Thoughts on a Good Childhood

I remember the rawness of childhood.  How each small happening could make my heart swell with glowing happiness or burst into a thousand pieces that would rip their way up my esophagus until they came out as a burning sob.   How nothing average was remembered, only the spectacularly good or bad. I rode the wave of one strong emotion to the next in my kiddie pool all the way through adulthood, without really knowing that there was a whole ocean out there.

I remember how easy it was to find joy in the most trivial things.

The rain never came, so when it did, we made the most of it.  My sister and I would rush outside to watch as a small stream of murky water formed against the curb and wound its way down our suburban street.  We watched the odd objects that the trickle of water carried past us, and we added our own to the mix.  Sticks, leaves, blades of grass and small bits of dirty plastic were all lovingly placed into the little brook.  We recorded their progress down the stream as far as we could.  Most of the time, they didn’t make it farther than the neighbor’s house, getting stuck on a sticky clump of wet leaves.  Yet we shrieked with excitement each time we let a twig go and it was whooshed away by our trusty river.

I remember how the smallest action from a friend could make me spiral into an endless circle of self-questioning that waged a constant war on my confidence.

When Emmie declared that her idea for recess was better than mine, I was struck with horror by the audacity of her suggestion.  What was wrong with me?  Why didn’t Emmie like anything I said?  Why did she always boss me around?  What was I doing wrong? I could feel the lump expanding in my throat, threatening to cut off my air as I struggled to retain my composure.  I kept my cool playing House as Emmie suggested, but I broke down as soon as I got home.  I dangled my legs off my bunk bed with the puffy pink bedspread while I had a serious talk with my mother.  The tears dripped freely all the way to the ugly gray carpeted ground.  My mother validated each tear as she gave me suggestions on how to handle bullies.  So that’s what Emmie was—a bully.  I felt a lurch in my stomach at the word and a fresh wave of sobs broke over me.  I cried a lot that year.

I remember how great it felt to be the center of attention.

My fourth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese was just getting started as I listened to the rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.  They were serenading me.  And they’d give me gifts later.  I was filled to the brim with satisfaction; my earsplitting grin must have been a sight.  I blew out the candles on my Minnie Mouse cake complete with pink plastic car, and wished for something to make my perfect life more perfect. There was no better feeling than diving into a ball pit knowing I was the birthday girl and everybody was there for me.

I remember how getting in trouble with my parents for calling someone a name could evoke a spark of anger that would spontaneously combust into a fiery rage.

Suddenly, I would be pounding on the door of my room from the inside, pouring out my soul in the form of a scream, bruising my fists in the process and secretly hoping to leave a crack on the door so that someone, anyone, could see that mark of pain. My pain.

It’s the pain that makes me refer to my childhood as a successful one. I struggle to pinpoint each happy memory I lived—they’re all one blissful blur.  However, my painful memories will be forever branded in my brain. My pain was so painful because, to me, there wasn’t any other pain but mine.  I was taught that if I felt, I should share, I would be heard, and someone would take care of me.  This instant and genuine response to my distress only reinforced to me that my suffering was the only important kind. There were no children in Africa crying out as their stomachs gauged themselves away in hunger; there were no women in rural India screaming as they were brutally assaulted by another member of their village; there were no men and women in America begging for a penny on the street as their families slipped farther and farther into the clutches of the insatiable monster known as poverty.  There was only me, and the time Katie wanted to play with somebody else who wasn’t me.

My day as the celebrity at Chuck-e-cheez only scratched the surface of my narcissistic life. I lived a good portion of my life as the center of attention.  Although lacking in self confidence, I knew I was smart and I knew I was talented.  These facts were worn deep in the folds of my brain by teachers and parents alike, until they manifested themselves in my selfish behavior.  Unknowingly, I lived like my life was in the spotlight…I just thought that was the way it was with everyone.

In seventh grade, my mother came home from parent-teacher conferences, ready to break the news.

“Madame Carima said you’re an excellent student, but that you interrupt your classmates a lot to correct them.  You know, Jenny, you can’t just go around correcting everybody.  Even when you’re right.”

With those few short sentences, it was as if I had been punched in the stomach, then stabbed in the intestines for good measure.  How could my own mother betray me like this? I couldn’t believe the atrocities of which she was accusing me!  I was never rude, I just had the right answers.  Surely people could only be appreciative of my help!

But as the seconds ticked by, I felt my stab wounds healing into a dull ache. Instead, a gaping abyss of anxiety, guilt, and embarrassment opened up somewhere in my midsection.  Tendrils of shameful memories began to tickle my consciousness, until they became tentacles of malicious thoughts that throttled my brain with the weight of my wrongdoings.  Heart pounding, I raced out of the room to deal with my spinning psyche.

Yet even this life-altering conversation wasn’t enough to fully rouse me from my self-absorbed stupor. It took me until halfway through high school to realize that I was actually responsible for holding up half of a conversation.  Shortly after, I realized that it would be a good idea to ask about other people’s lives instead of just telling them about my own.  It took me until the end of my college years to realize that a handshake means that you don’t simply give someone your hand, you have to grip (it makes it even worse that I’d heard the advice of “give a firm handshake” only a million times, and because I’d received so many great handshakes, I always assumed I was the one responsible).

But while I was in college, giving everyone the “dead fish” handshake, I did come to realize the enormity of the world and its suffering.  There was hunger and war.   There was poverty that caused more problems than I had ever dreamed, and ignorance which governed more countries than I could have ever dreamed.  Closer to home, I was taught that everything on campus reeked of “heteronormitivity,” and, along a similar vein, that many of the social struggles in the US were caused by “cultural hegemony.”  Later on, I learned there was a term for my stellar childhood and background: “white privilege.” There was even a name for my pain: “first world problems.”

It suddenly became clear to me: I was able to be the center of attention because there were no other pressing problems in my household.  My parents were happily married, my father employed, my mother a stay-at-home mom.  The only time we worried about money was when my father wasn’t sure whether he forgot to give us our allowance.  Sure, my dad was stressed about his uptight boss, and my mother was worried about how she would ever start working again, but I never caught a whiff of that as a child. My emotions (and I assume my sister’s as well) were the number one problem to be solved.

It’s disgusting and shameful for me to write about all this privilege.  I won some kind of lottery, and unfortunately I cannot retroactively share the wealth, nor can I cast it away.  I wish I had not been so ignorant of the world for so long, and I wished that I had learned earlier to snap out of my selfish ways. But now that I’ve had a taste of such considerable luck, it’s something I want for everyone. I believe every child should experience the “center of the universe” phenomenon (although maybe not in such toxic doses as I received).  They say every child needs love—isn’t attention a substantial piece of love? Making the loved one feel as though he/she is at the center of your universe?

Let’s hurry up and work together to solve the world’s problems, people. Every child deserves to have the world revolve around him or her.

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