Fear of being myself has always been a struggle for me. When I was at home as a child and teenager, I was often told not to be or do this and that, which always left me confused because often I felt what I was being told not to do and be were the very things I was meant to do and be. One of the biggest shocks in fear of being myself came when we moved the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years of school. It was that move that marked a turning point in understanding what it takes for someone to feel fully embraced for who they are. First, let me tell you why I never attend my class reunions from the school I graduated from. For many of you, this story may sound very similar to your own experience.
When we first arrived in that tiny little town, I was a novelty. I was the new girl and I was outgoing, smiled a lot, and the boys found me attractive. I enjoyed a warm welcome for a few weeks and then it all came crashing down. The specifics don’t really matter, as it is the same storyline many young people experience.
I made one choice I thought was considerate of everyone and kind, and still I was declared the loser.
From that point on, my life at that school was miserable. I was taunted and bullied and ridiculed for how I looked, the good grades I earned, the way I spoke, the way I walked…you get the point. I couldn’t do much right. Despite all of that, I rose above it with the support of my two best friends, two amazing teachers, one hilarious principal (a former Marine who took no s*&# from anyone and taught me to do the same), and my mom who kept responding to my tears and anger with one annoying, yet uber-powerful phrase, “Kill them with kindness.”
Oh, how I hated that phrase and yet, it was what I did. When they jeered, I smiled. When they taunted me about my good grades, I offered to help them with their homework. When I was teased for being teacher’s pet, I volunteered to be the teacher’s prep student for the younger grades.
Lest I injure myself twisting to pat myself on the back, let me confess, I may have been killing everyone with kindness to their faces, but in my thoughts and conversations with my two best friends, I was not so kind. All that anger and rage had to go somewhere and it came in the form of dark thoughts and constant struggle with my parents. I blamed my parents for moving me to this horrid situation and I wasn’t afraid to let them know.
Here is what I figured out years later that partially has inspired what I do today with my coaching and how I move throughout my world. We ALL were acting out of a fear of being ourselves! Every one of us! My fellow students taunted me out of fear of being seen for who they truly were. I killed away with kindness so my darkest thoughts wouldn’t be exposed. Even my parents shamed me so they wouldn’t have to reveal how scared they were that their daughter was hurting and they felt responsible and didn’t know how to fix it. We ALL were acting out of fear!!! Craziness, right? Maybe not so crazy when you consider the fact we were all acting from the same place. And, I may have left it there if I hadn’t experienced the exact opposite, which begins by telling you where I am headed today.
This weekend is my 25th class reunion with the class I was a part of from first through seventh grades. I am attending this reunion because I was embraced as one of their own from the moment I arrived in February of 1981 and little did I know was embraced long after I moved away the summer of 1987. When I reached out over Facebook to a friend from that school on her birthday several years back, the outpouring of friend requests and joyful reuniting was overwhelming. It stood in stark contrast to what I had experienced from my high school years. It made me wonder if there truly was a difference. I gathered my courage and accepted the invitation to join my classmates from the 1st-7th grades at our 20 year reunion. It was a night I will never forget and it affirmed that we can create spaces where everyone feels free to be the YOU they were born to be.
There were hugs, shouts of joy, long telling of stories, laughter, and even tears. There were lots and lots of hard questions for me to answer. Where did you go? Why didn’t you keep in touch? Do you know how angry I was with you for so long? That is when I realized the difference. For some reason with this amazing group of people we had always been and still were willing to do the difficult part of life together. Maybe it was the teachers who poured into us. Maybe it was an administration that refused to allow an unsafe environment. Maybe we simply have chemistry. I think it is a willingness to accept that everyone is complex and has a story and that means it won’t be pretty all of the time. And, it is a willingness to sit with the ugliness in order to find the light together once again.
We come together tonight having suffered and celebrated and lost and succeeded and tonight, all are welcome around the table as we share this journey together. May all of my classmates, from kindergarten through graduation be blessed with a space where the fear of being you completely lifts and they feel free to be themselves without judgment. I may even make an appearance at my high school class reunion as a show of good faith that we all deserve to be free from fear.
Here’s to another 25 years Class of ’92! For all each of you has taught me and for all the ways you made me and continue to make me better, I am grateful.