Boxes, Part I
JUST NOW, as I start writing this, I realize the coincidence of today, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It’s not how I plotted out the beginning of this blog post — it was intended to be more interesting than these first two sentences. However, the subject is the same: a memory from my first day of the Montessori school I attended for a short while until I was old enough for kindergarten. I’ll get to the “real” thing I wanted to write about after I address this.
One of the schoolteachers, Karen, whom I remember wearing a red t-shirt, jeans, and having straggly hair past her shoulders, little-to-no makeup — I recognize it now as “earthy” or “hippie-like” — sat in a circle with us, “Indian-style” (quoting what the teacher called it back then), and led us into a chant while we slapped our hands on our knees every first and third beat:
Martin Luther King was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He was a preacher and a teacher and a man of God,
And he loved you and me.
If this singalong scene indeed occurred in tandem with my Montessori debut, it had happened later that afternoon.
What I really want to talk about is that morning. How my day started.
“Look around and pick out annnyyyything you want to play with! Even if you don’t know what it is! Anything that looks interesting to you!” Karen instructed the class.
It was a geeky kid’s dream: shelves upon shelves of blocks, books, art supplies, games, toys — all of the educational variety.
As the class chattered about and easily found an item to play with, I quietly and methodically scanned my choices. Hmmm… blocks, books, art supplies, etc. I’m familiar with these already… what’s interesting and foreign?
My eyes fell upon this:
What is that… ? None of the other children paid any attention to it and had already settled into their activities of choice.
The mystery box spoke to me. My surroundings became a blur. I had tunnel vision for this thing, this ancient-looking, passed-over, lonely wooden enigma. This box is going to be MINE!
I made a beeline for it and quietly sat on the floor, wondering what I was supposed to do with it.
Observing the box, I determined I could flip the top open. Ahhhh, I wonder what’s inside!
I jumped with surprise when two sides fell backward and blocks of varying sizes and colors spilled forth.
At that moment, I understood: I was to reassemble the blocks in a certain order and close the lid — somehow. I’d figure it out. It looked like a fun challenge. Happy to begin my work in solitude, suddenly, I was interrupted–
“Oh! Oh! Wait!” Karen exclaimed, rushing over to me. “You don’t know how to do that!”
I was stunned with confusion. What did I do wrong?
1.) Bu-bu-but… you said we could play with ANYTHING… anything but THAT?!
2.) Is it too messy, the blocks everywhere? Too disruptive?
3.) OF COURSE I don’t know how to do it! That’s why I chose it! AND I’M FIVE YEARS OLD. Isn’t the point of this exercise is to teach independent problem-solving?
(Why, actually, YES, it is.)
The teacher sat down and showed me how to solve the puzzle — which now I know is called a trinomial cube — by pretty much doing it for me. I don’t recall her explaining the logic and mathematics behind the cube — if she did, I didn’t hear her, because my mind was reeling. I truly was bewildered by the entire situation.
If I was happy playing with the trinomial cube as instructed, in the manner I wished, why should it have mattered to anyone if I was doing it the “wrong” way? Why couldn’t the teacher observe how I interacted with the cube first, then after some minutes show me how to put it back together? Or wait until I asked for help? Was I supposed to reassemble the blocks immediately upon unhinging the box? Says who? Was I not allowed to explore other aspects of this toy? Maybe I wanted to build a tower first. Maybe I wanted to organize the blocks by size. Maybe I wanted to wear the box on my head. Maybe I wanted to chew on that one weird yellow block!
After my beloved box was reconstructed by someone else’s hand, my curiosity sullied and cheapened, I immediately lost interest and never returned to that heinous, ugly thing. I didn’t want that stupid box in my sight again. If my young mind could have thought, “Fuck all that noise!” it would have. Instead, during my remaining tenure at the school, I concentrated on learning cursive, memorizing multiplication and division tables, creating artwork, and writing tiny stories. These learning stations were situated on the other side of the classroom, far away from the Shelves of Doom.
Little did I know that the trinomial cube incident would follow me throughout life — socially, educationally, occupationally — by people’s unwanted, ill-informed interjections (sometimes in words, sometimes in not so many words) on how I should think and behave the same way they do because I don’t fit whatever neat, delineated constructs they have built in the name of their own comfort. Any time an event occurs wherein my happily independent thought process is questioned, I’m sent back to that first day of Montessori school. And I don’t like it.
Then comes the anxiety-ridden existential crisis. I feel like a freak. I think, “Why can’t I see things the same way everyone else does? Why can’t I think and express myself the same way everyone else does? Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I fit in? Why can’t I just take things as they come and go with the flow? Why do I over-care about things? Why do I overanalyze things into nil? Why can’t I have the same interests as otherwise like-minded people? Why can’t the things that make most people happy also make me happy? Why can’t I be accepted the way I am? Why do I always feel like the ‘other?’ Why can’t I enjoy small talk, say the right things and be socially nimble? Why can’t I always assimilate my environment? Why do I have a hard time making friends? Why can’t I conform easily?”
And so on.
Fifteen years ago, I visited a psychologist for one session. No joke, exactly one session. I was having anxiety over a set of problems I had never experienced before — and because I was in my 20s, with a few years of college under my belt (including some psychology classes), I had the sense to recognize I needed to solve the problems from within and also with professional help. I sought an expert’s opinion on how to fix problems using self-reliance.
At the time, I had a tight-knit group of friends, and we had a lot in common with each other. For a few years, our friendship went without incident. We worked together, played sports together, hung out together, and a couple of them even lived together (with me). Yet there was one thing that we didn’t do together: go to school. I was the only one in college, which never seemed to be an issue. Or maybe it was?
Over time, I noticed Trivial Pursuit and Scattergories game nights weren’t fun anymore. My roommates accused me of cheating if I knew an answer they deemed obscure — how could I POSSIBLY know that? Like when I legitimately knew that up, down, top, bottom, strange, charm are the six flavors of quarks — the result of two years of physics in high school, one being Advanced Placement, thanks. Or when I came up with ‘Taiwanese’ as a language that begins with the letter ‘T’ during Scattergories.
“Taiwanese isn’t a language!” exclaimed one guy.
“Oh yeah?” I argued. “Then what language do people in Taiwan speak?”
He started to say Thai (though, likely, he was envisioning ‘Tai’) and then caught himself.
“No, that’s what people in Thailand speak!”
“Well, it’s not Taiwanese!”
“Look it up in the dictionary!” I said.
“Proper nouns aren’t in the dictionary,” he retorted.
“WHAT?! Yes, they are!”
Then I think my head exploded.
It was official: I had been “othered.”
And then the ostracization and social exclusionary tactics kicked in. To the point where our other friends wouldn’t speak to me or look at me. If we passed each other, they would suddenly find the floor, the ceiling, their watch interesting — just to avoid even being friendly and cordial with me. Even though they had nothing to do with whatever my roommates thought of me. Everything fun was happening without me, just like that. I was alone and still had to live and work with these people, and I endured months of misery.
I relayed these problems to the psychologist. What am I doing wrong? Why are my best friends behaving this way toward me? (for the record, I never rubbed in their faces that I was in college)
“Sounds like you need new friends,” she concluded.
Wait, what… ? You can do that? You can drop your friends? And it’s acceptable? I thought you were supposed to stick by people, work things out? No? I don’t have to do that? Are you sure? ‘Cause that doesn’t seem right…
I think the doc recognized the complexities of what was going on, where I could not. I didn’t have the experience and knowledge yet. She knew the friendship wasn’t reparable or even worth repairing, even if I had confronted the roommates civilly.
It was all I needed to hear. When the lease on our house expired, I took my life elsewhere and made new friends centered around a different set of interests. To this day, I don’t know what nasty things those guys said to turn the whole group against me, what I did to deserve it. The good news is, five years later, one of those friends reached out to me. He admitted that he thinks for himself now, when before he hadn’t (I knew he wasn’t the source of the friendship problem — he just went along with it). I’m still friends with him (and also with his wife).
The point is this: No matter how or when I drift into “otherhood” — be it school, work or play — I’m back in Montessori school. Over and over again. Endless encounters with people who talk out of both sides of their mouths. People who say, “Go build a box any way you want! But you have to use my architectural plans.”
“Play with anything! Except that.”
“We like you! Except that.”
“Be yourself! Just not like that.”
“Be creative! But do it this way.”
“Be intelligent! But not in that way.”
“Be confident! But don’t be.”
“Be humorous! But not like that.”
Often, I wonder what people really want from me. What more do I have to prove to them? What am I not understanding? What do I lack? What am I too much of? Why can’t I ever reach 100% status? Am I too independent? Am I not needy enough? Am I not cool enough in all the “right” places?
I’ve tried trying, I’ve tried not trying. I’m in, people eventually detect I don’t fit cleanly into the micro-majority cube they’ve built, I’m out. I have a good of amount of friends, people seem to like me (initially anyway) but I’m not a part of any one group, gang or clique. Nowhere. The hand I’ve been dealt never really bothered me until recently.
Sometimes I would like to be a member of the club, to affirm I’m not an alien.
Why can’t I fit in a box?