Throughout most of my childhood, I was extremely shy and preferred to fly under the radar. But I also wanted to be seen. How can these contradictory statements both be true? It’s complicated and I don’t fully understand it myself, but this dichotomy has weaved its way throughout my whole life. Ultimately, I think we all want to be seen and understood, whether we are shy or the life of the party. But for me, and perhaps for many of you, it has always felt like a huge risk to put myself out there. Labeled as “sensitive” early on, I found that people tended to tread lightly around me, sometimes so lightly that I wondered if I were invisible.
I often felt like I was plunked into the wrong world. Nothing fit. I didn’t fit. I preferred the imaginary world I created–an escape from, what I considered, harsh reality.
In this self-created world, my stuffed animals held regular meetings on my bedroom floor. I talked to myself or created my own dramas– elaborate storylines in which I played every part. I took walks in the woods where my tree friends spilled their secrets. In this imaginary world, I felt important. I was quite literally the center of the Universe. But my perception of the real world was very different.
When I was in 4th grade I decided to run away. I don’t remember why. I was mad at my mother and sister for some perceived wrongdoing. I do remember feelings of immense anger and jealousy and somehow, it felt justified. So, at the wise age of 10, I made the courageous decision to strike out on my own. I remember packing a little red suitcase. It was old, maybe even given to me by one of my grandparents. Back then suitcases were just that—rectangle cases—hard and smooth, with one curved handle and no wheels. I packed the essentials: a few stuffed animals, a copy of “Stuart Little,” a dress (you never know if you’ll be invited to a party), one pair of socks, a brush, and some Tinkerbelle lotion.
I closed the suitcase and pushed on the latch, feeling a sense of satisfaction as I heard it click. I took a glance around my room. It was mid-afternoon and sunlight streamed through the windows. I felt a pang of guilt as I scanned the room and saw my remaining stuffed animals on the bed, their blank little eyes looking back at me. But I was determined. I headed down the driveway and as I got to the end, I turned back. From this vantage point, I could see my Mother, kneeling in the garden. She had her back to me, happily preparing the soil. I remember hoping that she would turn around right at that moment. But she didn’t.
I took a left out of the driveway and started walking down our street, gripping my suitcase. Where was I going? I had no idea. I only knew that I had to keep walking. My heart started beating faster as I passed the house of the neighborhood bully. “Please don’t be outside,” I thought. I quickened my pace until I was safely out of range. I took a right at the stop sign and continued on. I started to notice kids pointing to me and laughing. My cheeks burned, but I think my anger kept me going. Looking back, I’m a bit shocked that not one adult thought anything was amiss as I trudged down the street.
After what seemed like hours (it was probably no more than 10 minutes), I noticed that it was getting cooler. Suddenly I started to panic. Just like that, I did an about-face and started back home. I rationalized that my Mom was probably sufficiently worried and that was punishment enough. I had taught her and my sister a lesson and made my point. They would be so relieved to see me that I would be forgiven for making them sick with worry. But as I turned into the driveway, there was my Mom, still gardening, still with her back to me. She didn’t know I had left. I just stood there, incredulous. I was flooded with embarrassment and self-pity. I returned to my room, unpacked my little red suitcase, and cried. I wanted to scream “See me!” But I didn’t have the guts. And even if I had, I couldn’t articulate why it was so important to me.
Our poor parents. But they clapped after every song and I felt exhilarated as I took my final bow in my friend’s family room.
After a year or so I learned that mimicking people was a great way to garner positive attention. If I couldn’t be interesting on my own, I would simply copy people. I entertained my family with imitations of my teachers or characters from TV shows. In 5th grade, I decided to put on a variety show. “Donny and Marie” was a favorite of mine at the time, and served as my inspiration. My best friend was a willing participant. My sister, however, was not. We coerced our younger siblings to be in the show. Honestly, I’m not sure why they went along with it. If I remember correctly, we used an eclectic mix of albums: “Free to Be, You and Me,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Greatest Hits,” and Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” (don’t ask). Our poor parents. But they clapped after every song and I felt exhilarated as I took my final bow in my friend’s family room. What a rush!
During my Middle School years, I participated in chorus. There were three chorus teachers and each year they worked together to produce a musical. Everyone was required to try out. Gulp. In 5th grade, our class performed “The King and I.” During tryouts, the girls had to sing “Getting to Know You.” I was so nervous that I nearly fainted. The chorus teachers were underwhelmed. I was relegated to the part of “chorus” which meant that I had to sit at the foot of the stage with the other outcasts and sing along with all the musical numbers. In 6th grade I fared a little better, being cast as “Rug Beater #2” in the big “Who Will Buy” number in “Oliver!” My acting chops were tested as I, along with Rug Beater #1 and #3, sang along with the cast, beating our bath mats from K-mart. Unfortunately, on the night of the show, I had the flu and never made my big debut. Curses!
In 7th grade, something amazing happened. The class was trying out for “Guys and Dolls.” As usual, I was scared to death, but being an “upperclassman” not as shaky as in previous years. The girls had to sing “I’ll Know.” When it was my turn, I walked in front of the class and waited for my cue. I started to sing, and after only two lines, one of the chorus teachers, Miss Stinson, cut in and asked me to stop. I felt a knot in my stomach. What had I done wrong? She walked up to me and whispered “I know you’re scared, but I want you to sing it again. You have a beautiful voice.” Then she turned to the class and said “I’m going to have Carol sing it again. Listen to her voice.”
I sang again, feeling a bit out of body, my soprano voice filling the room. When I finished, both teachers applauded. Amazingly, so did the class. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life and I will always be grateful to Miss Stinson. Although I didn’t get a lead, due to the fact that I wasn’t able to project my voice enough, I did compete in the Massachusetts District Chorus, ranking 2nd in my region. These special moments gave me a boost of confidence that carried me for a long time.
Over the years I have struggled to find my voice, to have a presence, and be seen. This has been true in both my personal and professional lives. It’s been a challenging part of my life’s journey and the experience has shown up in many forms.
I could provide a boatload of examples, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve come to learn that these experiences are all about me and have been put in my life to help me grow. There is no one to blame. Still, even now, although less frequent, I encounter people who talk over me or dismiss me. I’m still sensitive (although now I’m grateful for this quality), but it can still sting. At these times, my younger self comes to mind. I see the defiant little girl, packing her old suitcase full of treasures, headed on a journey, destination unknown. I feel proud of her courage but also feel sad for her. I wish I could tell her it’s ok. You’re loved, you’re special, and I see you.