The following is an autobiographic story/sociological essay. Although it is a true story, it is by no means a full story. It is a narrative that focusses on a specific pattern, branching off other perspectives to try to highlight just that aspect.
The theme is relative poverty, normality and social success criteria. Here under awareness of others’ perspectives, control over appearance, ‘fitting in’, and social skills.
My mom often reminded me that we were poor. It didn’t make any sense to me, because poor was something that starving kids in Africa were. In my view it definitely didn’t apply to us. We had all we needed, our living standard was just lower than most peoples’ we knew. Our things were either very old or very cheap, but perfectly functional (mostly).
Most of what I liked to do didn’t cost much, if anything at all. I made stories, drawings, systems, board games, songs, elastic band harps; I glued, nailed, cut and sewed things; whatever I could get my hands on which could be altered and evolve into new creations / constructions / systems was a great opportunity.
I loved to give things I had made to people; and carried out a steady production of Christmas presents all year around (at least several gifts per family member;-); it was like Santa’s workshop.
Most of the time though, I was just drifting around in my own sphere of exploring, reflecting and imagining; my inner ocean of endless time.
Animals was the focus that anchored me in the world; the centre of gravity which everything else evolved around. The books I read, the stories I made, the TV programmes I followed, what I heard, what I saw, the drawings, the songs, the pictures on the wall, what I noticed… that was what it was all about.
Before the era of horses and other real animals there was the era of fictive iconic animals sourced in story books and developing their own imaginary whereabouts. When there was nothing else, cracks in tiles formed shapes of animal silhouettes and faces. I relentlessly anthropomorphised things in my near surroundings in the absence of real animals; I needed creatures to study all the time, because that was the way the world was interesting.
School – the beginning
If someone asked me about school during my first years of primary school (and maybe also if they didn’t), I said that I was the best in class.
In hindsight, that may or may not be correct. I thought so because I was a much better reader than any other kid I knew and wrote elaborate stories (and read them up for the class) while most of my class mates still slowly spelled their way through basic words.
Later others began to write stories and read them up too; but I still thought I was best because I was first and my stories were best, most detailed and dramatic and much much longer. And since learning to read & write was vital to me, I thought it was the most important skill to learn. The key to grasping the world, so to say.
I felt relaxed & curious in class, and could choose to either listen to what the teacher said (if it was interesting) or just do my own stuff – read ahead in the books, draw, write stories, look out of the window. Everybody were very friendly
Many years later I ran into a former class mate from this time who said that I had been ‘a strange kid’ singing by myself while doing my own stuff, oblivious to the teaching that was taking place around me. She said teachers often had to call my name several times just to get me to stop singing.
I don’t remember that (and I don’t know if it is exaggerated), but do vaguely recall the dream-like sound of my name being repeated from a distance, closing in and suddenly becoming real. The memory links with a stupid question I heard fairly often from the adults in kindergarden: ‘Do you have carpets in your ears?’ Complaints about me not listening, not looking up, not stopping what I was doing, not being in sync with what everybody were supposed to do have always been around, it is easy to see the pattern in hindsight.
Maybe I can explain it like this: I presumed that when I didn’t pay attention to others then I wasn’t in their field of awareness either. I presumed that I was irrelevant to them when they were irrelevant to me. I didn’t think I was strange or ‘different’. Since everybody are different from each other, the concept of ‘being different from others’ didn’t make any sense.
I rarely opened my school bag at home. For some reason it seemed like an overwhelming task, and the bag seemed out of place there. My parents tried to coerce me to do home work but it didn’t work very well; it took all evening (or so it seemed to me) and required a million dreadful prompts… one for every time I was side tracked by my thoughts or more interesting pursuits. And I’d always first stubbornly deny that there was any homework to do at all, or say that I had already done it.
Despite all the little conflicts of interest, I was still confident that I was the best in my class and that overall, my school effort was satisfactory.
So that’s why I rarely had done any homework at home, and typically had all the books in my bag for any class (otherwise I would only occasionally have the right ones), and sometimes walked around with icky old lunch packs in my school bag. I was utterly disorganised. That wasn’t chaos, though.
Coping with chaos
Chaos was in school before classes started and in between classes. Chaos was in certain times of day when the school yards and corridors teemed with kids and a roaring cacophony of chatter and shouting and indistinct noises. Chaos was to walk around in an unstable, fluctuating and intrusive environment and have no overview over what was going on.
I didn’t like breaks very much. I was feeling insecure about what to do with them, and who to be with, and how. It wasn’t clear what the breaks were for; they were pointless limbos in between the classes. I liked best to stay in the classroom and read or hang out near whoever else chose to stay inside, unless it was clear what else to do.
I disliked the chaos so much that I would rather stay home than walk from the school gate through the inferno of kids to my classroom and have to deal with the breaks and other confusion in between classes throughout the day. I preferred to just hang around for myself at home, and for a while I could stay home if I said that I had a head ache or stomach pain in the morning. Then they stopped believing it.
I attended three primary schools between years one and eight* because of geographical movement. In the second school I found something to do with the breaks: play-fighting.
There was a highly ritualised intro to end up in fun fights with the boys every break; it started with light teasing and provocations, and predictably ended with wrestling on the floor that didn’t stop until the teacher interrupted it to start class again. The fights were thrilling and friendly, and I enjoyed the easy-to-understand physical social interaction.
After we had moved back to the city and I had started in my third primary school, my old class sent an envelope with letters from each and every one of them, and they all wrote that school was boring after I left because ‘no one fights in the breaks anymore’:-)
Having learned that fighting was great fun, I fell into a fight with a younger boy shortly after I started my new school, but learned the hard way that there was no such thing as ‘fun fighting’ in the new place. He cried and freaked out, and him and his 17 siblings never stopped hating me after that. His big sister once ran all the way across a traffic intersection to spit in my face when she saw me on the street.
Fashion drama begins
Probably the most visible sign of my family’s relative poverty was our clothes. We kids wore recycled clothes which our parents’ friends’ kids had grown out of or didn’t want anymore. My brother inherited my (already recycled) clothes when I grew out of them.
Every morning when I woke up there was a set of clean clothes neatly folded on the chair next to my bed, and I knew what to do with it: put it on. Wearing it was all there was to it.
I didn’t think it was particularly important how clothes looked; I could only see a minor part of what I was wearing anyway. It didn’t occur to me at that time that my clothes were fully visible to other people and may influence the way people saw me.
My lack of concern about appearance was probably helpful, because my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford trendy clothing anyway. Or even choose it (let’s not go into that).
It wasn’t only the clothes… I had periods were I hated certain grooming tasks, like: didn’t want my nails cut, didn’t want my hair cut. When I was small, I would sometimes be held with force and my raging protests endured until the job was done. I found hair cuts and nail cuts grossly invasive during those times, but at other times they were OK.
However, when I was somewhere between 10 – 12 years old (I think) I had an anti-hair-grooming period where I refused any washing or combing of my hair. I don’t think there was a specific reason, I just didn’t think my hair was anyone else’s business, and found hair grooming to be a hassle. Especially once the hair was thoroughly tangled due to lack of grooming.
My parents were at that time divorced, my brother and I lived with my mother, who is a fairly gentle and anti-confrontational person, and I was big and strong. So I got away with looking like a street orphan for quite some time with my randomly put together second hand clothes and filthy, tangled, half long hair.
Then one day little creeps were discovered in my hair: fleas! The entire class had to be treated for fleas: anti-flea hair washes, tedious flea-combing, maybe hair cuts. I was used to rolling eyes, annoyed looks and ‘here we go again’ kind of comments from classmates when I asked questions in class (I did that a lot). Now nobody commented.
It was repeated over and over that fleas ‘just as often’ occur in short, clean hair as in long, filthy hair – in fact, the teachers said, fleas love clean hair. They were trying to protect me against judgement, and no one said anything bad to me. But there was no way it could not make sense to people that my hair was the flea cradle.
So my hair was other people’s business after all. I kept it short and clean for some time after that.
Fashion plot thickens
When I was about 13 years old, I noticed that more and more of my classmates and others in my age group wore trendy clothes with big brand names written across – Kappa, Ball (I think), Benneton**. The brand-wearing seemed to coincide with stronger cliqueiness and exclusiveness.
It slowly dawned on me that my appearance made people judge me and categorise me as ‘different’. There were comments and tacit references related to my clothes, strangely lacking in information and clarity, never addressing the issue directly.
Once the dispersed phrases began to connect and form a pattern, it was a trail that stretched far back in time to comments I’d picked up or been told about years ago. Fragments such as ‘weird clothes’, ‘Don’t you think she is weird’, ‘She wears whatever she feels like’, ‘Do you really want to wear those?’,’You are not afraid of being yourself’, ‘Where have you got those boots from, your grandma’s closet? e.t.c. were suddenly all linked. So that was what was wrong with me: I looked different… just because of my clothes!
I noticed how zealously other girls seemed to monitor & manage their appearance down to the tiniest detail. They went to the bathroom every so often to check their hair and make-up in the mirrors, make corrections to how their clothes sat and have a girlie chat with their friends. Clothing, hair, make-up, shoes, smell, even how they moved, handled their things and walked; every aspect of their looks seemed totally in their control.
The teenager bandwagon takes off
I had 2 friends in school, and they didn’t wear trendy clothes either***. We were like an island in the sea of trendy kids. There were a few other islands like us. Eventually, though, the sea swallowed the islands and drowned those who couldn’t swim.
Soundtrack: ‘Under the Water’ by Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike (links to the song on Grooveshark).
My 2 friends started to avoid me by sneaking away quickly after classes, ignoring what I said and turning their backs on me. For a short period I followed behind them like a little dog because I didn’t know what else to do; but it became clear that it was inappropriate (maybe they said so) and that no rescue was possible; I was no longer part of the friendship.
Outside of school my best friend gradually vanished too into the glittery teenage world of pop music, boys, fashion and parties.
Shopping, fashion, parties, disco clubs, boys, hair styles and girlish chatting about [****] was the new reality. It was an alien world. I wasn’t a girlie girl and not attractive; I didn’t have a clue about fashion, make-up and pop music and wasn’t even interested.
The few parties I did come to were confusing mazes of chatter, loud music, cliquey behaviours and colourful flashing disco lights. My peers’ apparent ease at mingling and hanging out together was a mystery. I had no clue how to approach people and what to talk with them about (could barely hear them anyway), and didn’t get many chances either. Firstly, because I rarely was invited to a party. Secondly, because people didn’t really have anything to talk with me about (after a few polite but disinterested phrases), and vice versa.
So when the teenager bandwagon took off with my friends, I remained in my usual world of thoughts, stories, pets and creative pursuits. As the surrounding world became harder to follow, I puzzled relentlessly and poetically about the strange patterns of life and society while my peers crossed over into a shiny new era: teenage-hood!
Breaks between classes = total limbo
In school, the classroom was locked off during the breaks between classes, because the kids were not to be trusted with unsupervised access. This meant there was no quiet, private place to withdraw from the relentless noise and political tumult of the cliquey teenage environment in the corridors; and no proper refugee from the painful stigma of being the one with no friends, evidently alone in a corner of the crowd.
The sound of the recess bell brought on instant limbo: I knew I had no tolerable place to store myself until the next class started. I was in disaster mode throughout almost every break, not knowing where to go or what to do.
There was a time where I hid in the darkness in a bicycle shed while I waited out each break because everywhere else seemed exposed, busy and overrun. Later I progressed to sitting on a small fence on the entry pathway in front of the school; a place which was usually empty during school hours. When the recess bell rang in and I had to return to the busy corridor, I preferred to sit on the floor under the jacket shelf or next to the classroom door while I tried to block out the mayhem around me and look like I wasn’t there.
When I was 14 – 15 years old, I got into a habit of sneaking home before the school day ended to escape the day’s remaining breaks. Then I began to oversleep and leave early. Then I didn’t show up in school at all most days.
Of course the adults made a fuss about my refusal to attend school. Interventions were tried, for example some of my classmates were tasked to drop by my home in the mornings and make sure I came to school with them (yes embarrassing, thank you). On those days I did go to school and was OK during classes, but whenever there was a break and I didn’t know what to do, I went home.
While my local friendships dissolved, I re-found my oldest best friend who lived a while away. Although we had initially hooked up as 7 year olds through our shared fondness for animals, cute pets weren’t cool anymore at 14, according to her (disappointingly). But it was now cool to be different.
My friend wasn’t on the pop culture band wagon either and, like me, felt alien to mainstream teenage culture. Just like me, she felt miserable and displaced in school. Unlike me, she had plenty of friends in alternative subcultures outside of school, and they all thought little of the youth pop culture that dominated schools everywhere.
The assumption was that in the alternative youth cultures, people could ‘be themselves’ and didn’t need to comply with status symbols such as trendy clothes, cool boyfriends, disco parties e.t.c. It seemed like the way to go!
However, it eventually dimmed that the alternative youth culture was at least as exclusive as mainstream teenage culture. Clothes didn’t just have to be ragged, modified and broken, they had to be so in the right way. How people dressed, their hair style, their smell, the way they moved and turned and looked… was all a code that signalled ‘I belong here’. And just as usual, I didn’t quite seem to get the code right.
For some years she was my social anchor, and I hang out with her on the fringes of her friendship groups. Although I had been the initiating one when we were kids, the relation was turned on its head due to my social awkwardness and poor ability to make my own friends. I was under her wing, shined on by her world expertise, and she enjoyed the tacit understanding and humour our long term friendship gave.
Cavalcade of new beginnings
To break the vicious cycle of school absence and no longer having any local friends, I decided to finish primary school on an Efterskole. It is a popular type of somewhat state subsidised boarding school in my home country which offers an alternative to the final years of ordinary primary school. This video explains quite well what an ‘efterskole’ is (warning: spunky music & annoying sounds ahead):
The efterskole and its mature sibling, the ‘Folkehoejskole‘ (for adults), are highly respected institutions in my home country known for their life-shaping, culturally enlightening and socially maturing impact.
It is expected that a young person on an efterskole will mature, get great social experiences, make new friends (often for life) and develop tolerance and an open mind to a diversity of people and perspectives. Typical answers to the question ‘what did you get out of being on efterskole’ are ‘it was great’, ‘it opened my mind’ and ‘I made friends for life’.
It didn’t quite work out that way for me. Following three hyper-energetic and super playful weeks in the beginning where I tried to assert myself as a social person in a fairly childish way, I burned out and didn’t have any more social energy. All I wanted was to be in my own space & time and do my own usual things in peace & quiet solitude. However, I shared the room with two others (whom I knew), and they thought I should pull myself together and go out and socialise with people.
While I needed plenty of time alone to reboot myself for social interaction, others didn’t. They spent most of their time making friends, interacting with others and participating in activities while I just wanted to be on my bed writing and fiddling with my usual creative pursuits, and felt startled & stressed whenever the door was suddenly opened.
Also, as for ‘why don’t you go out and chat with some people’, people weren’t exactly waiting in a line to chat with me, and quickly drifted off to their friendship groups. People constantly failed to behave as expected and formed surprise connections, friendships and cliques all around me all the time; and as they accumulated connections and I didn’t, my popularity quickly eroded.
Instead of proper social behaviour I developed some fairly annoying habits such as constantly begging cigarettes from people, be late for classes (to escape breaks and chaotic waiting time before class), childish silliness, and to never know what was going on on the school and what I was expected to do. No one told me what was going to happen, when and where and there was no Internet back then, so I gave up on keeping track of the schedule of activities. Whatever everybody else knew was going to happen always came as a surprise to me. I was always late, poorly orientated and out of sync with everything.
After a few months I had ended up in a similar position to the one I had tried to escape by changing school: ever the outsider who feared breaks and any other unstructured social situation. I was allocated a solo room by the time everybody else teamed up with new room mates because no one wanted to be my roomie; I was a ‘hot potato’. I rarely left my room and dreaded to have to cross the living areas or other areas where I risked running into people.
When I was home in weekends and school holidays I really didn’t feel like returning to the school again. I started to stay home just a few more days… then a week here and there… and eventually, I didn’t return.
My old childhood friend and I stumbled into this drama and became involved in a BZ housing group for a while.
The story goes on from there, and I think that if I frame it in a way that tells the dramas and doesn’t talk about how I couldn’t make sense of the social side of the situation (as usual) and was so dead tired that I went to bed at 6 pm most days when I lived there and rarely talked with the others, then it might sound like an interesting time.
Actually a lot of what happened was interesting.
Overall, I’ll summarise my youth as ‘a cavalcade of new beginnings’ (schools, jobs, locations, subcultures) as I fought to improve/survive, alternating with break downs, depressions and total seclusion when the tries inevitably failed and all the many little cues of others’ disregard and confusion about me had accumulated too much to ignore.
My standard solution (and others’ standard advice) was to force myself into new situations where I would have no choice but to learn to be social enough. Now I think it was serial stupidity. It failed every time (after a little while), but I thought there was no alternative. A hidden natural law always steered the combination of events, others’ attitude and my behaviour towards a situation where I first became overwhelmed, and then isolated and not wanted. It was like gravity.
*Primary school goes from year 1 to 9 (or 10) in my home country, and the school age is approximately from 7 to 16
**School uniforms are not the norm in my home country, so kids wear their normal clothes in school.
*** Not completely random fashion like me though; their clothes just didn’t have brands either… yet.
**** Still haven’t really figured the topics:-)