This I Believe

Mariko - Santa Cruz, California
Entered on January 16, 2008
Age Group: Under 18

A Different Direction

No freaking way was I wearing a leotard. Any chance at gymnastic achievement ended right there. Sure, I liked activities like “popcorn,” bouncing around the trampoline like an exploding kernel, but if the rest of gymnastics meant I had to get out of a T-shirt and sweats for a half-hearted attempt at the splits, then I wasn’t interested. When other girls lined up to stretch, pulling their legs into unnatural formations, I picked at the carpet threads or wandered over to play under the balance beam. In swimming lessons, too, I neglected communal activities in favor of individual pursuits (in this case, I found the undulations of light under the surface far more interesting than any teaching going on above it). “Get your head out of the water and pay attention!”

Mom didn’t want my “free spirit” fostered by some hippie-child-rearing, creative-independence school like Montessori, so she placed me in a small, traditional elementary school with blackboards and teachers who still had names like Bebe and Nancy. Still, I needed work. I was issued a “behavioral card” (with a bumblebee stamp for each period I had been “good”) every day after school. Comments included: “Good at art, often works well with others, but doesn’t follow instructions.” I belted when other kids simply sang; I continued to explore after the recess bell chimed; I lied if it made a better story.

Everything went by my own rules; I was a kid disconnected. Distracted, maybe, but I still had a purpose, just not the one everyone wanted me to have. Thumbing through a photo album, I spot myself smothering the Easter Bunny at a children’s Easter festival in Felton, tribal markings all over my face. No opportunity for face-paint went untapped. By the time I hopped back in the van, I had a yellow butterfly spanning from forehead to chin and a kind of harness-looking-contraption made of balloons fixed around my torso (I think I must have asked the balloon artist to make a shirt, and a headdress and fishing pole with a fairy on the end soon followed).

When the moment of the Easter egg hunt arrived, hordes of kids lined up before the long, grassy vineyard. A whistle blew and the children were released, rushing across the field, snatching up eggs with ferocious abandon. I picked up all the toothbrushes. A dentist must have sponsored the event—either that or some concerned Christian parents donated a massive amount of dental care products to encourage post-chocolate-consumption hygiene. Why in God’s name I felt compelled to rescue the toothbrushes (I hated brushing for crying out loud) despite my parents on the sidelines screaming, “Run! Run! No, the other way! Stop picking up the toothbrushes!” jerking their arms this way or that for guidance, beats me, but I sure had a collection by the end.

Over the years I would hone my egg-hunting skills and develop a sense of value that matched the status quo. Spying on adults hiding the goods later scored me prizes one would logically care about, like a VHS and money. Though I gradually accepted external authorities, I never stopped seeking out the unconventional, the toothbrushes. I would learn to focus in school and do what I was told. I learned the California mission system and how to play the dreaded recorder, because I had to. But I would stop to take photos of leaves when others moved on; I kicked up Irish jigs while other girls pliéd in ballet; I had a rat called Scamper though the vogue was cats named Frisky.

I always went off in a different direction. Not the wrong one, just looking for different things.