Collecting gold stars.

I’ve long since been seen as a “free spirit” who “does her own thing.” And for the most part, it’s true. And as an Enneagram Type 4, it’s real easy for me to post up my flag as the odd (wo)man out, the “different” one. All the ways that “one of these is not like the other.”

This was especially noteworthy (and painful, because I didn’t understand, and dammit I wanted to be included and liked and right and appreciated and seen for all the value I was bringing to the situation…) ahem. I digress. This was especially noteworthy in my early 20s when I was teaching a Sunday School class for high school seniors. I was only a few years older than them, but I was their teacher.

On a church trip to New Orleans, we had some free time and were allowed to roam about a local mall. As I remember it, I was the chaperone for a group of about five of my high school girls, all 18 years old. I had known them long enough to get to know their mothers. Their siblings. Their family dynamics and relationships. While I was their teacher and chaperone, I was also their friend. Part of their support network as they navigated high school.

We had a specific time we were supposed to be back at the shuttle. My group arrived at the same time as another all-boys group, led by a male chaperone. “Gold Star for being on time” said Jay, the Youth Director, to the boys group. I was confused, because…I wanted a gold star…and I also arrived back at the same time… only me and my crew arrived with 6 new piercings. My own, and five belonging to each of the teenage girls I was somehow supposed to be leading/guiding. The curse of the piercing was clearly the beginning of the end of my Sunday school teaching career.

My life has been bookmarked by these moments, and this is my opportunity to go back, insert curiosity and the pause (sometimes a really long pause) and respond from today’s most authentic self.

Today I would call it out. “I’m on time too! Is there something else you’d like to talk about?” I had gone through a thoughtful conversation with each teenager. This was before the widespread use of cell phones, and none of us had them. But we did the pre-technology due diligence. The girls who got their ear pierced were 18. They knew their mothers wouldn’t mind (I mean, most of them had belly button piercings) and they were very clear that if there was fallout from their parents, the piercing was out. No more questions asked. In my own mind, I was responsible. I had asked the questions. There were no “no piercings or tattoos” rules stated. But Jay didn’t ask any more questions. He just withheld the gold star.

Revisiting that uncomfortable feeling from 20+ years ago, it’s still so familiar: Being misunderstood. It makes my chest physically ache to think about my younger self, not knowing how to navigate that instant pang of insecurity, the regret of decisions already made, the rapid yet muddled replay of how I navigated the situation correctly or poorly …but Jay doesn’t know or care about any of that. And I don’t know how to invite the conversation. My throat locks down, words escape me, hot tears well up in my eyes. I’m not enough. I did it wrong.

I had a more recent situation where I felt misunderstood. I still don’t like it. It’s still uncomfortable. But I understand myself now. I can identify what’s going on – and I can say, “Would you like to know more about what happened from my perspective?” Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Regardless of their response, I can acknowledge my own needs, own feelings, own ego.

And for that, I finally get that coveted gold star.

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