Oct 16 2013

by Laura Leigh Packard

Have you ever witnessed something random and seemingly benign, something inconsequential to your daily life that ends up staying wedged in your head forever and till the end of time?

And even though it doesn’t have a single thing in the world to do with you, you still can’t shake it, move it or erase it from your brain. For me, I was home on break from UGA some 20 years ago and went to one of those chain bookstores in Augusta, I can’t remember which one. But I do remember seeing a teenager standing at the sales counter, red faced and stuttering while two cashiers, around my age, looked at him and laughed, mocking him while holding out a phone. It finally hit me; the car I walked by on my way in, with the busted driver side window, was his and he didn’t know what to do or who to call to handle the vandalism or theft. He just stood there motionless, embarrassed. Before I could even finish processing what was going on, he just ran out, got in his car and took off, the pouring rain stinging his face through the broken glass.

I felt this undeniable, hyper pang of empathy, pain, understanding and embarrassment all wrapped up into a big ball of a stomach ache. I felt it. For him. Still.

But then sometimes when I think of this nameless stranger, I picture what he might be doing today and I smile. I am sure he’s probably a brilliant surgeon or a foreign journalist covering war torn regions. Maybe even an air traffic controller or a song writer making a good living behind the scenes….where it counts just as much as those who make their way in a “people-person’s” profession.

I guess I just don’t understand why being “social” is such an important character trait- like kindness and a sense of humor. Because let’s face it, a lot of people aren’t kind and a whole heck of a lot of people don’t have a healthy sense of humor, so why is it considered so bloody important to possess a certain high level of social aptitude….an ability to be “on” when put with a large group of people.

Maybe I can’t shake the image of the kid because I identify with him so much. I was and still am an introvert. You never grow out of it like you do shoes and temper tantrums. You learn to cope, to handle crowds, the awkward glares and the eye rolls. I was and still am a little different.

I am okay with it now. I guess that’s the blessing of getting older. You care less about outside stuff and more about the insides.

But what do you tell your kids when it happens to them? This call to integrate socially by teachers and counselors, peers, grandparents and random friends?

To me when I hear my child needs to work on her “socialization” (more sleep-overs, more play dates, more group interaction) all I hear is let’s work on getting her to “fit in.”

Why does she need to fit in or be like everyone else when she perfectly wonderful the way she is? And if people don’t understand her, is that really a reason for her to change…to become a generic version of normal?

Mrs. Payne, my child’s fourth grade teacher said it best, “She’s going to be a great adult.” And it’s true. She doesn’t necessarily fit in with her peers because she’s an old soul in a ten year old body. Why would I tell her to act her age when growing up is about growing forward not backwards?

One of my friends said something to me not too long ago. I think she was being funny, not unkind, but she said someone asked if we were Amish and do I ever cut my daughter’s hair?

I didn’t take offense, or explain that she’s been growing it out for Locks of Love until it gets all the way down her back so she can donate not one but two locks of hair. That’s her truth and no one else’s. I don’t want to raise her feeling like she has to explain or qualify her differences. What’s the point in that?

It’s one thing to teach your kids to have a tough skin. I’m sure there is validity in that….it will save them some hurt and pain down the road. But that takes a lot of energy that can be used more wisely. I guess I would prefer my kid’s skin to be pliable and soft and kind and to stretch and feel…deeply ….about others. Their skin shouldn’t be impenetrable. No one’s should.

How can you move proverbial mountains and change the world if you don’t have a whopping amount of faith and empathy towards your fellow mankind?

My girls have a friend named Dane who is 10 years old and moved down here a few years ago from Chicago. Dane is super sweet and super cute with long brown hair he sometimes dyes and cool, funky clothes (that, if only were my size, I would so be borrowing.) He likes to paint his nails and dress up as Steven Tyler and considers Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert as his musical heroes. See, he loves to perform and I am telling you right now, he has the voice of an angel. You’ll be hearing about him one day. Of that, I am certain.

What is interesting about Dane is that a lot of adults don’t get him but all of the kids, once they get to know him, adore him. They do. It’s not in spite of all of his differences, but directly and specifically because of them. They deep-down love him because of his freedom to express who is truly is. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Maybe it’s because young kids haven’t yet bought in to what “the norm” is supposed to be? Maybe it’s because our kids wish to grow up in a world where they are celebrated for being their own unique and one-of-a-kind selves not a carbon copy of certain ideals defined by the majority of a generation that grew up before them in different times and circumstances? Who are we to teach them what is typical when, if we are straight-up honest, don’t really want to be “typical” ourselves?

Why do we says things like “think outside of the box”, “break the mold”, “embrace change” and then roll our eyes or mock someone who doesn’t think or act like us? Why do we say you should never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes but start talking bad about them as soon as they’ve walked out a door only four feet away?

I am not saying we should all dare to be different. I just think we should choose not to judge or dismiss those who dare to be different than everyone else.

Steve Jobs once said, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes…the ones who see things differently—they’re not fond of rules…You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things…they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to change the world, are the ones who do.”

And I have no doubt my misfit, awkward bookstore boy is one of them.

Previously published July 10, 2013 in Coastal Illustrated/Brunswick News


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2 responses on “DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

  1. annwilliamson

    I am so proud of you…love you dearly…thanks for the best two grand daughters in the entire world……mom

  2. Pam Williamson

    I am Laura’s crazy aunt Pam some of you have read about. I used to try to tell what to do with her kids, herself, etc. During my last visit I told her I loved her and her choices and children were her own. Ask to to tell you what holding up two fingers and putting one finger on your lips means. Laura is a wonderful, sweet and creative woman and I love her to pieces.

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