You are maybe four years old, on the stage, one tiny blob of a person among other similarly aged or slightly older kids waiting for your turn to sing a rhyme.
You know you’re going to sing Johnny Johnny Yes Papa. You are waiting for the other kids to finish their Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep. Most kids repeat these two rhymes, but you know you want to keep it original and sing about Johnny’s sugar problems.
But then your originality is taken away.
A boy on the stage sings Johnny first. When he is done, the anchor brings the microphone to you. Nothing comes out of your mouth—not Johnny, not the little star, and not even the black sheep. You stay quiet. Not because you developed a sudden stage fright or forgot your lines, but because the boy took your rhyme.
Now you cannot be original and what you wanted was, to be original. Original, different, authentic, unique—whatever you could have been at four years of age singing a nursery rhyme, you could not have been that anymore.
So you choose to stay quiet.
Yes, you got a chocolate and maybe a teacup set nicely wrapped in gift paper for participating. And yes, you explained to the adult accompanying you, upon inquiry, “But he already sang the rhyme I wanted to sing!” and were told, “So what?” but, you went home misunderstood. Not because someone misconstrued what you were trying to say or do, but simply because someone did not understand you.
Andie Powers’ I am Quiet: A Story for the Introvert in All of Us, delightfully illustrated by Betsy Peterson, is one such story of a misunderstood boy. In this story, a quiet boy named Emile finds himself among grownups and other kids who tell him not to be shy. What they cannot see is that even though Emile appears to be shy and timid on the outside, he is, in fact, only quiet. On the inside, Emile is a sea captain and a brave explorer who befriends wild animals. Emile says, adding to the echoes of introverts and quiet people like him,
“I am quiet on the outside, but not on the inside. On the inside, my imagination shouts loudly and runs wild.”
Whether we played with other kids or like Emile made up stories in our heads, enacting them physically in a quiet corner; whether we were the quiet or the loud ones, the truth is that we were, all of us, cool kids.
But sometime around 11 or 12 years of age, when the tribe mentality kicks in and the outside begins to invade our inside, our need to fit into the micro-civilization of our preteen world overtakes the brief phase of freedom we were gifted with.
The temporality of this freedom and the knowledge of its imminent loss is heart-breaking.
A well-formed adult accepts this truth. But how many of us can call ourselves a well-formed, well-adjusted adult? And, what if, in the throes of adulthood, bound by our responsibilities, we long for the freedom of being complete?
Luckily, we need not look too far outside of ourselves for help and direction.
The wilderness of childhood comes with a gift of, what we now call, an inner compass—that elusive but subjective inkling that nudges us from the regular, ordinary trail, often more pleasantly than we remember. In our childhood, which is still nurtured by our inner child, we can look back to find a complete world in itself, with its little winnings and failings that encompassed love, creativity, justice and identity. In this world, among imaginary friends and foes, we may have found a way to express our voice, without fear and inhibition, with joy and excitement. This is the voice, the expression of our identity that we must now search for and bring back.
Emile’s story addresses this—the importance of knowing who we are even when we are misunderstood. In a world that is often louder than us and tells us who we should or should not be, the task of honouring our authentic selves is a magnificent undertaking. The job before us that we must take up as adults is to bear our childhood fears, hopes, dreams, and needs.
We must go on this one more adventure, to understand the parts within us that the world least understands. After all, we are still, on the inside, seafaring pirates, daring explorers, and fearsome princesses, fighting for our right to be, just as in that other world, in this world.