Sunday, April 1, 2012

Never grow out, grow up

There was a time when I would watch TV shows about disorders and anomalies without any hint of irony. Sitting down to an episode of Oprah or Tyra or [insert name of strong-willed woman here], I'd learn about the many diseases I could have been born with - one of which was a thing called Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome.

Progeria is a genetic condition in which patients appear to age quickly, usually passing away by the age of 13. It's a very stunning and depressing disorder. And though it only affects about 80 people in the world today, it's a frightening concept to even consider living such a short life that plays out like the final moments of Benjamin Button in reverse. The aging process runs quickly, and the clock runs out way before its time.

I've thought about what my life is like in respect to the passing of time, and though it's unfair to compare myself to an individual who might suffer premature death due to a medical condition, I'm going to take the leap. Because the fact is that for much of my life I've felt like one of those children with progeria who watches their life pass before their eyes. I experience growth and "maturity" (for them it's in a physical respect, for me it's more of a mental change) much faster than the rest of the world.

In preschool I was not atypical by any means. Though a few years later I ended up in advanced classes, I won't hesitate to remind anyone who knew me when that I used to pretend I was one of the Land Before Time characters and that I regularly ate beads for fun as a toddler.

Even then, though, I was developing a proclivity for being the unfashionable know-it-all. I would tell my friends at the lunch table that if food fell on the ground, you did not eat it. The five-second rule did not apply because we knew very well that once food hits the ground it's no longer clean.

Little bouts of vain maturity and knowledge of the "real world" made me think that I was slightly out of place in a group of children who would drop the crackers from their Lunchables on the ground and then proceed to throw cheese and ham onto them and pretend nothing had happened. Where were my fellow plate-eaters?

While little things like eating off the ground came to stand for logic rather than intelligence as we grew up, I still had this feeling that I was coming to terms with age faster - maybe too much faster - than my peers.

When I left kindergarten, the year when I attended a magnet school, my mom used to always tell me I'd learned at five years old what most kids learn at age eight. That theory of life persisted for years on.

In fourth grade, one of my good friends was a girl named Meggie. In my new "Gift and Talented" program, there were only a few people I hung out with on a daily basis. Meggie was one of them.

One day, while sitting in the classroom, I remember finding a note she'd written that had fallen on the ground. I picked it up and saw a bunch of doodles of me and my class mates on individual strips of Post-Its. I was about to hand it back to her, when I noticed near the top of the pile an image with the label "Rachel" under it.

When I looked at the Post-It Note in full, I saw that the caption that was written above was "Miss Perfect."

I didn't talk to Meggie for a while afterwards. Though we had been friends for a few months, at the time it disturbed me that someone I thought I could trust had labeled me as something that, while poking fun, had a pretty negative connotation from her perspective. I realized that if she had conspired - probably with a few other girls - to illustrate me with such a negative caption, that we probably weren't as good of friends as I had thought.

This was a petty way of handling the situation, I admit. But being nine, I couldn't help but think of myself as the victor of morality against the heartless Meggie. However unintentionally, she'd been so insensitive as to demonize one of her closest acquaintances in class - preferring to be a petty schoolgirl than an honest friend.

By the next school year, Meggie and I were on relatively good terms. Our relationship never returned to normal, though. In sixth grade she reverted back to her Mean Girls-esque ways, planning to hang out by the jungle gym with her new friends and purposely leaving me out of the loop.

I spent my breaks and lunch hours sitting by myself against a wall reading children's chapter books, thinking about how miserable I was that all of these girls whom I thought I could trust had decided to throw the potential for friendship down the toilet in exchange for bitter girl-on-girl cruelty.

Even in college, I've felt a burden of being a little bit too old for my place. Never hesitating to remind friends that I don't drink or do drugs or do anything even remotely promiscuous, I become a social outlier who reads more like a cloistered nun than a happy university student. While at times I embrace my image, other times I spurn it for putting me at such a disadvantage on the collegiate social scene.

Today, talking with my friend Dana about the dim prospects for romance and relationships in college, we commiserated about often feeling like the only people willing to talk to us are those who are similarly inclined toward the happily inhibited life.

It's not that I scorn the lives that most people live. Looking down at people doesn't bring clarity to anything at all. What I do scorn is the separation between people like us (Dana and our other friends and myself) and the general population at even the most prestigious universities - in essence the separation between obedient youth and rebellious youth.

It's human nature to unintentionally gravitate toward like-minded people, so I don't fool myself into believing that becoming close to people with such inherently different values from mine might be plausible.

Instead, as I talked with Dana, I reasoned that it's an easy, yet difficult to accept, defeat to decide that in the future, perhaps, people will transition from rebellious teenagehood to established adulthood.

Before I leave this post, though, I'd like to make a disclaimer about the nature of my argument. It's not that I disapprove or feel any sort of disdain for the choices of others. Being an avid book-reader, TV-watcher and film enthusiast, I'm no stranger to the excitement of rebellious life. And the temptations of the invincibility of our youth is undeniable.

But it still raises this eternal question in me: Why do we need to test our fallibility? Are we so afraid of our eventual descent into old age, and perhaps our meeting with mortality?

It becomes this whole existential argument about why we make our decisions in the first place - whether we're deciding things from a purely animalistic bent, or if perhaps we're putting our lives into perspective and choosing experience thusly.

I like to think I do the latter. And maybe that's why I also consider myself a sufferer from psychological progeria. When I think too much about the meaning of life and the fact that I'd rather live it as a slightly sheltered, very self-aware person, then I make decisions that are against the norm.

So I guess I alienate myself. Though I'd love to live differently - to happily incorporate my sober self into an occasionally sordid life, maybe even just for the authorial experience, I can't stand the idea of being untrue to who I am.

Like the Know-it-All and the Little Miss Perfect that I was as a child, I guess I'll never grow out of growing up.

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