Last Monday, I had the great pleasure of talking to a couple creative writing classes at a high school in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. The invitation came in a circuitous way. I had a book signing in Columbia in December, and a high school friend came to the signing and picked up Beautiful You as a holiday gift for a family member, Chloe, who happened to be in ninth grade. I signed the book, Heather gave it as a gift, and, soon, Chloe had reached out to me to see if I’d be willing to come talk to her creative writing class. If I can make something like that happen, I want to and so I said yes and, soon, Chloe’s teacher and I were working out the details of my visit. Since she was the spark behind the visit, Chloe invited Heather to school and Heather moved her work schedule around so she could make it happen (thanks, Heather; it was so nice to have you there!).
The talk went well and, afterwards, Heather and I headed to the parking lot together, and she relayed this memory she had of me from high school. I am going to have to trust her memory on this because I have no recollection of this conversation.
We must have been freshmen or sophomores, and both Heather and I were a part of Model UN (a program that has students simulate the UN experience by studying and then representing a country at a mock United Nations meeting). We were getting ready to head out of town for a weekend competition- my first one- and Heather told me that I needed to wear a suit.
“Why do I need to wear a suit?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Heather said. “I just know that’s what people do.”
“Well, that doesn’t make any sense. I’m not going to wear a suit.” I told her. And I didn’t.
Heather remembers this story as a perfect example of my non-comformity. She thought about how she wasn’t inclined to question the stated protocol, and the impression she had from that experience was that I was a girl who thought for herself.
In many ways, that’s true. When it came to personal style in high school, I very much did my own thing (there was an unfortunate scarf and pin period), and I totally would not have felt comfortable wearing a suit. How I dress has a way of putting me in the zone when I am presenting and, to do that, I very much have to show who I am. A suit wouldn’t have done it. I am betting that I wore a bright-colored dress (red or fuchsia) that my mamacita sewed for that UN conference (boy, I wish mamacita still sewed my dresses for me!).
But what Heather didn’t know when she was marveling at my non-conformity was the other part of that story which had very little to do with my disinterest in wearing a suit. My side of the story is that while I wouldn’t have been comfortable wearing a suit, there was no way I could have afforded a suit. Whatever clothes my mother didn’t make for me when I was in high school (and she made all my dresses and skirts), I was responsible for buying with money from my part-time job and babysitting. And there’s just no way I would have had the cash to buy a suit. But I bet, after that conversation with Heather, that I was worried my decision would hurt the team; I bet, for good measure, I wore the nicest dress I owned.
The same story. Two sides. One version shows me as a non-conformist. The other version reveals some of the root of that non-conformity. How interesting, twenty years later, for each of us to get a glimpse into the rest of that story.
As I drove away from the high school, I was struck by how often we are only able to see the experiences, the interactions we have through our own lens. Very rarely are we afforded the whole picture. Sometimes, I’ve been so certain that I knew the whole story when I really didn’t. I just knew my whole story. On the other side of that incompleteness, though, is the opportunity to be aware of and sensitive to how much we don’t know. I hope to always remember that.