Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I call him Smirky Mc Smirkersons, or, How Could Something So Right Feel So Wrong?

After two years of gently telling me I was smart enough to work for the government, my sweetie's words finally penetrated the thick melon that serves as my skull. In other words, on a whim on Monday morning, I looked into taking the State Department Written Exam. And guess what? The Exam. Is. Next. Week.

Before the government allows you to warm a seat in their exam rooms though, you have to tell them all about your life- your last ten jobs, your greatest triumphs, what you think makes you good enough to represent the US Government abroad. That meant going through my entire work life, tracking down people who might have to vouch for me, and so on.

OK. On the surface I am a pretty cool customer. Public speaking doesn't distress me. I can boss around undergrads with the best of them. But we all have a secret shame, and mine was that, although my parents loved me, they had me pretty much convinced that I was invisible.

I have spent most of my life as a ghost. I'm the second best friend who holds the camera, the audience member, the girlfriend, the red shirt. I'm a Beta. I would have made a great spy, or a con artist, or a courtier. There are people who have known me for close to twenty years who have no idea what my hobbies are, what my favorite color is, what I like for lunch. And to a great extent I reveled in it, or at least accepted it. And then Smirky McSmirkersons came along and spoiled everything.

Smirky thinks he's very funny. He thinks it's amusing to taunt his girlfriend about how she's more brilliant than he is, and how he stands in awe of her. He giggles with glee when he tells me I'm compassionate beyond his capability, and have the patience of a saint. This is because Smirky apparently didn't realize that after spending a childhood learning to make myself invisible to people who don't like blacks, women and strange opinionated types, I somehow never learned how to become visible on command. In fact, pretty much the only times I have been visible of my own free will have been when someone else has been unfairly picked upon, or when I've in front of a class. Or, online, amusing the perhaps 5 people who read this.

I spent most of today fine-tuning the application. It was strange. I didn't realize how high my grad school average was- I've been carrying around the pain of college, where I was a bored and depressed underachiever, for most of my life. And then I called people to let them know they might get calls from the government- and they remembered me. The mother of two boys I tutored told me for the first time that I had made a real difference in her kids' lives- one is going to Harvard, and the other to one of the best prep schools in New York. She told me I should call again when her son gets home from college so we can hang out. The secretary of the high school where I worked in 1985 recognized my name and voice- back then I was teaching and then disappearing after work as quickly as possible. She gave me the number I needed, for an old friend who is still working at the school- and who told me she can't wait to tell people (what people? I'm a non-entity, remember?) I got the advanced degree I dreamed about getting back then. It took me so long to get it in part because I was so busy getting potential dropouts to graduate and not become drug dealers, I put my own dreams aside. I'm having lunch with her next week, and we'll talk about my coming in and trying to inspire a new set of kids. Another call was to the first college where I adjuncted- the chair was my boss back then, when the department was part of a mishmash of academic gerrymandering. He and I joked and we're having lunch in two weeks. He's going to see about any adjuncting positions- he says he'd love to have me. I left that place because of the memories surrounding 9/11 (the school is downtown), and had seen myself as a quitter ever since.

I know- like my sweetie, you all are probably laughing right now. You read my blog and say the writing's good. But you don't understand- my life has always been lived for other people. I was a happy go lucky loser. A genial failure whose name and face no one remembers. The person who gets cut out of the picture because I don't fit in the frame. This never felt like low self esteem, and I don't think it ever was- it was an acceptance of a reality that didn't just exist in my head. But now Smirky and a bunch of other people are telling me that I'm not a ghost to them, that I actually matter, and not just because I make good cookies or crochet a bit, or have boobs the size of my head. I matter because the very things that make me invisible to everyone else are the very things that make them treasure me; I thought I'd lost that ability to be seen clearly when I was widowed and was no longer a reflection in my husband's eyes.

I'm crying right now, because I've been given a chance to rewrite my mental life story, and see myself as a success. I'm not just the friend's strange daughter who is smart and unnerving but never talks to anyone, or the weird girl who reads Milton for fun, or the wife and then widow of a political activist, or the next door neighbor who isn't seen for months. Part of me always knew this, but I've avoided making moves that would put me in the spotlight- backup singers don't dare take the spotlight, except in the 30's musicals I love so much.


Anonymous said...

Here's another person telling you you're amazing. From across the globe, through the internet, your compassion and intelligence have given me strength to pull through difficult times. You had the wisdom to provide a growing group of people a safe home to be themselves, and you have the humility not to get all cocky and possessive about it.

To think that I've only seen an inkling of you. I can only imagine how amazing you must be in person.
Thanks for being here.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those great pieces of writing you were talking about...

I'm glad you're coming around to really appreciating your own value. I'm seeing myself in some of what you've said (only you've achieved more!) and am hoping to learn to do that better too.

Carpenoctem said...

I told Mr Smirky about what happened today- I don't think I'll ever hear the end of it. I was always taught to put others first- my feelings and desires weren't to be primary. To some extent, the very belief that led to my supposedly poor self-image also led me to be compassionate and humble. I try to see the value in everyone, even people who aren't very nice to me.

All of this praise brings out the 'aw, shucks' in me. I'll go put my hands in my pockets and kick a rock, now.


Probably Jane said...

What a brave and perceptive piece of writing.

Mr S is no fool!