|Who Do You Think You Are? - Page 7|
Life: A Danger Zone
When I was 5 years old, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten, which I vaguely envisioned as a cheery place where my mother and I would play. I remember walking with her into a large, too-bright room vibrating with strange children in perpetual motion. Instinctively, I hung onto her. When she gently prodded me forward to introduce me to the cheerful teacher, I stared at my shoes. Mom put her arm around me, urged me to enjoy my morning, and assured me she'd be back soon. Then she turned and walked out the door.
I froze into place: my feet might as well have been nailed to the linoleum floor. A few of the children approached, and then a few more, until I was completely encircled by strange 5-year-olds who looked not one bit kind or welcoming. "Where'd you come from?" they demanded of this odd statue of a child. When I opened my mouth to speak, no words came out: my throat had seized up entirely.
"Where'd you come from?" they clamored over and over, circling me and looking increasingly annoyed. Finally, my instinct for survival momentarily subjugating my terror, I managed to croak, "New Jersey." The kids immediately began to peel off; I had succeeded in boring them. I hurled myself toward my benignly smiling teacher, who seemed entirely unaware of my close brush with oblivion. "I have to go home now," I whispered. "A little later," she chirped, herding me toward the other children. "Not later," I said. "Now."
Fortunately, I connected early on with another aspect of my high-reactive temperament—the part that loved to be alone. This wasn't just about relief from social overload; solitude made me truly, intensely happy. In an old photo that sits on my desk, I'm 2 years old, sitting behind our small, clapboard house in Cleveland, Ohio. Apparently, I've wandered away from the family group because I'm pictured entirely alone, nestled in grass, and washed in sunlight, holding a Peter Rabbit picture book and smiling softly. Inside the house, I sought similar serene nooks: as a preschooler, I kept a regular appointment with a square of sunlight that appeared on our living room rug each afternoon. I can still remember the liquid pleasure that rippled through me as I curled up alone in that sun-warmed spot. "You're like a little cat," my mother often said, and she was right: wherever there was warmth, light and solitude, I felt beckoned and soothed.
But those halcyon days of protected spaces were numbered. School was not only a rude awakening into a world of children more boisterous than I, but also my first opportunity to compare myself with lots of other kids. In the fourth grade, I became enamored of a dazzling circle of "popular girls"—the ones whose merciless faces appeared as I fled my dining room—and the more aggressively they rejected me, the more I despised the hideous shyness that seemed to consign me to perpetual outsider status. Why couldn't I be frothy and full of giggles, like them? By the time I was 10, I sometimes sat in my bedroom for hours, sunk in what I called "sadness" because I had no other word for it.