The One that Makes the Difference

When I was in sixth grade, and I remember this quite clearly - not just because I bring it up in all my therapy sessions, but because it's a good illustration of how the world sees me versus how I see myself - my classmates and I had an assignment. It was one of those "character development" assignments, the kind that have either grown to include virtue-signaling, or the kind that has been downplayed because of all the state and federal testing in schools. So it was easy, and it was nice, and in the end, I would even say it was effective, because I learned a lot from it. 

We had to make strips of paper and write a sentence on each one about each member of the class. We then had to give the strips to the person we wrote things about, secretly, and then we were to take all of our strips of papers and glue them to a larger paper, where we got to draw a quick pencil portrait of who we thought we were. 

The first part was fun for me. I remember taking my time to think of unusual things about my classmates I liked. I remember writing to the boy I had a crush on at the time that he had great dramatic talent. I wrote to his best friend that he was hilarious (and I remember how they argued that they liked each other's better.) I wrote to my best friend at the time that she was my best friend. 

I was excited about getting my strips as I was about writing them. 

Until, of course, I actually got them. They all said the same thing - they said I was smart.

I know, this is a good thing. But it was nothing like I'd wanted. I mean, I already knew I was smart. It was disappointing to think other people who didn't know me really well didn't think of anything else, or worse, that they couldn't think of anything else. Literally, there was nothing else people could think to describe me. There was one person who wrote "intelligent," but other than that it was just "smart." 

I remember growing up in that moment. I was smart. I did get good grades. And I did seem to have a sense of humor where I ended up explaining things to people a lot. I also did not talk to a lot of people, because I enjoyed being funny, and it was hard. I also enjoyed books and reading and playing around, and it would have been really nice to get one "You're pretty," but everything people saw me as was just "smart." 

So it was largely disappointing. Depressing, even. When people accuse me of being cliche in some of my work or if they accuse me personally of being cliche, I laugh and try not to yell "Sometimes cliches come true!" I was the smart kid. The strips confirmed it, branding it into a metaphorical banner: "You are smart." 

All, of course, except for one. 

The last strip said, "You are a good friend." 

It was in my best friend's handwriting, so I knew who wrote it. It was very nice to see that after the others had disappointed me.

Again, being smart is a good thing. I am eternally grateful I was able to do as well as I did in school and I am very glad I still am quite sharp (kids make you question your intelligence way more than the high school kids do.) But I didn't want to be known for just one part of who I was. If I had to do that all over again, I would want someone to write how smart I am, but I want everyone else to think of something else; maybe something about how I am charming and poignant and adorably self-righteous at all the wrong moments? Maybe even a good writer, huh?

If you have a lot of friends, I want to encourage you to be the one who makes the difference to each and every one of them in some way. People are complicated and mysterious and sometimes just flat-out weird. It can take a long time to get to know them, and even more time to get to appreciate the more subtle aspects of their character and humor and style. 

C. S. Johnson2 Comments