I have fond memories of shopping for school clothes with my mom.
Usually sometime in the month of August, she would help me go through my closet to see what clothes still fit, and we’d separate those from the ones I’d outgrown so we knew what I needed for the upcoming school year.
Then came the exciting day when she would take me to the store to find some new outfits. We had so much fun picking things out and trying them on.
It was all great mother/daughter times until my seventh grade year. Everyone knows how middle school and junior high can change things. Two events stand out keenly in my mind. The first was finding what I thought was the coolest outfit ever. It was a pair of shiny black slacks—polyester material, I think—and a red, white, and black blouse. The two went perfectly together. The outfit was dressy and classy, the blouse a button-up with a stiff white collar, the slacks with a high waist and black belt with a bow-tie shaped plastic buckle.
The outfit a little more expensive than what we could afford, but because I liked it so much, Mom agreed to let me have it. I was thrilled.
Of course it was the outfit I chose to wear the first day of school.
Later that day, something happened that made me regret that choice—and it was years before I realized the lesson in what I experienced.
The Humiliation of Peer Disapproval
I’d felt comfortable with who I was through most of elementary school. I was the quiet one, the smart one who got good grades, the musician who played piano and French horn in the band. I was never one who wanted a lot of attention. I preferred to observe from a safe distance and do my own thing.
When I walked into school that first day of seventh grade, I was proud of my new outfit, but I didn’t particularly want attention for wearing it. Of course we all love a compliment now and then, but I was happiest when people were too busy in their own little worlds to notice me. Besides, everything was a little scary that day, especially the other seventh and eighth graders. So many other kids that seemed to be way more confident than I was! I was glad to stay under their radar.
Imagine my horror, then, when about the middle of the day, I was in my new art class, working on a project the teacher had given us, when I heard two girls whispering at the desk near mine. They were pretty girls, the kind who already knew how to fix their hair and makeup, and who had the inside scoop on what fashions were “in” for seventh grade girls at the time.
I could feel the blood rushing to my face almost before I heard their words clearly. I don’t remember exactly what was the said, but the girls were tittering to one another about my shiny black pants. At one point they looked right at me and rolled their eyes, and then glanced at each other and broke out laughing.
I felt like I was going to throw up. It had never occurred to me there could be something wrong with the outfit my mom and I had so carefully picked out—the one that was my favorite of those we got that day. But within a span of about 30 seconds, I went from feeling special in something my mom had extended herself to pay for to feeling like a fool.
I couldn’t wait to get home and get the pants off.
It Does No Good to Hide Yourself Away
I never wore those pants again. The shirt I paired with other slacks or jeans, but the shiny black pants I had liked so much sat in the closet until I outgrew them and had to throw them away. I remember passing them by as I shuffled through the hangars, my hands cold with guilt as I touched the silky material.
I told my mother about what had happened with the girls. She tried to reassure me. Don’t let it bother you, she said. But when you’re in seventh grade, that’s a hard thing to do. Peer pressure is merciless.
Mom never said anything about my choice, but I still felt I had let her down. She had spent more than usual to buy that outfit, and then I didn’t wear it. My fear of what the girls might say was too great to risk a second humiliation, but that fear made me feel like a coward.
Mom had gotten the outfit for me. I should have worn it. But I was too afraid.
We Can’t Hide Who We Are
Looking back now, I wish I could have told that younger version of myself that there was no sense in hiding. We are who we are, and we can’t help but make choices that reflect our personalities. Even when we try to stay invisible, we often fail, as our essence seeps through in subtle ways.
There will always be some around us who are adept at pointing out our flaws, or who simply have differing opinions about who we ought to be. The person who creates is particularly vulnerable to this sort of criticism. That person puts things out there that people can then turn around and judge. We know this, going in, but that doesn’t stop the judgments from hurting.
We try to separate ourselves from it. Ask any writer or painter or composer, and she will tell you that she and her work are two separate things; that she is not her work. Yet creators can’t help but reveal themselves through their creations, no matter what they are.
And that’s a good thing, because the more we reveal ourselves, the more we learn about what we have to offer, and the more we can use our talents to help others. That small voice within will always steer us closer to who we are meant to be, if we let it. Unfortunately, that means some people will criticize what they see, but it also means that more will have a chance to benefit from it.
Put Your Candle Up On the Piano
I recently stumbled upon an essay in The Australian Journal, a short piece by an author identified simply as “Q.” In part, it reads:
“It is no use hiding your light under a bushel; not a bit. If you do, your light goes out—sharp. You must stick yourself into a candlestick, and set your candlestick on a music stool, and put a big box under that, and then stand the lot on the piano, if you wish to be seen.”
That’s exactly what happened to me that day in seventh grade. My light went out. I could feel it inside, the withdrawal into darkness. Over time, the pain faded and I was fine, but the memory stayed with me, the idea that somehow when I went so far as to reveal a little of myself in a way others could see, I was rejected.
We all have memories like this. I had the pleasure of seeing writer, artist, and musician Ilan Shamir speak at the 2014 Northern Colorado Writer’s Conference. He was a very gifted person, and showed us in a sort of dramatic monologue how, when he was a very young boy, he was in a park with his father, and managed to catch a butterfly. Excited, he ran up to his dad with the treasure in his hands.
“Look, look, Dad!” he told him, his eyes wide. “Look what I found! Isn’t it amazing?”
His father looked down on him with a disapproving glare and said something to the effect of, “What are you doing with that? Get rid of it.”
You can imagine how that small moment in time must have crushed a young boy’s spirit.
Still, decades later, Ilan is sharing his love of nature with the world, and changing lives doing it. Despite wanting his father’s approval, he couldn’t hide his true spirit, and eventually found a way to honor it.
“You are the light of the world,” it says in Matthew 5:14-15. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.”
There are always going to be naysayers, or “haters” as they say. I hope you can do your best to ignore them, and let your light shine as brightly as you can. You can’t hide who you are, anyway, so you might as well let them criticize if they’re going to criticize, and along the way, discover those who will celebrate what you have to offer.
Who knows? You may just find someone who thinks your shiny black pants are really cool.
Have you had an experience that left you wanting to hide your true self? Please share your story.