The heat was practically unbearable. We were a dozen thirteen-year-old girls who had been crammed together on the hot bus to Alexandria from Cairo for over two hours with sweat pouring from our skin. There was no point in asking if the driver could turn on the air conditioner—you just knew it wasn’t in working order. When we settled in to our temporary overnight residence, I looked around at the girls on the basketball team. Although I was wearing the same Cairo American College (CAC) travel shirt as the others, in actuality, I wasn’t on the team. Instead, I was the CAC team’s “manager.” The following morning, before the big game, I sat next to our coach, Mr. Shaheen. My sole responsibility had been to make sure all the girls arrived at the court by 8am for early pre-game practice. My job was done.
It’s not that I wouldn’t have loved to play—I would have. In fact, had I tried out in the beginning of the season, I would’ve leveraged the skills I learned shooting hoops with my older brother, Peter, since I was six. Instead, I sat watching our team crush their most formidable opponent, and stared at our Coach. Mr. Shaheen was a relatively dark skinned, handsome and athletic man who sported a thick mustache. He was also our gym teacher at CAC. From the beginning of the school year it was clear he liked me, and had offered the role of manager one day during Phys Ed unexpectedly. But I had never even considered trying out for the CAC team. It simply didn’t come up and I had made no indication of my desire to play. I always assumed that Mr. Shaheen wouldn’t support me, given my physical difference. And so, while I pretended to enjoy cheering the team on, I felt frustrated by my inability to flaunt my athletic abilities. I wasn’t yet strong enough to speak up on my own behalf. I lacked the confidence, I lacked the pride.
This past week I kicked off the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It PEACOCK LOGO Children’s Art Contest, where the winning sketch will become the model image for the DHIFI jewelry line being created by Jennifer Stock Designs. As a result, I have been thinking a lot about what the peacock represents and why it is such a perfect fit as the DHIFI logo. Simply put, peacocks are the symbol of openness and acceptance. A beautiful bird that flaunts its feathers for all to enjoy? The logo choice seems obvious in retrospect.
But as I was choosing the new logo, I couldn’t help but pay attention that day to all the press about NBA basketball player Jason Collins’ decision to reveal that he is gay. Apparently, despite all of the progress we might think has occurred on that front, Collins is the first active athlete in any of America’s four major sports leagues to make this pronouncement. In an article, Collins revealed why he finally decided to step out. “It’s tough to live a lie. It’s really tough: I describe it as you know the sky is blue but you tell yourself its red. It’s an insane logic. It’s tough to continue to live with lies and half-truths. It weighs on you. You put on a mask, but at the end of the day, you’re not happy telling yourself a lie over and over again to the point where I am now being honest and truthful and not having to have a censor button, it’s liberating.”
What grabbed my attention most of all was not the fact that Collins is gay, but instead his comment about “living a lie” and feeling “liberated.” I thought about that a lot. Although my own personal difference may not be invisible, somehow I can similarly relate. I know what it feels like to hide, and I don’t just mean concealing my hands while being photographed. Even with my physical difference out in the open and extremely apparent, I have realized that unless and until I consciously take a stand to be clear about what I am and all my capabilities, I will find myself living a life where I am not being true to myself.
In this context, I was reminded of a lovely mother, Elisa Peacock (no joke, that really is her last name!), who recently wrote me on the DHIFI Facebook page with the following story: “Meg, while sitting in a diner on Easter, I noticed a man outside talking to his son and saw that his hand was exactly like (my daughter) Lauren’s. I was so surprised! I walked outside with Lauren and we introduced ourselves. He had that look that said “what does this woman want with me?”!! I said “We noticed that your hand is exactly like my daughter’s and wanted to say hello.” He didn’t get all excited like I thought he would but was cordial. We kept it brief. But it made me rethink that maybe everyone does not want to be noticed or talked to just because have the same difference. Any thoughts?”
To me, this story spoke volumes and reminded me once again that, invisible or not, flaunting one’s difference takes effort and it is not inevitable. It also reminded me how our every interaction with people, even strangers, can represent a missed opportunity if we have not reached the position of being proud of who we are. I have learned so much by learning to love myself, not despite of, but even because of my difference. And when you finally have the courage to flaunt, it is amazing the positive impact it can have on those around you. Just this week Ethan came home from school and informed me that he now regards his very differently-looking hands as his, “pride and joy!” I melted.
And so, if the peacock symbolizes the path to liberation (a worthwhile goal for any of us), then we need to find a way to turn our differences into that source of pride and self-confidence that will let us, not someone else, decide how we’re defined. No more living lies to accommodate someone else’s expectations of us. As Collins himself put it, “there is nothing more beautiful.”