The memories of my childhood are sometimes spotty, and sometimes it will take a photograph or a detailed reminder from a family member to gently dust the cobwebs off of the recesses of my mind. Time has a way of doing that, of tucking away what were once your most vivid memories and replacing them with newer, shinier models. (I also think that having kids of your own and being omnipresent in their lives helps to dull your recollection of when you were small.) For the most part, I lived a happy childhood; partially because I was inherently happy, and partially because I had a roof over my head, food to eat, lots of friends, and plenty of Michael Jackson and Rob Lowe posters on my bedroom walls. By all accounts, the photos in the family albums are smiley ones — under Christmas trees, by the ocean, in our backyard, at concerts, and gathered around assorted tables at assorted holidays. But, there are also some really painful memories that Kodak didn’t capture. Sometimes I think that my brain, in its attempt to shield me from the painful, also unintentionally locks away some of the joyous.
Even though I have a hard time remembering occasions, I very rarely forget words. I am not sure if it is because I am auditory by nature, there is some sort of synapse in my brain that is specially wired to recollect conversations, or because I have always kind of understood that power that words have. There have definitely been some defining conversations over the course of my life that have helped to shape me into the person I am today. There was one very powerful conversation that I am choosing to share with you today. I am not 100% sure why I am choosing to share it — maybe because bullying is so prevalent these days, maybe because having kids makes you recall parts of being a kid, maybe because I genuinely think that being a good person (and a good parent) should be paramount, or maybe because I am hoping it will touch you in some way. Regardless of the reason, I hope there is at least some kind of nugget that you can take away from this blog post to enhance your life (or someone else’s life) today.
Recollection: I am 12 years old and in 7th grade. At this point in my life, I was a very small fish in a very big pond. It was my first year at the esteemed Boston Latin School. Latin runs from 7th – 12th grade and there average about 300+ kids in each grade; kids bussed in from all parts of Boston. Being 12 years-old, taking public transportation to school, and sharing the halls with 18 year-olds can be kind of intimidating. A lot was going on in my life at this point in time: I was in the throes of puberty, trying so hard to be smart AND popular AND athletic AND pretty, wanting so badly to please my parents, battling the insecurities (and the attention) that came with being an overdeveloped 12 year-old, and dealing with a curriculum and a schedule that rivaled anything I had experienced to date. I was receiving a lot of mixed messages on the home front, as well: ‘be good’ and ‘do unto others’ were the mantras I was told to live with, yet I was an innocent bystander to a lot of civil unrest at home. My morals were at odds with each other. There were a couple moments when I didn’t deal with the pressure as well as I could have, and instead of focusing on being smart and athletic and pretty, I fell victim to being petty and mean and “clicky.” My parents, though at odds on most topics, were a unified front when it came to how we treated other people and I was punished swiftly and lengthily for my transgressions. I remember them sitting me down after I had been part of a group who was unkind to a classmate and feeling their wrath. And then my largely uninvolved father, who was not usually the disciplinarian, took off his glasses, looked me right in the eye with a fiery intensity, and got so close to my face that I could feel the hot air of his breath when he spoke. In that moment, he said something to me that I have never forgotten, and I can say with unequivocal certainty that it was the best piece of advice (and pretty much the only piece of advice) he has ever given me. Trying to disguise his anger and his disappointment, he said, “Jennifer, you have been given many gifts and one of them is your pretty face. (he hissed a little as he said “pretty face” – his tone giving his emotions away) But, don’t get too reliant on that gift because it could get taken away from you in the blink of an eye. You need to work on the beauty inside (as he poked my chest just a little too hard with his index finger to demonstrate the “inside” part of his analogy) because it is what’s inside that counts.” Now, given the kind of man he was (is), I had every right to stand up and yell, “GIVE ME A BREAK, YOU $%!*&? HYPOCRITE!!” But, I didn’t. There was something about that lecture that stuck with me, and has stuck with me for decades. He may not have been the best role model, but in that one instant, with the pulsing vein in his forehead, and his pokey finger, and his hot, angry breath, I knew he was right. (*parental footnote: I am doing my best to raise two caring and compassionate young women, and I will also not tolerate any monkey business.)
I am not perfect, and there have been many, many moments between the ages of 12 and 39 that I am not necessarily proud of. Moments where I have disappointed myself and those that love me. Moments where I knew better, but just couldn’t help myself. Moments where I longed for a do-over. But with that conversation ever-present in the back of my mind, I swear I try. I am trying to lead my girls by example — because I know they are watching. They, too, have been blessed with tremendous beauty, but I know they won’t take that gift for granted by being just a couple of pretty faces.
“Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” ~Kahlil Gibran
“That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful.” ~Ninon de L’Enclos
What is one piece of advice that has stuck with you in your adult life? What principles do you try to live by?
Be beautiful…inside and out.