In sixth grade, two girls at school staged an intervention with me.
Your clothes are really boring and old, they said. You should – here they were emphatic – get nicer stuff.
I hadn’t thought much about my clothes. I wore my brother’s old Jams shorts. T-shirts from swim meets. Practical Nike sneakers I got with my mother once a year.
But these girls had stuffed their thoughts into my head. And I, not knowing I had a choice, let their thoughts matter to me.
Which left my sixth grade heart hurting. With shame about my boring and old clothes. And embarrassment about walking around in them all this time without realizing they were boring and old.
“I need to go shopping,” I told my mother. And it was a big, gaping, desperate need.
My mother and I went to the Gap Outlet. We tried to stuff that need with $200 worth of cardigans, blouses, corduroys. It was money my mother had budgeted for car repairs and medical bills. Then reallocated for her daughter who’d let two girls’ thoughts matter to her.
Shame and embarrassment, though, can’t be bought off. I returned to school wearing my nicer stuff. Those two girls were a little more approving. Yet under my new blouses, my heart – like so many human hearts trying to find their place in the world – still hurt.
And I began to learn something from that sixth grade heart of mine, though it would take many more hurts and shames and embarrassments for me to fully realize it:
We can’t stuff those big, gaping, desperate needs. But we can decide what matters to us.
And when the world throws sixth grade girls at us. Or criticism or rejection or indifference. We get to decide – even if it takes every ounce of self-respect and resolve and fearlessness we have; even if it means we’ll be looking different, swimming upstream, or standing alone – if it matters to us.
It’s part, a big and beautiful part, of how we human hearts find our place in the world.