My Backpack, Myself

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(This post was originally posted on the Charleston Daily Mail’s Mommyhood blog.)

When I picked the kids up from school the other day, I was surprised to see my seven year-old daughter carrying the camo backpack from her brother’s play Army costume.  “What’s up with the bag, Genevieve?” I asked her, thinking it must be important as she would have braved his messy room to find it.

“A girl in my class said my backpack is too girly,” she replied, looking like a pint-sized Private Benjamin as she heaved the heavy camo sack into the car.

Just then my cell phone buzzed. It was my ex-husband calling to let me know that he’d go in half on the cost of a new backpack if Genevieve wanted to get one that night. Wait, a new backpack? What?? Had everyone gone mad? Hadn’t I spent an hour in Target with her this fall as she labored over just which backpack was “the perfect one”? She loved her little backpack!

Hanging up, I turned to the alleged fashion violator. “Well, Gen. You are, in fact, a girl so it stands to reason that you carry a back pack that some might consider girl-y. And since when do you care what other people think of your style, anyway?” I asked, remembering that this was the girl who had- only the day before- worn an outfit consisting of a red plaid skirt, a yellow and black buffalo check top, tights, and a single fingerless, elbow-length glove.

“Well, it’s okay anyway, mom. I don’t need another backpack now. Mary Lyle said I should just ignore that girl. She said my regular backpack is fine.”

I was glad to hear that Genevieve had a friend in her corner to support her; after all, doesn’t everyone need a network of friends like that? But, what had happened (literally overnight) to my little individualist? My fashion pioneer? My brave and empowered grrl? Had peer pressure really come to bear so soon?

I mentioned the incident to a friend, on the phone this morning. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “My son still loves Pokemon, but now that he’s in sixth grade, he won’t talk about it in school. There’s a whole group of them that still like it, but they’ll only talk quietly about it at a certain table in the lunchroom, away from the popular kids.”

Jeez, man- they’re still just babies! (I think to myself, realizing just how out of touch that makes me sound.) I mean, it’s not that I don’t remember peer pressure myself. I spent days figuring out what to wear on the first day of ninth grade.  And, I can still feel the excitement of buying my first pair of Guess jeans- the ones that zipped at the ankle, you know? Pressure to fit in probably led to some of my more memorable hairstyles, too, including (but not limited to) an asymetrical cut and a Heathers-inspired dalliance with the Clairol Nice-n-Easy shade “Blue Black”.

And, of course, who doesn’t remember the ABC Afterschool Special variety of peer pressure? The first time anyone asked you to skip class/drink a beer/smoke a joint. I could write several posts about that, though possibly for a less family-friendly blog.

But, as I hash this backpack stuff out with my friend, I can’t remember feeling pressure to give up anything at such a young age. Didn’t we all just get along way back then?

“Nah. I stopped liking Ninja Turtles before I actually stopped liking them,” answers my friend, Fred when I ask him about this phenomenon via Facebook chat.

I’m aghast, “Wait- you had to pretend not to like TMNT? Even Michelangelo??!”

“Right, I’d say I gave up on them probably 2 – 5 months before I would have sans peer pressure,” came his reply.

I try harder to remember. What did I give up? I was playing with Barbie well into my fifth-grade year. I remember this specifically because around that time my Barbie became the beautiful and brainy assistant to one, Dr. Indiana Jones (aka Ken, with a ponytail holder bullwhip). Sometime during the course of a particularly harrowing archeological dig, Barbie figured out that Indy would never be one to settle down and raise a family and soon afterward, she (and I) just sort of lost interest. I retired her to her beach home in the bottom of my closet and told Judy, my Barbie-playing friend, that I thought we should do something different.

Wait a minute!  Judy was my only Barbie-playing friend at the ripe old age of 11. It wasn’t like our whole group of friends played with Barbie together anymore. At slumber parties we talked about boys and MTV and acid-washed denim.  No one was talking about Barbie! (Although, we probably did talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark because, let’s face it, it’s a classic and, plus, the Nazi’s eyeballs melted at the end, which was gross, but noteworthy.)

Yes, upon further reflection, I can almost feel the fear of being made fun of- of being labeled- and remember it even from elementary school. Wasn’t it at my frenemy, Mary’s sleepover that she changed my name from Karan Ellison to Karan Elephant? And then made it into a little song? And what about the summer between fifth and sixth grades, when my hair- turning from blonde to brown- took on a sort of salt-and-pepper hue, not unlike a Maude-era Bea Arthur? My former step-brother started calling me Grandma. I was mortified.

As I talk to more people, I hear similar stories.  Another good friend chimes in, “Oh my gosh. I had to start keeping a diary of the outfit I wore each day so that I wouldn’t repeat an outfit within a three-week period. Otherwise, I was afraid all the other kids would make fun of me like they did Janie Doe* because she wore the same yellow sweatshirt all the time.”

Wow- poor Janie Doe with her yellow sweatshirt; I can almost see her (and I don’t even know her)! These are sense memories we’re talking about, people;  ones that run long and deep.

I tried again this evening to talk to Genevieve and Dylan and tell them that it’s okay to be who they are, that they don’t have to give up what they love to please others, whether it’s a backpack, a Barbie, or a masked turtle who knows how to kick butt and take names.

“Um, Mom, that’s great and all, but doesn’t it take you a really long time to get ready to go anywhere?” asks my smart (alec) son.  “You always try to look perfect.”  (I dispute this, by the way.)

“”Yeah, Mommy.  When I auditioned for Beauty and the Beast, you told me YOU always wanted to be in plays when you were a kid; don’t they have plays with grown-ups in them around here?” pipes up my wise(acre) daughter from the back-seat.

“Oh, oh, oh!!!!  Mommy-” interrupts Dylan, waving his arm in the air like Horshack, “why do you say you want to be a writer, but I never see you actually writing- only reading?”

Well, I think readers generally make better writers,” I stammer.

He persists, “But, you still have to write, right???”

These two are enjoying this way too much.

Okay, okay- I get it!  Not only can I remember feeling pressured to fit in with my peers as achild, but I still pressure myself to “fit in” today: afraid, sometimes, to step outside the box and let my freak flag fly.

‘Be who you are and do what you love.’ That’s what I want my children to take away from all of this, but it’s funny how often I – in trying to teach them- find myself squarely on the receiving end of the lesson.

So, I’ll make this promise to them today: We’ll work on this one together!

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