When I was in second grade the teacher asked everyone what his or her favorite book was. She then went around the class and every child stated a book title. I was around the middle of the pack, and simply stated my truth: Alice in Wonderland.
By three quarters of the way around the room I realized that between us all, there were only two favorite books: Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book. As we neared the final children I also realized that every single girl had chosen Alice while every single boy (except yours truly) had gone with Jungle. I think this was the first shining moment when I realized that I just didn’t think like I was supposed to think. At this point I value my way of thinking, but I also have compassion for kids who, like Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, just doesn’t quite fit in.
With maturity, I realize that despite my own agonizing and sudden self-consciousness, the other kids were not paying any attention whatsoever to what I had said—rather they were paying close attention to the group—the trends, the importance of fitting in. Even if I had gone last, I would still have said Alice—I was honest to a fault and clueless about reading social cues to an even larger extent.
Sort of like Temple Grandin getting less obviously autistic as she developed, whatever you call a kid who is obsessed with insects and liked Alice in Wonderland because it reflected not a magical world of strangely unfamiliar proportions, but rather a perfect evocation of the world I lived in within my imagination, I look back at my kid self with affection, but only now—decades later.
My point in mentioning this is to increase our understanding of, and appreciation for, kids who are a little different. As parents we can’t help but want our kids to fit in, especially if we did not. Yet many people who at least I feel a connection with turn out to have been powerfully shaped by their wounds as well as their gifts. The liberating thing I have learned as a therapist is that virtually every kid, and later every adult, carries insecurity.
It’s those who do not read social cues very well who have greater trouble masking their insecurities. As we become self-conscious, we stop raising our hands in class for fear we’ll only dig ourselves in deeper.
We also may come to erroneous conclusions. For example someone in third grade made a snarky comment about me always raising my hand and knowing the answer. So I came up with the brilliant social strategy of doing poorly in school as a way to make friends. All I got was social awkwardness and the slower reading group.
I was thinking as well about my early days in Hollywood. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to work in the mailroom or at an assistant’s desk—I did work at Warner Bros. as an assistant, for example; it was that I just for the life of me could not figure out how doing an excellent job on memos and answering calls got one advanced. The fact that the other assistants had charted out in their minds who was important, and were artfully schmoozing their way to the next job level appeared to me as tribal rites of some exotic culture where I didn’t understand the language or the social conventions.
I realize that, over time, the world has a way of directing us as well as shaping us. The fact that I’m well suited to sit quietly and talk with people about what they truly feel, and about what matters most to them in their deepest hearts makes me well suited to being a therapist—but this predilection left me in an odd position as a child. Even in Alice in Wonderland I was disappointed that we hurry away from the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as I liked the Mad Hatter and felt that we should be more patient and get to know him. I also wanted to spend more time with the caterpillar, finding him wise and rather David Bowie-esque long before I knew who Bowie was (I imagine Bowie might have had some struggles in elementary school as well, but at least he was tall—and I sometimes like to joke that the only reason that I’m not gay is that I’m not sexually attracted to men… but of course a strong feminine side does not a gay man make any more than a strong same-gender identification necessarily makes us hetero). In Alice I also felt a lot of compassion for the mock turtle and the walrus; it was lovely how they walked along the beach talking. I always liked to talk.
As I look back with compassion at the outlier that I always was (and remain), it makes me want to vibe acceptance and encouragement for not just the obviously different kids, but for the four or five boys who, although asked, did not tell, but who I’m sure secretly would “go ask Alice” when they were only four feet tall and no one was looking—not to mention the girls who didn’t dare admit they preferred The Jungle Book. I also want to convey compassion for the kids who appear hardy and dominant, as I’ve slowly learned that they too have their insecurities. Once we are old enough, every second grader is adorable and even the most formerly intimidating kids are, to us, but a hair’s breadth away from tears at any given moment and far from immune to loving attention.
So let’s dedicate today to recalling whoever we were at age seven, and to lovingly seeing the seven-year-old in our child or children—whether that kid is, at present, little more than an “inner child” for our tough-talking teens, or yet a twinkle in the eye of our toddler, let’s soften our gaze and widen our embrace to love the diversity, the group and each individual—in the service of all our collective children.