Saturday, May 19, 2012

Real rites of passage

As I wrote before, I never really cared about getting my license. The age of 16 came and went like any other with no significant changes in my perception of life. I didn't actually start driving until I was 18. That's over-the-hill as far as getting behind the wheel goes and practically ancient considering I didn't get my permit until that year.

But I've had my own little rites of passage over the years, markers of my growth between different stages of life. And in a way, I think they're even more significant than those instituted by the law.

The first one occurred when I was around six or seven. I was walking through a department store with my grandma and my mom. We would frequent the clothing sections and I would saunter around with a little toy handbag filled with candy and hair barrettes. And I would smile at everyone I passed.

This one day, as we walked around the store, I went along the aisles as usual smiling at everyone I saw and receiving smiles in return. Then I looked up at one man and he scowled at me. There was no hint of affection on his face. He found nothing admirable about my childhood cuteness. Maybe he even found it repulsive.

I was stunned. For years I've frolicked around with everyone admiring me as I go, but now this man can't help but look at me with the utmost disdain. You'd think it would have been hard to bear as a young girl, but I guess I brushed it off until a few years later when I realized I was down to creepy old men on the side of the street smiling at me and everyone else carrying their blankest expression when we met eyes.

Still, that was a moment of truth. And it came coupled with a few more moments of "Oh, I'm no longer cute and tiny anymore." One of the most prominent occurred when I was playing hide and seek at my dad's house. My go-to hiding location was often the cupboards of the house. Either the linen closet or the cabinets underneath the bathroom sinks. I would climb into them like a cat burrowing in towels and pretend I could hide there forever.

One day I could no longer fit. And like looking in the mirror and realizing you aren't infallibly cute anymore, trying to fit into a cupboard and realizing you're far too big for one now is an incredibly jarring toss into older childhood. I almost felt like Alice eating her cakes and growing big and small. The change seemed instantaneous and I couldn't imagine where all those inches had come from.

Little did I know that size was only the first thing that would change.

When I was in elementary school, I loved playing on the little kids' playground. Our campus was divided into two sections: one for first through third graders and another for fourth through sixth graders. For those first few years, we had access to an amazing lawn and an exciting jungle gym. Everything was located right next to the lunch tables and there was nothing but perfection.

In fourth grade, I transferred schools. At my new school, I was thrust into the world of the fourth through sixth graders' playground with little to no preparation. Back at my old school they'd had us somewhat assimilate by putting the childcare program near the big kids' playground. But at this new place, I was lost.

There were no swings. The sand in the monkey bar section was soon replaced with wood chips. The field may have been bigger, but it was also used for running days and other PE activities, so it wasn't associated with all fun and games.

And I realized that I was no longer little enough to just have fun during recess. Recess was now for recreation and physical exertion and learning. If I wasn't into that then I would have to hang out by the portables with a book and a Fruit Roll-Up. Life would never be quite the same.

The final rite of passage, after the cupboard fitting was no longer of concern and I was over the fact that I couldn't swing during recess anymore, consisted of me realizing I was finally on my own.

This didn't happen for the first time in high school or college. It struck me in the face on that first day of middle school, as everyone scurried around campus looking for their classrooms and I grasped my map in my hands and stared at it, hoping if I thought hard enough about the location that I might apparate there.

The same morning, I'd shooed away my dad when he offered to come with me on my first day of middle school. "No one else's parents will be with them," I told him. I was wrong. Everyone's parents had come to help them find their classes.

Only I was there by myself, searching for one of the classrooms all the way out on the hill overlooking the track and field.

Unlike the first two experiences, finding my way around campus was like figuring out how to use my wings on my own. It wasn't a let down like finding out I'm old and big or discovering I have to face the real world and no longer play in sand. Instead, it was getting the chance to see what I could - rather than what I couldn't - do. I faltered a bit on the first attempt, but after a few minutes I'd figured out where I was going and had made it to class just in time.

Some people think of driving at 16, smoking at 18 or drinking at 21 as big accomplishments. The rights we have given to us at certain ages make us eagerly await our transitions into adulthood. But my rites of passage were all based in learning about who I was and about life in general. Maybe for some, drinking is life. Or life is learned through driving.

For me the greatest lessons have been those that test my strength. My strength to handle a situation (like having people scowl at me), to make the best of an experience (like finding ways to enjoy a swing-less recess) and to grow and become self-sufficient (like locating myself on a map in middle school) has always been founded by smaller events. Smaller events, but still significant. To my mind, those are the real rites of passage.

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