. I had four younger siblings and my mother was handicapped, unable to work. My father did not move far physically. He was in the same town, but he was not there for us like a father should be. I was now the man of the house and I had all manner of responsibilities thrust on me. I started working, doing paper routes and odd jobs around the neighborhood. As soon as I was fourteen, I got my driver’s license. Then I was taking my mother around town to run errands and my siblings to their extracurricular activities. That same year, I got my first “real” job working at a Taco Bell. The stress of it all put a strain on my relationship with my mother and soon we were arguing regularly.

Years of being an outcast and having few friends had also begun to take a toll on me. While I was younger, it had bothered me, but I kept it all buried. Now, combined with the normal stresses of being a teenager struggling to find an identity and feeling the weight of my family on my back, it all started to come out. I became increasingly angry and isolated. I quit baseball, track and the other extracurricular activities I was involved in. I was bitter and sarcastic. My grades started to drop as I cared less and less about school or anything else for that matter. I was all set to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when I graduated, but my falling grades weren’t good enough anymore and I lost my chance.

The final straw came shortly after my seventeenth birthday. My mother had always pushed me to be more social and to go out on dates. I certainly wanted to date, but I was far too shy to ask a girl out. A girl I met at work took that step and asked me out. Perhaps predictably, I fell madly in love with her. Not only was she my first girlfriend, but she was the only person who “understood” me as I struggled emotionally. My mother did not approve of her, however, and that made me furious. She had long pushed me to date and, now that I was, she told me she did not like or approve of her. It was another in a list of reasons for us to argue. A month after my birthday, during one particularly vicious argument, my mother kicked me out of the house. I packed up my things and left. I moved in with my girlfriend; she was two years older than me, all ready graduated and living on her own.

My life came fully derailed then. Within a month my girlfriend was pregnant. A few years later we had had a second child and were married. It was disastrous. I knew that I had screwed up, that she was not the girl I wanted to spend my life with. My stubbornness was too deep to admit I had made a mistake, though, and I tried to stick it out. I made a half-hearted attempt to go to college, but quickly dropped out. I wasn’t ready for it mentally. I was still angry, although, it was more for the situation I found myself in than for any of the old reasons. After a few more years, I had had enough. We separated and divorced. I had been too young and wasn’t really in love, or maybe I had been, but it was simply the fleeting love of youth and not a mature, lasting love. With a lot of debt stemming from the divorce and my own poor financial decisions, I was not in a position to go back to school. I worked and existed, nothing more. I drifted through life wondering what had happened. I was a golden child. I was brilliant. It haunted me that I could be so smart and so lost.

One of the things I hated most after high school was running into people I had known back then. There was always awkward questions like, “Weren’t you supposed to go to M.I.T?” or statements like, “I thought you were going to work for NASA.” It was very uncomfortable and I always felt embarrassed. The chink in my armor was being exposed. I went out of my way to avoid most people that I had known except for one close friend. People that didn’t know me and found out I had two daughters would give me, “You look way too young to have kids. How old are you?” I hated seeing the look on their faces when I’d tell them and they would do the math. I felt like a failure, like a loser, and most of all, I felt stupid. I often wondered if I could ever get my life back on track.

In those years, I did a lot of thinking and reflecting. Never having many friends and not being one to talk much, I was used to having conversations with myself. I had never truly faced myself, though. Slowly these conversations became focused on why my life was the way it was. What had happened to put me in this position? Why was I not happy? What could I do about it? I became brutally honest with myself. I stripped myself bare and really took shape of who I was. Facing myself is the hardest thing I have ever done and I think something that few people truly do. I came to accept that I was in control of my life and I had no one to blame but myself for where I was. I learned that I was the only person responsible for my happiness. I decided that I did not want to be bitter and angry for the rest of my life. I came to accept myself for who I was, good and bad, and I worked on becoming a better person, a better human being. I forgave my father for not being there when I needed him, my mother for kicking me out of her house, and all of the kids who had tormented me throughout school. Most of all, I forgave myself for all of the mistakes I had made. I came to accept that I was just as human as everyone else, that I was going to make mistakes no matter how smart I was, and that my armor was actually a burden weighing me down. I took it off and vowed to not let my life get back off track again.

I also learned that my interests had changed. I was no longer as interested in science as I once was. It still appealed to me and I still kept up on current advances and read books about it for pleasure, but, as a career, it had lost its luster. My own painfully honest self-reflection not only gave me greater insight to myself, but gave me a great curiosity and passion for people. Who are we? Why are we here? Where have we been? Why do we do the things we do? What can I do to help other people? It sounded so corny even in my head, but I found that I had a burning desire to help people.

I had always been interested in history, but now it grew to the point that I knew I wanted to get a degree in it. Religious history, in particular, appealed to me. Every society on our planet throughout history has developed some sort of religion that has tried to answer the big questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose? My parents had taken me to church when I was young, but I was never very devout. I developed very strong convictions, but never felt organized religion was right for me. My beliefs were personal; I considered myself spiritual, but not religious. But there was something about religion and what people and societies did in its name that really piqued my interest. I felt driven to learn more about it to the point of making it my major.

After a few years of working, paying down some of my debts, and growing up, I became serious about going back to school. The traditional classroom environment held little appeal to me. Squeezing in time to go to school while working full time, seeing my daughters every week, and helping my mother with various tasks was not going to work. I began looking at online alternatives. A friend of mine had taken some classes on the Internet and recommended a school. I looked into it and liked what I saw. In August of 2006, ten years after I had graduated high school, I reentered college determined that nothing would stop me from getting my degree and pursuing my dreams. I thought the biggest hurdle had been cleared. I was wrong.

A few months later, something happened that could have again derailed my life. For a few months I had been having strange symptoms. My right hand started going numb. It would only last for a few seconds, but while it happened I could not control my hand. Soon, my right arm and leg would go numb. Again, it only lasted for a few seconds, but it would reoccur throughout the day. I had difficulty walking, even falling a few times, or using my hand when it happened. I knew that it was something serious, something neurological, but I didn’t want to go to the doctor. I tried to ignore it, hoping that it would just go away. Unfortunately, or perhaps thankfully, my mother saw me stumble a few times and asked me what was wrong. I dissembled at first, but finally told her. She pestered me to see a doctor and eventually I relented.

The doctor ordered a battery of tests including an MRI. When I went back for the results, he told me that the scan of my brain showed images consistent with multiple sclerosis. It did not come as a total shock because I knew when I first started going numb that something was wrong and it could be very serious. I could have become depressed. I could have cried and asked, “Why me?” I could have let it ruin my life, but I didn’t. My search for myself and my personal growth over the past few years had given me a rock-solid core of confidence in myself. I was happy with who I was and where my life was going. I knew that there was no obstacle I could not overcome. A debilitating disease was not about to get the best of me.

For all of the things I learned in the past few years, perhaps the most important is the value of mistakes. Making mistakes isn’t just okay; it is necessary. Learning does not come from perfection. Learning comes from screwing up and figuring out what happened. My myriad number of blunders have taught me many things, and I would not be as strong and capable as I am now if I had not gone through them as painful and as horrible as they were at the time. Even my biggest mistake, running off with my girlfriend, cannot really be called a mistake. That strange union produced two wonderful girls and how can anyone consider their children a mistake?

I’m twenty-eight now. I have the two smartest, most beautiful daughters in the world (parent’s job, remember?). I am happy, but serene; confident, but self-effacing; and at peace, but burning with desire. Finally, I know what I want with my life. It goes back to those innocent days of youth. I intend to fulfill the promise of those early days when everyone expected me to grow up and do great things. I am arrogant enough to think that I can change the world and smart enough to know that I can. I’m not sure exactly what I will do or how, but I will.

3 comments:

Jeromy, Debbie, Eli and Tucker said...

Shane-

Thanks for the post. I think your helping to create an atmosphere of growth. I've got an idea for you...why not you set up a second blog for your family, and make each of your siblings administrators so that they can post as well. Then ask each of them to do some written reflecting like you have done. Give them each a chance to voice, in their own words, how they feel about their childhood and family relationships. This will give each person a chance to be honest with themselves and each other, and possibly begin to heal family relationships a bit. That way it doesn't look as if big brother Shane is posting dirt about the fam on his blog, and it my be a good medium for your siblings to say some things to each other that they may not say in person. Just an idea.

FoxyShawna said...

Shane-

Thank you for posting this. You opened a lot of barried feelings in myself that I am sure all of us siblings have.
I guess I have never looked back at our childhood through yours or anybody elses eyes.
I think I might like to write something like that. I'll let you knwo when It is finished.

Sharie said...

Shane-

We each have such different accounts of our childhood, but suprisingly yours did not shock me. I grew up being second and saw a lot of things happening with you that I knew about. I knew you were angrey and I knew that you were capable of so much more. You had so many walls up though that even if I had tryed which I didn't, I would not have gotten through. Everyone comes around in life at their own pace and your doing yours now and the point is your doing it. In some ways you and I are more similar then you know. There are many big differences which make us unique. I wish that I had the time to write a blog and keep up with it, but the demands in my life take precidence. I am glad you are fufilling your dreams and happy with your life. I commend you for all that you have gone through and continue to go through. Love, Sharie