Sunday, February 10, 2013
The Cricket Symphony: Surviving Childhood Without Social Skills
Every cricket had a job all throughout my childhood. Each time my mouth opened, the symphony began. People would look at me quizzically, alarmed by my nonsensical humor and lack of social understanding. One time, during Peter Pan practice rehearsal (I was Tootles, one of the lost boys), a girl complained of a mosquito bite. She reached over to scratch it as I laughed. What I wanted to say is “I am sorry you hurt your leg. That must really hurt.” But what came out was a short, tight, laugh. She looked at me with a pained expression on her face, noting out loud that I was weird. I felt bad, but I grinned at her exaggeratedly, unable to express myself properly.
Each time I was supposed to smile for a photo, my face and mouth would curl up in a grotesque, over-exaggerated, distorted version of myself. I couldn’t seem to just smile. “Karen!” They would protest, “don’t smile like that! Stop playing”! And yet I couldn’t. All my face could do is continue to freeze into that same warped smile, as everyone’s smiles around me melted into frowns. Every picture I have during that particular stage of childhood shows me, the little ugly duckling, trying desperately to fit in with the smiling swans all around me. I’d paddle and paddle but just never matched their grace.
I survived my worrisome tendencies (and put a few crickets on unemployment) by escaping into the magical world of reading. I could transport myself into stories and not have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time; my script was right in front of me. I read and I read and I read. I spent my childhood reading. Many trees met their deaths because of my insatiable urge for more books. I typically read at least nine books a week – I could read an entire Sweet Valley High book within a few hours when it took most children my age a week. Sweet Valley High books were fun because the protagonists were twins, just like me and my sister. I was more of a Elizabeth (minus the popularity) while my twin Kristina was more of a Jessica. Elizabeth was so good that Jessica could only look bad. It’s easy to look good when all you do is read. I also loved the Babysitter’s Club series as those girls were everything I wished I could be. The babysitters were prepared, smart, creative, funny, and courteous. This was me, except for well, the funny and courteous part. I was exceptionally funny in my brain, but I’d start to speak and my witty remark would come out as gobbledygook. I remember the way my 5th grade teacher used to look at me. I’d try to impress her and instead confirm her belief that I was astoundingly weird. The crickets would chirp their agreement.
I started to read books like “The Stand” by Stephen King and “The Clan of the Cave Bear” when I was in 5th grade at 10 years old. The Stand was over 1,000 pages long in a time well before the Harry Potter books made that a less impressive feat. It had a tiny-font and was truly a tome of horror. I read that book every night and every week for hours, determined to present it for a book report. I recently stumbled across my teacher’s review of it and she was very impressed. I apparently knew enough to leave out the incredibly inappropriate parts of sex and gore, focusing on the main plot line of infectious disease. I am sure that presenting that book did nothing for my popularity, although I was very proud of myself.
As I am sure I’ve made clear by now, popularity was something I never had. I understand ways to reach that elusive status, but I either couldn’t or wouldn’t try. For one thing, you had to be able to smile and talk in a way that didn’t leave the crickets scrambling. For another, I had the perception that you had to be willing to do things that hurt other people. For example, I heard whispers of toilet papering and throwing eggs at houses, or shoplifting small items from Claire’s. The popular children laughed hysterically when discussing their exploits; to me all I could see was the face of the person left to deal with the mess. Popularity wasn’t worth that to me. I would rather read.
As I grew older I learned how to express myself in person better, although I still preferred to stay under the radar during middle school and high school years, when children are at their most cruel. Now that I am shockingly a grown-up, my awkwardness is more accepted and my popularity has increased, although I’ll never be part of any “in” crowd, unless it’s a dorky crowd. I survived childhood. I'm a (mildly) successful adult, although the crickets still linger nearby. I currently work as an occupational therapist in an elementary school setting.
In my particular case, I work with quite high-functioning children with various diagnoses, and I find most of them to be extremely delightfully quirky. They keep me smiling on a daily basis. However, these quirks, which adults find so sweet and endearing, make it very challenging for most of them to make friends with their peer groups. I completely understand their pain. I was there. These children end up in all sorts of social skills groups and therapies and interventions. I would have too, if such things had existed when I was in school. Sometimes it helps them and sometimes it doesn’t with regards to learning socially appropriate behaviors and applying them to real life scenarios.