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This one is about: At Seventeen by Marti
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At Seventeen by Marti
Several weeks ago, I was driving to church when the old Janis
Ian song, "At Seventeen" was played on the radio. Some of the older (more
Tears came to my eyes and began spilling down my face. That WAS my life at seventeen. Shy, scared, with few friends, I was certain I was ugly, an object of pity for the kind, and an object of scorn for the cruel. At seventeen, I wanted nothing more than to be popular, to be loved, to be valued, and I was absolutely certain that I was unworthy of love, and that I had to constantly strive in all the areas where I had any inkling of talent (music, art, writing) to prove that I had anything of value.
Many other people who were born with clefts may have encountered very little teasing, taunting, and rejection in their teen years. I encountered a lot of all of these. I think now that a lot of this had more to do with personality types than with the fact that I was born with a cleft. Iíve always been overly sensitive, and Iíve always been quick to care and equally quick to feel rejected.
I had few of those unpleasant experiences in my elementary school years. Only one stands out clearly in my mind: I went to summer camp, and there was a group of girls in my cabin who made fun of me. Iíd never experienced that before, and I was quickly in tears. There were some kinder girls in the cabin, however, who befriended this shy girl, and they even voted me the Cabin Princess for the camp festivities. For the most part, though, very little cruelty was directed my way until 6th grade, the last year of elementary school.
That was the year when the other kids in the top reading group began having boy-girl parties, and I was not included. I was suddenly excluded from activities with all the kids I had hung around with all through grade school, both boys and girls. I remember having a crush on one boy, who told me, "I wouldnít like you if I was blind and deaf and stupid." There were other similar remarks. I withdrew. I began to form a shell of pride and pretense, trying to appear as if I didnít notice what was going on around me, trying to look as though I didnít care.
Things only got worse through Junior High and high school. I was taunted unmercifully. I was the Queen of Rejection. I would go home and cry, while my Dad would hold me, wanting so badly to take the pain away, and not knowing how to make the pain any better. I have since met people from those days, who have told me they always liked me and wanted to be my friend, but they were afraid to. Such is the power of peer pressure and the popularity mystique in teenage years. I was guilty of all of this too; I had nothing to do with the other unpopular kids, sure that this would seal me forever in that tomb of rejection I was determined to escape. I am very much aware that the rejection I experienced was not solely due to my cleft. There were two other students with clefts in my high school. The first was a girl one year older, who was rather loud and crude and was one of my worst tormentors. The other was a boy one year younger, who was a star football player and was accepted by just about everyone. As I wrote earlier, personality factors enter a great deal into the social mix of adolescence. Overly sensitive, visibly insecure teens (particularly those with visible differences) are quickly sighted as victims to similarly insecure adolescents, who are trying to prove themselves to their peers.
Then came college. I had spent most of my teen years carefully observing the popular kids, and I now knew all the moves. I put on a carefully sculpted visage and presented my "new self" to the world. Lo and behold, I was popular. Party plans were not finalized until friends were sure I could attend. Friends threw surprise birthday parties for me several years in a row. I had perfected the fine art of flirting and never lacked for datesÖ.And I was miserable. I was sure no one liked me for me, but for the persona I had assumed. I had to work so hard at being what I thought everyone wanted that I had no real energy left to invest in true relationships and friendships. It may have been an even lonelier period of my life than my teens.
This continued, more or less, through my twenties. I was the consummate party girl. I was the queen of flirtation. I needed to be the center of attention everywhere I went, particularly with the men. Slowly, however, through that time, I did begin to develop some true friendships. And I also genuinely fell in love (more than once), but here there was a problem. That certainty that I was unworthy of love eroded into an male-female relationships I would have, and they would eventually end. About the time I turned thirty, I was so shell-shocked that I stopped dating altogether, and I withdrew from the party scene.
For the first time in my life, I began to explore what I wanted out of life. I began to devote myself to hobbies I enjoyed, to causes I believed in, to furthering my education, to pursuing my own dreams, to strengthening my faith, to actually 'doing' something with my life. As that happened, I became very committed to certain ideals. I also became less concerned with myself, and more concerned about others. I think that's the real lesson for me: As I focused less on myself, and more on the people around me, I became less susceptible to the taunts and jeers. They donít happen much anymore, and when they do, I can usually pass them off with a shrug Ė or at least only a momentary flush of pain.
Now back to that Sunday when they played "At Seventeen" on the radio. I wiped the tears from my eyes before I walked into church. I was immediately greeted by several of the young children, eager for their hugs and smiles. I was also greeted by friendly adults. Throughout the following week I was struck by how much my life had changed. Each day I would have choices of which sub position I wanted to take, because the children in the various special education classes in the district had developed a bond with me, and I was being requested by several schools. Everywhere I went I was greeted by hugs and smiles. Suddenly, when popularity was no longer a major goal in my life, I had found something better Ė true friendships and a true commitment in life.
Although I must confess that I still have moments when I feel
like a freak, when I feel like I will never really fit in anywhere, when I am plagued
with self-doubts and self-loathing, those moments are far fewer than they have ever
been before. I guess some of us just take a lot longer than others to mature
I suddenly realized that the days of "At
Seventeen" were gone forever. I have found peace. I have found love. And I have
learned that it is only through giving love, honestly and with all your heart, that
you will receive love. And I finally have faith that someday I will even be able to
have enough confidence in myself that I will be able to listen to a man say I love
you and believe him (although I want to wait for that time until my schedule becomes
somewhat less hectic, and I have the time to become involved in a committed
Now, a note to all you parents out there: Many of your children will never go through the experiences Iíve went through. Many of your children will be blest with personalities that radiate the self-confidence that will allow less of this rejection and hurt to take place. I truly hope that is the case.
For those of you, however, with children who are more like me, ultra-sensitive, driven by a need for love and acceptance, try to show them the many ways that they are valuable and worthy of love and respect. Give them comfort when they need it, but also help them to move beyond that need.
Also remember that sometimes those painful experiences can help them to develop compassion towards others, and that is far from a negative outcome. I KNOW you are all loving parents, and you will do what is needed to ease your childrenís path through life.