Parents embarrass their kids.  This is an immutable law of the universe.  They ask you (loudly) if you have to make.  At Kohl’s, outside the dressing room, they ask you (loudly) if there’s enough room in the crotch of the pants.  They try to walk near you in public.  They dress unfashionably.  They say “I love you” at inopportune moments and demand hugs as they drop you off at school.  They try to sit near you in the movies, and then talk (loudly) through the whole film. 

But are they trying to make your adolescence miserable?  Are they trying to stunt your climb up the social ladder?  For the most part, I think they mean well.  Maybe they hover a bit, or dwell on potty-training a bit long, but their efforts are usually well-intentioned, and embarrassment may be, at worst, unintentional. 

What, then, of my parents’ decision to paint our house pink?  Not a subtle pink (if there is such a thing), nor a historically precise Victorian pink, but a Pepto-Bismol pink, with the windows trimmed in even more fluorescent hot pink.  We lived in a small town, where we already were different because we were Jewish, because my mother worked, and because both my parents had been to college.  The Pink House, as it became known throughout the town, only served to exacerbate my feelings of difference among my peers.  The house itself became something of an urban legend, with speculation running wild about how it came to be that color.  Rumors were that they had let the daughter (me!) pick the color, or that vandals or pranksters had thrown a gallon of pink paint at the house, necessitating a cover-up.  In truth, I hated everything about it, from the nauseating paint smell that never seemed to go away, to the long walk down the driveway, from the notoriety, to the identity of being “That Girl”, to the mail we’d get, simply addressed to “The Pink House.” 

While I had many friends from many walks of life and the full range of social strata, from trailer parks to new McMansions, I always sensed my family was different.  We came from Elsewhere.  Other kids had older brothers or sisters come before them, and teachers would eagerly welcome Eric’s younger brother, or Michelle’s younger sister into their classes.  It seemed I was the only first-born among my friends.  My parents spoke differently.  They learned to imitate the Northern New York Cricker dialect to our amusement, but there were some subtle and not-so-subtle cues that we weren’t just different; we were better. 

The elitism, which I didn’t recognize as such until much later, took its cues from the limited educational and cultural offerings in our town, in contrast to the vast and storied opportunities in other places we had lived.  We weren’t content with the local offerings, so my parents made sure we had our cultural education from Elsewhere.  We went to Colorado every other year because the skiing was better than in New York and New England.  We took trips to visit museums and see concerts and plays – down to Albany, over to Burlington, and all the way to Boston, where my father’s family lives.  On one ski trip to Colorado, my godfather took me to see a professional ballet, and I was never the same.  The early grades of the local schools were acceptable, but my parents had said that they’d considered boarding school if we stayed long enough for me to reach high-school age.  The subtext of Temporary was never too far away, and we all sensed it.  My father often said in his regaling us with another Cricker anecdote, that when the children came home saying, “Jeezum Crow” (the local variant of Jesus Christ), it was time to move.  We were never meant to live there long enough to settle in, to fit in.  Though the vast majority of my early memories are from our nine years in that town, I guess I never did fit in, and I always knew it. 

We moved to Minnesota, to another small town, one which, ironically, given its higher median socio-economic status, didn’t even have a local 4-year college.  Now, even the menial cultural offerings we’d had in our old town, courtesy the local SUNY branch, were absent.  We compensated by lauding the superior public schools, and I hoped for more social compatibility.  More families there were transplanted; few outside of those with Nordic lineage were actually native to the area, so we hoped they’d be more open to outsiders.  There were Indian restaurants, two synagogues, and a youth theatre.  Entering my freshman year of high school, I did my best to fit in. 

At school, fitting in had a narrow definition.  Outside of the few freaks (the Marilyn Manson girl, the few goth kids, and the guy who always wore fatigues), no one dared show a shred of personal expression with clothing, hair, or make-up.  Back packs were Jansports, shoes were brown 3-eye Doc Marten’s, winter coats were yellow Columbia parkas, and mittens were from Winona Knits.  In Minnesota, even mittens conformed.  I waffled between expressing myself and trying to fit in.  With my strategic incorporation of vintage wrap-skirts and brocade smoking jackets into my wardrobe, it would seem I wasn’t trying very hard.  Yet I would have rather died than be the only one dressed up on Halloween.  Another “fashion” trend I bucked was the wearing of white socks with Birkenstock sandals.  I made the mistake of expressing my opinion on the ghastly combination for an editorial assignment in my oratory/debate class.  While the class was populated mostly by my compatriots, my teacher cruelly ordered the taping and subsequent broadcast of my editorial over the school’s TV network.  I sat in my homeroom, head on my desk, as the piece played.  That editorial followed me the rest of my high school career.  Any hopes I had of fitting in, or at least not sticking out, were dashed.  I hadn’t kept my mouth shut; I had identified myself as an outsider, and unlike in my earlier years, this time, I had done it to myself. 

Among my friends, those who cared less about clothing particulars and shopping at the mall, I was still an outsider.  They had all gone to elementary and middle schools together, and had a massive shared history I could never make up.  My own history, my own world knowledge clashed in subtle ways.  Once I mentioned FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy store, to which I had been exactly once on a family trip, and was met by blank stares.  I explained, and it was assumed that I would know about such a place because only rich people shopped there.  It didn’t matter how much I tried to persuade her (a girl whose identity was wrapped up in being poor) that no one actually shops there: it’s more of an experience, a tourist destination, an item in the cultural lexicon of millions.  She didn’t believe me, and I had once again donned the elitist, outsider badge, even among friends. 

I keep my mouth shut more now, if I haven’t completely assessed my human surroundings.  I wait people out, trying to see if they’re going to castigate me for being “smart” or “rich” or “privileged” or “elitist”.  At my last job, the role of “smart” came unwittingly to me, as people sought my advice on everything from Lyme disease, ringworm, and GERD; to spelling and grammar; to GPS, cell phones, and formatting Powerpoint.  I don’t think I put myself forth as an expert in matters medical, orthological, or technological (I’m certainly no Modern Major General), but people still treat me as such.  In putting me in that position, I’m partially flattered, but in selecting me as an expert in anything, they are singling me out, and yet again, I am an outsider.  I tried to mitigate this effect by seeming less confident.  Oh, I think you can add a picture this way.  Better talk to your doctor about that.  I’m pretty sure “commitment” spelled with two “m”’s, one “t”.  But they probably see right through it.

In my current job, I kept my mouth shut initially.  I wanted to feel out the vibe here, if intelligence was to be prized or hidden.  I kept my Halloween costume low-key, to strike that balance between fitting in/showing spirit, and self-expression (the only one in costume).  I dressed all in black, but put on a pink tu-tu, not strictly a costume piece, but something I could remove if necessary.  I wasn’t taking any risks. 

Last week, I had a most marvelous experience that let me know I may be close to fitting in here.  A student was asking his teacher why “sign” was spelled with the silent “g”.  Without going into the morphology, his teacher explained it was because of the word’s origin.  Many of the words that don’t follow sound-it-out spelling conventions can be explained away by blaming one of the languages that influence Anglo-Saxon.  French is legendary for all those unpronounced letters in “bouquet” and “ballet” and “hors d’oeuvres”.  The teacher said he thought that “gn” digraph was of Anglo-Saxon origin, related to the word “gnat”.  I demurred, saying it was more related to the “gn” cluster in Latinate words like “cognizant” “agnostic” “benign” and “malignant”, pronounced with or without the “g” depending on the specific word.  We consulted the Google.  Lo and behold, I was right.  That wasn’t the exciting part.  The exciting part was that I allowed myself to be right about it, to rib the teacher a little.  The thrilling part, on later reflection, was thinking about the fact that I had debated the etymology of the spelling of the “gn” digraph in the word “sign”.  At work.  And not been ostracized or felt like an outsider.  I felt smart, but I felt accepted, which was more important.

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