Thursday, December 3, 2009

She Set Me Free

Chapter 1:
My favorite comic strip is Red and Rover, an ongoing story of a boy and his dog. Today's offering depicts Red blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of chocolate milk. Rover comments, "Your mom is coming," and Red replies, "Let her. I have no intention of waking up one day, only to find myself a bitter old man, all because of a childhood not lived to its fullest."

There may be a genetic basis for self-consciousness and then again, it may result purely from environmental influences. Either way, somewhere along the line our attitudes regarding what constitutes socially-accepted behavior undergo changes. We find blowing bubbles through a straw endearing in a child and embarrassing if done by an adult -- especially in public. Some things are age-appropriate and I have absolutely no argument with that.

Self-consciousness as a barrier to self-expression is something else again. Mark Twain urged, "Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt. Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's heaven on earth." As wonderful as that sounds -- and I think it does -- when a person has been raised to believe that not only is everyone watching, they're passing judgment, it's a risky proposition at best. And even if the environment was explicitly supportive, it's quite possible to have digested the implicit message that one had best be careful, so in some essential way, they hold back.

The morning before ninth grade Christmas break I was happily reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, when my PE instructor entered the classroom and announced there was no need to suit up, because that day we were going to dance. Over the sound of groans coming mostly from us boys, he said everyone was expected to participate. The dread I felt initially quickly turned into terror. I didn't know one foot from the other on a dance floor and furthermore, asking a girl to be my partner felt nearly as threatening as a trip to the dentist.
Maybe not quite, but pretty darned close.

Anyway, we obediently lined up, girls on one side of the gym, boys on the other, the music played, and with the exception of a few, including me, people paired up. Then a girl who was generally suspected to have fewer inhibitions than the earth has moons, approached and took my hand. It must have been comical, she who knew what she was doing and me who had no idea. We borrowed a do si do from sixth grade square dancing and I've been grateful for her ever since.

She could have picked any number of more appealing partners and whatever motivated her to choose me, the effect was liberating -- she set me free. Because of her, I was able to screw up the courage to ask another girl to dance. She refused, but that's not the point. The point is, I not only asked, I learned there is something worse than hearing "no." It's never asking at all.

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