“Never give in. Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never give in.” Winston Churchill (1941 commencement speech to his prep school.)
“Meg, you should explore something else. You’re not cut out for writing.” I didn’t know what to say. The comment came after school from my English teacher. I was, in a word, shattered. How was it that the one thing I wanted to do the most was the very thing I was the worst at doing? I was in my senior year at Urbana High School and felt particularly humiliated, given the fact that my father was an accomplished university professor and well published. My mother, meanwhile, had earned her PhD in English and just published her first book. My teacher’s discouragement came only a month after classes began and we had been tasked with keeping a detailed journal. The journal wasn’t graded, but was intended to have us grow accustomed to daily, observational writing.
That night while I was doing my homework, my mom entered my room to call me to dinner I turned around, the red in my eyes still apparent, and poured it all out. She put her arm around my shoulder and said softly. “Many that are considered great writers weren’t born that way. It took time, and also they needed to write something they felt passionate about.” As she continued my Dad walked in, clearly having overheard our conversation. “….and by the way Meg, I always have to come back to my writing, at least several times before I am happy with it….and your mother edits everything I write too before it is final.” I looked up at him, and he finished with,“You have a lot of really important experiences. One day you will learn exactly how to draw upon them….just give it time.”
That night, as I lay in bed, I made up my mind, I would one day write. Whatever my teacher thought no longer mattered.
“Not really…..well, I guess there was my English teacher back at Urbana High who I considered kind of mean, Char. I mean, he made me feel terrible about my writing. Who knows, though, back then? I probably didn’t even know how to develop a protagonist in a story.” We were driving the long stretch on I-95 toward Hyannis, MA, then to the ferry to Nantucket for our summer vacation. It was a long trip. Charlie had asked me if I had ever had a mean teacher. Assuming he needed more explanation, Ethan, Charlie’s older brother, jumped into the conversation, “Charlie, an antagonist is a person who is mean to someone….like an enemy in the story. A protagonist is the main character–like if you were writing a story about yourself, you would be the protagonist and the antagonist would make your life hard.” Ignoring Ethan’s explanation, Charlie began to recall a story he had learned from his cousin, where a teacher duct-taped a child’s mouth for talking too much. “Mom, now THAT is mean. I heard that she was so horrible, a few kids begged their moms to be home-schooled!” I gazed out the window, fighting back a momentary tinge of dread that I always feel when a new school year begins and I never know where school-related cruelty might lurk.
A few days later, from the comfort of our vacation rental, I caught an interview between Tyra Banks and a young woman named Chantelle Brown-Young, whom I had recently profiled on my DHIFI Facebook page. Brown-Young is a competitor on the cast for America’s Next Top Model, and there is no question she is an eye-catcher on several levels. At only four years old, a white-patch appeared on Brown-Young’s stomach. Soon afterward, as more appeared all over her body and face, Brown-Young was diagnosed with the skin pigment disorder Vitiligo. According to Brown-Young, growing up was tough, and because of her physical difference, she was bullied repeatedly at school. “You’re already having changes you don’t understand, plus this skin condition that I didn’t ask for and all the bullying as a result.” She continued describing her experience growing up in Toronto, Canada, where she was tormented constantly, called a zebra and a cow through Middle School and High School. The ongoing cruelty was often unbearable, as she described incidents where fellow students would walk up to her and grin as they said, “Shall we milk you?” Despite being tormented, Brown-Young had the right support network at home. When asked how she handled the treatment, she quickly provided advice to parents of children born with a physical difference: “My Dad didn’t live with us but my Mom was always there for me. Make sure your child knows you look beautiful from you first so they don’t seek the approval elsewhere.” Brown-Young conveyed her own discovery that you cannot look to others, especially classmates, to figure out your own identity and self-worth. Yet her story did not end in complete triumph. Chantelle Brown-Young confided that in the end, she couldn’t take the tormenting and decided to become home-schooled. She didn’t win over her peers and get a Hollywood ending in school.
I thought a lot about her experience growing up, especially this week as my own three kids, two that share my genetic condition, started a new year at school. Although Brown-Young had the family support she needed, even that couldn’t compensate for the distraction from homework that her daily trials on the school ground inflicted. I’m in no position to judge a family’s decision to figure out what is best for their child’s education, yet I’m wondering to myself – was the decision to leave the public school a lesson for others? A failure? A victory? Something else? And here the story changes again, because we learn the enormous power of love from Brown-Young’s mother. This young girl refused to absorb childish mockery but believed enough in her unique beauty to accept the encouragement of a local photographer and begin to model at age 16. Satisfied with the outcome, Brown-Young even posted the photos of herself in social media, hoping that someone (in her wildest dreams) like Tyra Banks would take notice. I was watching the result on television.
With the above in mind, I again felt that tinge of what may come for my own kids. The antagonists in their lives will emerge and I won’t be there to prevent it or defend them. However, guided by the way my own parents raised me, I believe our unqualified love for each of our children gives them the foundation they need to believe in themselves, no matter the challenge. They learn to insulate themselves from their antagonists and most importantly, they will never, ever give-in.