Thursday, October 29, 2009
I'm not sure when I first heard the word "cool" in reference to my social standing. I know it was a factor, though. After all, I did grow up attending school with a large group much more affluent than I during the eighties, when Guess was king of denim and wearing a Swatch meant you had arrived. Still, those were my pre-teen years. I don't ever remember thinking of such things as a young elementary school child. So, when my kindergartner came home from school downtrodden because his friends didn't think something he was wearing was cool, I was a little stunned.
I listened as J.T. poured out the tale of his classmates poking fun at his camouflage sunglasses. "Only DJs are cool!" he moaned. Through our discussion, I came to understand that a "DJ" was someone with a backwards hat and slim dark shades. This all came about on a day when the kids were allowed to wear hats and sunglasses to school as part of a special program week.
My husband drove home the message to J.T. that it shouldn't matter what other people think. And, while I understood his point, that's very difficult for a 5-year-old boy, who happens to be the smallest in his class, to comprehend. Right now everything everybody says matters from the principal to his teacher to his class mates. That is his world. That is his sense of self.
Watching him deal with his first emotional battle was difficult for me. It conjured up memories of my own struggles trying to fit in, which I never really did. Creative types, such as myself and J.T., often have trouble finding our footing. Add to that the fact that my dad wasn't around and we lived in a lesser neighborhood than my rich friends, well you have a perfect misfit cocktail.
Thankfully, my mother understood my need for a different learning environment and when I reached my sophomore year in high school helped me transfer into a magnet program. It was ideal for me.
But, that didn't fix J.T.'s problem. His was here and now. And, aside from a few encouraging words, a hug and a little laughter, there was little I could do to help him navigate this sea of sharks.
When did we as a society begin worrying so much about what was "in" or "cool" anyway? Why should it matter if our sunglasses are black or camouflaged? And why does the brand of our jeans count for so much in this world?
At age 5, I'm sure it's less about labels as it is about picking on the weak, but I am surprised that we, in our politically correct everyone-deserves-an-award society, haven't put a stop to this madness. It seems that these little seeds grow into the massive oaks of approval-seeking that have led many to seek mortgages on homes they could not afford, to live above their means and max out their credit cards.
Could it be that it all begins with something as small as sunglasses in elementary school? I say yes. I often poke fun at my husband, saying he would be happy in this world if he had nothing but a stick and a pot. And it's true. But as I listened to his wise instruction to my son, I could see that he wasn't just giving him a lifeboat to traverse these choppy waters. By simply saying, "Son, you need to remember this: as long as you like you and what you stand for, that's all that matters. That's all you need," he was building our son a yacht, a place of strength, comfort and security when times got hard. A place that, try as they may, the world with its harsh words and fierce storms could never destroy.