A Portrait of A Young Artist in Suburbia
My daughter Phelan wears a frog hat to drum lessons. The hat has felt eyes that google on top of her head. It has legs for ear flaps, a tongue for a visor, and chin straps that look like a lilypad and lotus.
“Stylin’,” her teacher Mike says, “a real drummer,” and pats Phelan right between her amphibian eyes.
Mike looks like Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day — black spiked hair, smudged eyeliner, mellow rock swagger. He’s kind and patient and says cool with two syllables a lot.
Phelan is 8. She is blonde haired and green eyed and the nicest person I know. She also questions a lot of things.
Last year at the school talent show, she did a tough-guy drum solo, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” She wore a pink skirt and sequined top. Her glittered shoes lit up like an emergency whenever she took a step.
My daughter confuses people, which confuses her, which worries me.
“I like girl things and boy things,” she tells me, like she’s confessing something, like she wants me to give her some penance to do.
“You’re perfect,” I say. “Always be yourself.”
“Always be yourself,” she repeats to her older brother when he’s embarrassed by her abundant joy and questionable fashion sense.
My son is 12. It’s a tough age made worse because he worries too much about what other people think. When he was very young, around four, he’d do stand-up routines in our basement. He had a catchphrase – “And I threw up… two times” – that could make adults howl.
Then something happened. I don’t know what. A year passed, maybe two. He stopped telling jokes. He stayed away from microphones. At the playground, he’d stand like an accountant, hands in pockets, and watch the other kids play before he’d join in.
“Don’t smile too much. Stand back. Be cool,” he tells his sister now, his advice on being popular.
“I’m my own person,” she says, and whacks him with a drum stick.
It’s not good for my daughter to whack her brother with a drum stick. She gets in trouble for this. Still, I hope she’ll find some way to go on holding the world off. I hope my son will find his way back.
In my kids’ school, there are anti-bullying signs everywhere. The signs have inspirational messages. “Everyone is Special.” “You’re Perfect the Way You Are.” “Difference is Beautiful.” “Nothing is Better Than Being Yourself.”
But being yourself costs, especially when you’re 8 like my daughter, especially when mean girls are rising up, all preen and snicker, hips jutted out.
People say kids are naturally mean, but I think meanness is a learned thing.
Those anti-bullying signs are earnest. My kids’ school is wonderful. We live in the suburbs and our school district is one of the best around. But in our district there are subdivisions with regal names, pre-fab houses with coordinated siding and matching mailboxes. All the homes look the same, eggs in a carton. There’s a push, I think, for all the people to be the same, too – paperweights in their own little boxes, scissors with blunted tips.
“We’re very particular about who we let move in here,” one woman from a nearby subdivision said recently.
I don’t know who she meant by “we” or who exactly fit her criteria. Or maybe I do know and it’s too awful to think about.
Difference is scary. If it can be gated off, if it can be shrunken down into something manageable, a petri dish, life can seem easier to navigate.
This doesn’t excuse anything.
“Do you know your enemy?” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong wants to know.
My family lives in the house I grew up in, close to the cluster of subdivisions this woman was talking about. Our house has been here for 40 years, but still some days I feel like an outsider, even though most of our neighbors are wonderful, the kind of people who help in an emergency. They’re the kind of people who bring casseroles and who, if they see your trash can rolling down the street, will stop, pick it up, and deliver it back where it belongs.
But my husband and I are writers, which makes us seem a little odd. We don’t have expensive furniture. We do have a lot of books. We have a lot of paintings and music, too. We’re what my mother would have called “arty.” She would not have meant this as a compliment. My son constantly reminds us we live in a house and not an art gallery.
“Can’t we please be normal?” he says.
“Do you collect books?” a neighbor asks.
“I know why you have so many books,” one of my daughter’s friends says. “So people will think you don’t watch TV.”
“Books, huh?” one of my son’s friends says.
Yes, I say. That’s right.
“Be yourself,” I tell my daughter, even though most days I’m a hypocrite, terrified of being found out.
About writing, the great Harry Crews once said, “World don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”
I want my children to be their own beautiful selves. I also want the world to go easy on them. I’m not sure it’s possible to have both.
If meanness is learned, other things are learned, too. Contradiction, for instance.
When I was growing up, subdivision wasn’t a word people used. We had our street, neighborhood, block.
I think about that word now, subdivision, the root of it. The division of a larger division. The act of dividing again and again.
“Maybe I should try cheering,” my daughter says when she worries about fitting in. “Maybe I should get an American Girl doll.”
But I’m thankful she hasn’t followed up on any of that. She sings and plays softball and every Thursday, she straps on her frog hat and does her drum lessons with Mike. Right now they’re working from a book called The Rock and Roll Bible.
“It’s a foundation,” Mike tells Phelan. “Once you learn your system, you’re solid. You can do anything.”
They count together, one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a, and my pretty blonde daughter bangs out a beat like Charlie Watts. On her head, the frog eyes bob. When she plays, she’s happy, but serious, too. She wants to get this right.
The thing about frogs is they’re as comfortable on land as in water. Lotuses are rooted and floating all at once.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.” F. Scott Fitzgerald said that.
“Mom, you worry too much. We’re fine,” my son says.
I watch my daughter drum, her whole body moving, connected, one undivided beautiful self, and for this moment believe it.
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