Trying on cap and gown for the 'rents
I posted this picture of me trying on my cap and gown as a 17-year-old high school senior. I was surprised by my blank affect. I mean, I expected something like it, but I found myself looking at this picture as if I were analyzing the face of a stranger. Is this young man sad? Tired? Angry? Do I accept his very still face, or does it irritate me? Do I want to tell him to take that look off his face? And then, in my memory I turned around and looked out from that face – remembering all that I knew and felt then – and looked at me, the observer. For a moment, both Arthurs were present to each other, and both attracted to and a little repelled by each other.
Could it be a leftover from the sullenness induced by junior high (the deepest pit in hell)? Looking at my 7th- and 8th-grade school pictures, I see a cheerful (and even smiling) boy. The smoky, snarly looks start with my freshman year, and continue through sophomore and junior years. And then, my official senior portrait has a very open and attractive smile. I remember reviewing several photographs I sat for to do that portrait. I believe the school yearbook has chosen a pose more open and smiling than the official one I ordered for my parents’ home. So the smile may reflect more the judgment of the yearbook editor than my own feelings.
When confronted about my lack of a smile, I have told people that when I was a young boy, I had terrible buck teeth. At least one school picture shows them sticking out over my lower lip. I remember that I made all my bilabial consonants (“b,” “p,” and “m”) as labio-dentals, using my overbite to form the sounds perfectly. I eventually got very self-conscious about those teeth, and I started to keep my lips firmly closed. In effect, I made myself smile, when I did, with my mouth closed. No toothy grins. Well, I had braces in 6th and 7th grade, and that corrected my teeth; but nothing ever corrected my smile.
7th grade, braces on teeth
Still, I did smile, when I was at ease. But I was always on my dignity when being photographed, afraid of looking foolish. And I always hated being badgered about smiling – or about rendering any emotional or affective response on somebody’s command. Perhaps this has to do with having had a rather overwhelming mother. I loved her dearly, and our minds were very alike. We talked a lot, and about a lot of things. But she always seemed rather smothering to me, and I pushed her away much of the time.
Me with Mother in an unusually relaxed moment
On top of this, I was awkward with relationships and making friends, particularly as I grew up. It got harder to figure out the rules, and there were always bullies around to mock or punish those who were a couple of steps behind the curve. Also, being the introvert I am, I never mastered any small talk until I was an adult, trying to figure out how to approach my parishioners. For someone who feared looking foolish, it was all too easy to be wrong-footed by somebody.
I was also one of those spooky-bright kids whose vocabulary had raced ahead of what others thought proper for a person of my age. My peers (many of them) resented me, thought I was putting on airs. Adults (many of them) patronized me, as if I were cute for using such big words – but they were the only words I knew. Except in strictly academic environments, my high-sounding idiolect and unusual interests (i.e., how I talked and what I talked about) kept getting on others' nerves, whereupon they would zing me one way or another. So, except for a few friends, I withdrew into myself and stood on my dignity.
Meanwhile, I was growing up, feeling all kinds of new things and experiencing all kinds of new things. I kept these largely to myself, since there were few people at this point I trusted to see my unguarded persona. All of these things go into the making of that picture at the top of this page.
I think I began to unbend when I went off to college. I was finally on my own. I made new friends in a new environment, with whom I didn’t have the fraught history of the people I went to high school with. I got to try things that had been foreclosed to me by social pressures, like sports. And in my sophomore year, I met Deanne. She had a smile, when she showed it, that made my heart turn over. I’ve told her many times that I fell in love with her because of her smile; I don’t think she’s ever really believed me. But I look at pictures of us in those early years of courtship and marriage, and I see a smiling young man, at rest and unconflicted. Oh, the problems and burdens of my childhood and adolescence were still with me, but in lots of important ways I was learning to like myself, and to believe that others could like me, too.
Engaged to be married
So, I still tend to smile with my lips closed, and I am still flustered by new social demands I haven’t navigated before. But I am no longer quite as burdened and careful as that young man in the cap and gown. We understand each other. Across the years, we minister grace to each other. I tell him, “you’re okay, you know,” and he tells me, “I’m glad to see how you turned out.”
The thing I have learned is that it takes a long time to grow up. Sadly, many of us are already growing old by the time we’re done growing up. But whether sooner or later, I know that it’s possible to be at peace with God, at peace with others, and – most amazing of all – at peace with yourself. And that is a great gift.
A break in the action