I had a pretty mixed assortment of friends in my childhood. While I'm delighted to have successfully reconnected with several classmates since the advent of Facebook, there are still some people who, when I think back to the way they treated me, I can't help but ask myself "What was I thinking??"
Diane was one of those people -- but this story is not about her. She moved clear across the country after 8th grade, and I never heard from her again. Zero loss. No, this story is about Diane's mom.
First thing you need to know about Diane's family is, her parents took child-rearing VERY seriously. I'm sure that if Microsoft had invented Excel back in the 1960s, Nat and Gene would have kept detailed spreadsheets, tracking every move made by Diane and her older sister. They were the sort of people who, if they made a joke, would look at each other worriedly, as if to say "Was that on today's schedule?" They had all sorts of maxims for Diane and her sister, including "Culture is wisdom," and "Be a leader, not a follower." There were lots and lots of rules. On the few occasions when I visited Diane's home, they were very free with their philosophy. It was as if two kids weren't enough -- they wanted to raise me, too.
My parents, on the other hand, were what you might call loosey-goosey. And when I came home from a visit at Diane's house, I repeated all the pithy sayings I'd heard there, and my parents would turn it into comedy fodder. We took relatively few things seriously in our home, whereas Diane's family took everything very, very seriously.
My parents, of course, had plenty of their own expressions and sayings. They just didn't sound anything like the ones I heard from Diane's folks.
One of my parents' favorite words was "nut." If my parents said "You're a nut," that was a compliment. It meant "You're a free spirit, you're an original, you're a character, you're fun, you're interesting!"
Diane's parents were raising her and her sister to be the polar opposite of nuts.
But I didn't really understand most of this -- I was, after all, 11 years old. And so it happened that one fine summer day, I was visiting Diane; we were running around the house and the yard in the slice of free time before dinner, and at one point, I was feeling so exuberant, I grabbed a pen, drew a cartoon animal of indeterminate species on my left hand, and captioned it "I am a NUT!" I was so proud of this, I ran right up to Diane's mom and showed it to her. I was sure she'd congratulate me on my wit.
Instead, she put her kitchen work aside, regarded me solemnly, and actually knelt on the floor in front of me. She gently took hold of my decorated hand, and said "Honey, don't ever say that you're crazy, or you're a nut. The way you represent yourself determines the way people will treat you. You must respect yourself, or no one else will! Now go wash that off, come back and we'll have dinner."
Well, obviously, this little encounter stayed with me. It's been close to half a century since that evening, and here I am, contemplating it for the umpteenth time. Of course, Diane's mom was absolutely right. And it was advice I really needed to hear. I was much more used to thinking of myself as "a nut," however one might define that word, than as a person of worth and dignity. Childhood wasn't my best time; it took quite awhile to arrive at the sweet spot in my life, where I wasn't constantly expecting to screw up.
It is quite possible that Diane's hopelessly serious mom made a difference for me that day. I never became (god forbid) a "stick-in-the-mud," as my parents would have said, but I gave myself permission to respect myself just a little more after that. I washed some of my self-denigration down the drain with my crude artwork, and fortunately, it never came back.