No one understands the feeling of acute awkwardness better than an American teenager, and I stand out even within that prestigious group. You see, the defense mechanism of many wild animals is to freeze and blend in with their surroundings when they feel threatened, and the average teen is not much different. We use teenage clothes, attitude, and vernacular as camouflage: they allow us to disappear into the background when non-teens try to pin us down. But I’m like a deer wearing a radio collar, unable to blend in because of my essential differences.
The greatest of these differences is my family. I am the oldest of seven children, four of whom were born at home and all of whom were home-schooled full time until I started taking college classes. All of my siblings have long hair—the boys and the girls. The family car is a Freightliner Sprinter, which is a ten-seater van used by hotels and airports around the country as a shuttlebus. My mother and oldest sister have a penchant for mud-dyed linen clothing. We are a very conspicuous group of people.
I grew into teenagehood beside my family. I love them very much, but living with them left me bereft of my natural camouflage, unable to hide from normal attention, not to mention the gawking that comes your way when you hang around with a full baseball team of long-haired hippies. From my post-adolescent perspective, everyone who glanced our way was looking at me, judging my appearance and my actions. A voice in my head provided unflattering echoes of everything I said and did. I started to talk in a stilted way, keeping my sentences short and wincing whenever I said or did something less than intelligent. It was a bad cycle: like the fugitive who attracts attention by acting guilty, I obsessed over my mistakes, and that drew more attention from other people. I felt like an ant under a magnifying glass in bright sunlight.
I was quickly becoming introverted – but I finally snapped out of it on an otherwise normal day. I walked into class with my head down as usual, slung my backpack onto a table, and it slipped – but before I could wince or curse, a thought hit me. I lifted my head and looked around, and I saw dozens of people watching their friends and their peers, laughing self-consciously and trying to be cool. Finally I realized that I could act naturally and no one would care, because everyone was too busy overanalyzing their own actions to pay attention to me. I had been under a magnifying glass—but my own hand held it. People would laugh at me if I did something stupid or outrageous, but the whole incident would be forgotten in minutes—unless I decided to be humiliated by my imperfections and burn life’s inevitable awkward moments into my memory with shame.
So, eventually, all the discomfort and awkwardness helped me form an important belief: our own perspective on our actions is the only one we can change, and the only one that really matters.
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