I always thought I was born too sensitive.
I shouldn’t be able to cry that easily, to take so many words to heart, to care so much about people. I needed to toughen up.
In the middle of my kindergarten school year, a girl in my class was getting ready to move. On her last day, she accidentally slammed her hand in her car door as she was getting dropped off. I remember her crying and being so upset. What’s funny though is how upset this made me too. I still, almost thirty years later, vividly recall being so heartbroken it was her last day and it was ruined and she was leaving with such bad memories. It hurt me that she got hurt, and I was just so concerned for her.
I still think about that incident a lot, truthfully.
I still worry about the little girl who isn’t so little anymore and probably doesn’t even remember slamming her hand in the car door in the kindergarten drop-off line.
That’s the first moment I can recall being embarrassed that I cared about someone so much. I remember telling myself to get it together, that I was just drawing attention to myself, and to stop worrying about her.
From then on, it seemed to be about being tough. About not letting people know you care. About a hard outside.
I grew up quite the little tomboy who loved rough-and-tumble games, sports, and wearing unflattering athletic clothes. It helped me act tough because I liked tough things. But inside I was this weird mix of writing sad songs and poetry in my room and then getting into fights with boys in middle school (Jason Alcorn during choir class, I’M LOOKING AT YOU RIGHT NOW). Caring for people and showing emotion didn’t fit in with my desire to be thought of as a hard ass so I pretended I didn’t care about anything.
When really, I just thought I cared too much.
During my second year of teaching, I was sitting in my assistant principal’s office going over my yearly evaluation. She was telling me the story of a kid who caused lots of problems in other classes, but not mine. She had recently met with him and she asked him who he would go to if he ever felt unsafe or if there was a threat in the building. He had answered without missing a beat that he would go to Ms. Graham’s room because she would probably beat the attacker up. She laughed at this when she told me. She celebrated the fact that kids felt safe and secure in my classroom, but she wondered if they might struggle to see past my tough exterior to realize why I wanted them to feel safe. She wondered if I sometimes stood in my own way and they couldn’t see that I cared deeply for them as well. She thought maybe the caring part was getting lost in the tough part.
That was it.
That was it all along, in my professional life, in my personal life, in my friendships, in my writing, in my silence.
A long time ago, I learned that I was too sensitive and I needed to toughen up. So then I toughen up but maybe too much and things got confusing inside and out.
Now, at almost-thirty-five, I’m working on being soft again. I’m learning to be okay with how news stories make me cry, how students’ home lives break my heart, and how I sometimes feel too many things all at once.
Learning to be gentle again in a world that values hard and detachment is difficult. Often the world beats us up and we grow colder, more cynical, and harder as we get older.
I’m fighting hard against that. It feels counter-intuitive but also right. For so long, I could pretend I didn’t care and didn’t feel much because it was easy and expected. It made me feel silly and weak to cry at new babies, car accidents I passed on the road, and obituaries of people I’ve never even heard of. But now I feel like what I’ve been fighting against for so long is exactly who I want to be.
Because when I feel and work through my sorrows, I also get to see the celebrations clearer. When I mourn the loss of people I only wish I had known, I get to see the people around me with softer eyes.
When I cry big, heavy tears as I’m driving down the road listening to the radio, I get to…
Actually, I don’t know what I get then. Probably just eye rolls from my husband and then the giggles when I realize I’m crying over a song about s-e-x.
But even the crazy I-don’t-know-why-I-feel-so-much-right-now chaos is starting to feel okay. I want to be soft and broken and raw and ready for everything, not just hiding and scared. I’ll probably end up with a few more bumps and bruises, maybe a few more broken hearts. But I’ll also end up with more laughs, more love, and more joy.
And I can’t see what could be so bad about that.