Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Central Paradox: or, Confessions of a Teacher's Pet

Except that she has the notion she's paid most of her dues by now, Walhydra would be at a loss to know how to get out of this one.

For her fifty-mumble birthday this summer, Walhydra began working her way through a thoughtful book on personal transformation. The part she just finished presents a color-coded, nine-stage, intricately-labeled spiral model of the dynamics of cultural and individual evolution.

Despite the fact that Virgos delight in elaborately charted conceptual models for realities which actually defy rational analysis...


...Walhydra found herself jarred during meditation one morning, when remembrance of these colors brought remembrance of a viscerally profound childhood crisis, one from which she still longs to recover.

Yellow DaisiesWalhydra accepts her parents’ testimony that before the age of five she was a happy-go-lucky, energetic little boy. Her own memories tend to begin with the fussy, reclusive old man of six.

Except that she has fingerpainted evidence her favorite color was once bright daisy yellow.

Yellow is near the top of that evolutionary spiral, representing inner-directed folks who are at ease with paradox and contradiction, who move happily among people at all levels of development, and who have no need for possessions, status or displays of power.

More simply, yellow is joy.

Walhydra can almost remember being like this, so how did she forget?

Tomato juice.

More exactly, spilled tomato juice.

On her favorite flannel shirt. In front of other kindergarten five-year-olds, her first months in public school. Right after her family moved from the only home she had ever known.

They laughed, of course.

For whatever reasons, Walhydra experienced it as laughing at her. Her peers had unknowingly introduced her to shame.

In her personal mythology, that was the moment when Walhydra became self-conscious—in all the blesséd and cursed senses of that term. Before that she was just another playful, undifferentiated kid. Afterward, a social being, distinct and separate, yet at the same time dependent upon the real and perceived judgments of others.

It happens to everyone, of course. That disorienting schism between “I’m unique” and “I’m one of you.” Walhydra figures most of the crimes and sufferings of the human race can be traced to that schism.

What startled her awake, meditating on that spiral, was that she had identified her own particular version of this turn on the path.

“It’s not fair,” she hears herself whining. Starting in first grade, she would frequently come home from some round of teasing by peers or unappreciative discipline by adults to voice that complaint to her father, the Lutheran pastor.

“You’re right,” he would reply. “It’s not fair.”

For years—at least thirty, she figures—Walhydra thought this meant he wasn’t a “good Dad,” because he didn’t go and fix it. Then one day she woke up and realized he had just been confirming her observation of reality.

In her childhood, though, Walhydra’s line of defense was to become invincible.

She recognized quickly that “those in authority” were teachers.

She was an utter failure on the playing field, due partly to non-paralytic polio at age four, and partly to having been shamed by the tomato juice incident into avoiding anything she couldn’t already do or teach herself to do well—without public practice.

This meant that Phys Ed instructors, typical 1950s men who thought “real boys” should be full of competitiveness, athletic prowess and aggression, held no authority at all for her. She already understood—with apparent confirmation from teasing peers—that somehow she wasn’t a “real boy.”

However, Walhydra was gifted with being brilliant, creative and a quick study. The obvious survival strategy was to become a “teacher’s pet.”

This path had the advantage of making her immediately liked and protected by “those in authority.” It had the disadvantage of underscoring the message to her peers: “I’m not one of you.”

Looking back from the present, Walhydra sometimes grieves the various accidents and unintentional cruelties which distracted her from joining the human race through the normal sequence of steps.

While her classmates were learning to integrate themselves into the salutary nurturing and correcting organism of the tribe, Walhydra was whittling her public self down to those things in which she could safely excel. And she was seeking out the companionship lf those few adults and other kids who would appreciate or at least play along with what little of herself she dared to share.

Walhydra now knows—she discovered this at her twenty-fifth high school reunion—that many more classmates liked her than she knew, and that they appreciated much more about her than she had ever let herself be aware of.

"But why didn't they tell me?" she cries, only just beginning to recognize how shame deafened and blinded her for so long.

Invincible secret pride had become her clumsy armor.

Once she caught on to how much classmates hated a know-it-all, Walhydra mastered the perverse art of raising her hand only selectively and feigning uncertainty when she answered—all the while acing every test. The dark side of this was she became convinced other people were, at best, cute and/or friendly, but just not as smart as she. She wanted to be a "genuinely caring person," but what she learned how to be was unassumingly patronizing.

"No wonder," she says now, "God kicked me out of seminary and said, ‘First you have to learn how to be a silly faggot.’ Something needed to put my butt back on the ground with the rest of the human race!"

There have been many more first-you-have-to’s since God gave Walhydra the boot. One of the most important, though, was the twelve years she did in prison.

Granted, she did it as a counselor, not as an inmate. But, twelve years of being her silly faggot self in the midst of a thousand plus murderers, rapists, drug dealers, ex-military security officers and assorted crazies.... Twelve years of being a professional role model for these men.... She definitely had to join the human race.

There are not many places where one is more naked, where people are more skilled at seeing through one’s clumsy armor. But also, not many places where one’s integrity, if honed to sharpness and used honorably, is more respected.

The bonus: it was Walhydra’s job to care about people, and she went about this with as much efficiency and as much soul-searching as any Virgo would.

By the time the abuses of her state’s so-called Christian Coalition government—shipping the whole psychiatric population to a rural prison run by a crooked, for-profit corporation—drove Walhydra to resign, she knew these men, officers and inmates alike, as extended family.

She and they both knew she was unique, not one of them. Yet when she put aside pride and shame, she could share with them the petty, hurtful and delightful moments and movements of life in the present.

So she is, in another state, in another mini-incarnation as a public librarian. What a great job for a reformed teacher’s pet!

She gets paid to know things other people don’t, and they actually ask her to tell it all to them!

Better still, she’s learned to take great delight in saying: “I don’t know. Let’s see if we can find out together.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

"Yellow Daisies" photo © Carol Bailey