After fumbling through the beginning of teenagerdom in Jr. High, dealing with on and off friends, and all the other fun things that 80’s sitcoms didn’t fully prepare me for, high school was mostly uneventful. My freshman year was a little bit of an acclimation time. There was also a theme of me fast growing into a professional piner for dudes who I viewed as unobtainable and who probably wouldn’t have been good for me/would have been a let down had anything actually happened. Other than that, though, I kept my head down and avoided most drama. School work plus a growing love of theatre and music occupied my free time, and then there was college and the ever-important looming future to think about. Then senior year happened.
It’s not something I’m going to waste a lot of time talking about or fully get into, because at the end of the day it’s something that happened long ago, is minimal in the scheme of things, and bringing up specifics would turn into a they-said/she-said situation, and I don’t need that in my life. What’s important is that my reactions to it changed me forever as a person.
Around second semester, my perception of the world was altered. Things happened that did not exactly make me question what I wanted to do for a living, but they did make me realize that it was going to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated. It definitely made me realize that the people of all sorts who smiled around me every day probably had opinions of me that were very different. It became very evident that those around me weren’t required to be supportive or even apathetic. I knew this, in theory, of course. Wanting to be in any part of entertainment is a risk, and of course as a teen you don’t realize how much of a constant effort and battle it’s actually going to be. It’s the reason I try to be honest and supportive when I give workshops now. I’m not going to change kids’ opinions, but they deserve to get a realistic picture.
I’ve always been a hard worker, I’ve always been passionate about the things I believe in and love. My assumption was that, especially while still in school, if I worked hard and was at least as good as anyone else, I’d get my turn in the exact way I wanted, everyone would be happy for me, and it would be just great. This was a notion supported and even voiced by people I believed in, all the while forgetting that high school is essentially run by popularity. People can claim til their throats are hoarse that things are done via merit and hard work, but there are always going to be preferences in the world with no real way to eliminate that potential bias.
Yeah, in hindsight I really didn’t take into account that 1. art is subjective and 2. in high school there are so many behind-the-scenes things going on, just like in the real world of entertainment. I had spent years assuming if I just kept working and supporting everyone else, my time would come, and then tables turned very rapidly. Suffice it to say, I was woken up to the real world quicker than I could have dreamed. For various reasons, I pulled out of activities I’d once enjoyed and decided to focus on my studies, a music competition I was already invested in, and getting into college. My core group of friends remained very tight, but my peripheral group of friends and acquaintances, all those faces I got used to seeing every day but wasn’t sure if I liked or not…changed. It’s amazing how fast people back away when I suddenly rewrote the script and decided not to stay in the box people had packed me into. It was strange, because on the surface not a lot changed, but there was a constant undercurrent of suspicion, a constant subtext of something else.
I was left half wondering what I even wanted to do with my life. I still had this mad love of stage, theatre, and art in general, but now I was getting an earful of why I, specifically, wouldn’t work in the field. I was still a hard worker, I still believed in my goal, but this was probably the point where my snark and cynicism began to develop in a major way. I know I definitely had the potential to be a lot harder after that, and I became more aggressive in what would eventually become my creative and business life. I got sneakier, too, and learned to listen more. I paid attention much more to people’s actions and not what came out of their mouths. In short, I lost faith in the system I’d assumed would come through for me just because I was fulfilling my part to the best of my ability.
This doesn’t mean I suddenly became some insta-punk who dropped out of school and started kicking old people and lighting things on fire or something. Honestly, people probably didn’t know anything was going on emotionally with me, because I’ve always been extremely good at hiding things I don’t want people to know about. Besides, I’ve always said that my cute and harmless look is the best possible thing I could have going on. People never see me coming. Unfortunately, though, cute and harmless as I was, I still couldn’t find the balance between this aimless love I now had and this raging irritation that I also carried.
Three influences came along that year that helped me keep my head high. Coincidentally, all carried a similar underlying theme. I’ve mentioned it before, but around that time a friend fully indoctrinated me into David Bowie’s music. Suddenly there was a person who blended all of his interests together, had been through hell, come out, and was incredibly intelligent about the whole thing. While I’m far from Bowie, it has definitely helped to know he exists, and his music is a constant reminder for me to keep at things and not diminish myself or my interests so I can be seen a certain way. Getting into his albums at that point gave me the drive to keep in the competition I was doing at the time (and eventually win it), and to keep faith that I could work in the field I wanted to.
Women Who Run With the Wolves was big around that time, as well, and my mother really got into the book and talked about it all the time. Blending folklore and Jungian psychoanalysis, Clarissa Pinkola Estes explores what it means to be a strong female with the wisdom and humor of your favorite aunt. She remains one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’ve read that particular title so many times my copy is in tatters. I had the theory at the time that if I really took her words to heart, I’d avoid any possible future problems and heartache in my life, ever proving that I was adorably stupid at seventeen. Still, the book got me thinking about what made my soul and psyche tick. Although there were things I could strengthen in myself, I wasn’t broken. It was more that my viewpoint and the high school norm just did not see eye to eye at all, no matter how much I played my role.
Still, I had this suppressed anger. Still, I had this imbalance. I didn’t fit in with any of the groups around me anymore. I had no idea what to do with that, because even though I was learning, I was still in high school and classification was everything.
Which brings me to my last major influence that year.
I was taking an English class that would give me the opportunity to earn college credit. At that point in life, I was used to English class meaning that I could zone out for ninety minutes, do the assignment, then go on my merry way. Let’s just say that I was quickly relieved of this notion. If I wanted to do well in the class, I had to work and actively participate. After the initial shock and a few reminders to pay attention to the details, I found myself falling in love with an English class for the first time in forever. I’d enjoyed classes before because I was naturally good at them, but they didn’t necessarily speak to me. Being challenged to dig in, to really explore views in different work, to polish what I already knew was refreshing. I was also reading things that were above and beyond what I’d been given before and I loved that opportunity.
Plus, I have always loved projects, and there were two giant ones in this class. The one that affected me the most was a year-long effort where we put together an anthology that had to have so many different types of works that fell into different categories that fell into a theme of our own choosing. I’ll go into that one more in another post, but that project helped me to begin to dig into what mattered to me as a person in a way that nothing had before. Although I’d started it before my change in attitude, in a lot of ways it prevented me from getting too cynical and angry. It put a purpose under my passion.
However, there’s one lesson that I will never forget. We were reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles. A lot of the discussion for that book revolved around the two leads and the categories they fell into: the rule follower and, as my teacher put it, the germ of the wild. For the very first time I realized that even though I was the local minster’s kid, the good student, the stereotypical shy and socially awkward chick, there was something else going on under the surface. It wasn’t that my personality magically clicked into gear when I eventually became an adult…it was happening right now. Maybe roles weren’t as obvious and stereotypical as the sitcoms I watched or some of the books I read.
It was an interesting concept that a person could be considered a germ and still have good intentions, still be a service to the world they lived in while being different. My eccentricities, my creative tendencies, my unique way of looking at the world made sense. The strange combination of fury and longing to keep doing what I wanted to do with my life made sense. I may not always beat to the same drummer as everyone, but I could contribute. I didn’t have to like what was going on around me just to be considered “good” or like everyone else. It might not be an easy road to walk, but if I was going to be true to myself I had to admit then and there that my preconceived notions of myself were wrong. I wasn’t the tidy little rule follower.
I was, and am, a germ of the wild.
Or as I like to put it now:
Some people are cut from a different cloth. I’m from a whole other fabric store.
People may not realize it, because I do tend to fly under the radar. I’m not going to ever be the type to do anything that causes intentional harm, but I definitely have my views and I express them. There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B, and I was more than willing to take a breath, take in the critiques I’d gotten, then shove it all away and keep on going. Embracing this “germiness” was a total contradiction to other possible mentors who had advised me months earlier that I’d never be strong enough for a career in entertainment. It was a lesson that not only gave me hope, but gave me my fire back.
It was also interesting to me that I was one of the few in the class as we went around the room to own that germiness, that rebellious streak that makes you want a little something more, or puts the itch in you to speak up and say when something isn’t fair and needs to be fixed, or to simply admit that you disagree. That saddened me, even then, but I suppose that’s the way it goes. It also made me look at that teacher in a whole new light. I’d reverted to thinking of teachers as those who spoke the company line, as automatons with no personal insides of their own. Since she had cracked down on me so hard earlier, I’d assumed it was the same with her.
To hear all of this come out of her mouth was not only mildly shocking, it was water in a desert. I don’t think I would have not gone into theatre, but I do think I would have been much more hesitant about it had it not been for her and that lesson. I definitely would had less expectations from myself over it. After that, I got glimpses every now and again of who she was as a person, and what I saw gave me hope for the educational system and for the rest of my time there, as well. She let me use a children’s book for a section of our speech-giving curriculum, if I’m remembering right. I definitely remember being allowed to do a monologue from Cymbeline for a speech…which included a decapitated dummy dressed in Shakespearean garb because I liked to go over the top.
Seriously, if I were to go through school now I would probably be arrested for dragging a bloody, headless mannequin around the halls
and propping him up in people’s chairs, despite the fact that he was smashingly dressed. I don’t know if I was just that amusing or if it just wasn’t that much of a thing back in the day.
The rest of the semester flew by. I don’t know if it was because there was so much to do, or because suddenly the pressure was off. I still worked hard, mind you, but I wasn’t attacking myself anymore. I kept paying attention and was able to have a lot more fun while still getting things done and avoiding unnecessary drama. I grew a whole new group of acquaintances and hall friends, and learned to appreciate people I’d previously written off because we probably weren’t interested in the same things. Slowly, my whole outlook and approach shifted.
Since that class, I’ve been knocked down many times, not gonna lie. I’ve been called a pit bull for my tenacious nature more than once. I’ve been called a lot of things more than once, heh. It’s true that acting is more of a secondary gig, but I’ve done enough of it through the years, on stage, in commercials, and some film. I’ve lasted backstage, though, for the whole of my career and only had to depend on retail once in my life for a brief period of time. I hadn’t anticipated falling in love with costumes and design at age seventeen, but it opened a world of possibility to me. Okay, so I haven’t been on Broadway, but I’ve worked under a Tony-winning designer. I’ve not been around Henson studios yet, but I’ve been involved with puppetry and made monsters for huge events. I’ve gotten to work on all kinds of shows simply by putting myself out there, working hard, and refusing to give up…and getting a little germy now and again. Not gonna lie, it helps.
It also was what pushed me into finally, finally trying to get my work published. I had this need to express these worlds that were just leaking out of me, this thing that desperately wanted to grow. Mine is not a mindless drive. I believe in the stories in my head, the drive to create in my heart. I totally think there are better ways to structure and go about things, and I’m willing to try to change things up just to see what will happen. It’s that seed, that germ, that may make people wonder what the hell I’m on half the time, but it also keeps me sane and gets me through all those times when No is what I’m being told, when there are more complications than solutions.
Strange, the things that can come from paying attention in English class. You just never know when something is going to come along and change you into a person, just like you never know when you’ll blink and suddenly view that person in the hall as someone to talk to, or realize that the typical teacher is actually something much more.