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By Nathaniel B. Broyles
PSY 294: Psychology of Exceptional Children and Adolescents Prof. Daniel Aaron, Ph.D., LCSW June 28, 2011
Growing up is a terribly difficult thing to do. It s made even more complicated when there is something that sets you apart from those you are trying to fit in with. That is, after all, the single most important part of being an adolescent; the need to fit in is deeply ingrained in all of us. The world is a confusing and dangerous place and it takes an awful lot of effort to find you own path through the minefield that is growing up. Some children have it a little easier than others do as they are blessed with the right combination of parents, class, wealth, and/or looks to enable them to better fit in the accepted norms of their peers. For those without those natural advantages, like me, adolescence can be a perverse nightmare of uncertainty and awkwardness.
My mother was eighteen years old when she had me, her firstborn. She was born into a large middle class family of Irish and European background in a small town called Uncasville in Connecticut. I have never gotten the story of how she met my father but he was a black man in his twenties from New London, Connecticut. From what I have been able to gather over the years, he was a charming man with the ladies and had several girlfriends at the same time. As a matter of fact, I found out when I was in my twenties that I had a half-sister who was conceived by my father with another woman while he was married to my mother. In any case, it was never explicitly stated to me but I have gotten the impression over the years that none of my mother s family really approved of the marriage.
I was four years old when my father went to prison. My sister, Sarah, was at the time only a few months old and my mother was left on her own to raise two small children. I know that it was a difficult time for her and she truly struggled, even with support from her parents. I have memories of growing up in three different places in Norwich, Connecticut, none of which could be described as ideal. The first was a small, cramped, and dingy apartment at the base of a steep hill on a very narrow street. To this day, I have trouble remembering that name of that street and we lived there for only a few short years. We then moved two streets over to an apartment above a corner package store on Broad Street. That was the apartment where we spent most of my early childhood.
If you have ever been on welfare or a recipient of food stamps, it will be impossible for you to forget the yellow blocks of cheese. That is what I remember most of what it means to have to rely on food stamps. I was too young to really take note of how my mother would sit at the kitchen table clipping coupons and doing her best to stretch what little money she had into something tangible. I do remember how it felt to struggle to cut the hard cheese with a kitchen knife so that I could make myself
and my sister a grilled cheese sandwich. My sister and I were always clothed and fed, even though we might not have had the best or most popular clothing. I remember the yellow Vega sitting at the end of the driveway that belonged to my mother, although I cannot quite remember ever actually driving in it. Actually, the only vehicle that I remember driving in at the age was a huge, ancient station wagon and the only reason that I remember that is because of the memory of the accident that is associated with it. You see, my mother was not paying enough attention to the road at the time and accidentally rearended a car full of nuns who were turning into a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. That caused me to get my first and only ride in an ambulance since my forehead was thrown against the back of the front seat, impacting the blunt edge of a nail just below the surface of the fabric. I remember being scared but also thrilled to be able to ride in one of the types of vehicles that I regularly saw at the local firehouse.
Speaking of the local firehouse, my greatest ambition as a young boy was to be a fireman. My mother would regularly, every couple of weeks it seemed, walk my sister and I downtown to visit the local public library. We had toys and the television to entertain us but my mother managed to instill in me a love of reading that has turned into a lifelong passion. She would have no problems with leaving me alone in the library for a few hours on a weekend while she ran errands, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn t be leaving the wonderful world of books by choice. At that young age I was enamored with stories by Matt Christopher and adventure stories featuring boys my age. When I had cleaned out the children s section of anything that really caught my interest, I sought permission to venture into the young adult section, where I did the same over the course of a couple of years. I eventually found my way upstairs, where the adults gathered and the books beyond my understanding were kept. It was there, in an out of the way section almost hidden in the geographical section, that I found the three rotating stands filled with paperback books. They were almost all science fiction and fantasy and I instantly fell in love with the whole genre. You see, I loved to be able to imagine myself as the hero of those magical stories. At various times I was able to wander the magical world of Xanth, to be the proud leader of Rico s Roughnecks, to put myself in the shoes of one of the Incarnations of Immortality, or to immerse myself in the world of Middle Earth. It was heady stuff to be able to feel like a hero for a poor boy who didn t feel he really fit in. For that reason, I really looked up to those firefighters that we passed on our way to the library. I knew that they were special and to be trusted because I knew they were the ones who were supposed to save you if you were ever in trouble. I even had a shiny, reflective picture of a fireman holding an axe stuck to my window so that they would know that I was inside if there was ever a fire. They were important and brave and, most of all, they seemed to genuinely enjoy having me visit
with them whenever I could cajole my mother into going. They would actually talk with me and let me climb all over the apparatus, even going so far as to let me sit in the driver s seat of some of the trucks and pretend that I was driving. I loved being around those heroic male role models.
The first time that I really became aware of the color of skin making me different from other people was around the fourth grade. At that time, we had moved to the projects on Carlson Street and we lived next door to a small family that had an adult son living with them. I m fairly certain that he didn t have a job as I cannot remember him as doing anything but sitting on the front step smoking cigarettes and making comments to everyone in the neighborhood as they walked by, especially the kids. I was his favorite whenever I was in the area and I was never spared being called Toby and the endless references to Roots, including the dreaded N word, all of which mostly went over my head at the time. That was really the first time that anyone had ever made it seem like my darkly tanned skin was a bad thing and it was when I started to learn the meaning of racism.
Being alone in a crowd is something that I experienced early on in adolescence and became something that I was used to by the time I had finished high school. I was somewhat of a teacher s pet in grammar school for my high vocabulary and demonstrated love for reading. My reading and comprehension levels were measured at a college level before I ever reached high school. My appearance also played into that stereotype somewhat. I used to have to wear glasses to see the board in school. By the time I reached junior high, I was suffering from debilitating migraine headaches. The headaches did not go away until the doctors determined that my prescription had changed so much that I needed to wear glasses on a full-time basis. Puberty also meant that I started to put on a great deal of weight. I was no longer whip-cord thin but had developed a gut that kept growing larger as I aged. I also habitually wore t-shirts and sweatpants constantly until high school. I was never concerned with trying to wear the latest fashions or trying to fit in, mostly because the money was never there to make it a possibility so I had learned at a young age not to care so very much about appearances. As a consequence, my appearance and solitary nature meant that I was never invited to parties. I was friendly enough to be affiliated with but never a part of several groups and it remained that way throughout my adolescence and teenage years.
In hindsight, race was probably the single most important factor in determining my relationships amongst my peers while growing up. There were certainly other factors at work but race almost always
lead the way. I mentioned previously about learning what racism was and what it meant for me. My puberty occurred during the decade of the 80 s, when interracial relationships, even in New England, were still rare. From my mother s example, I knew that it could happen. I was never really around children my own skin color, or darker, while growing up. All of my life I was surrounded by pale skin and that was all that I really knew. On the few times that I would find myself in black surroundings, I found myself confused and in an alien environment. The language and attitudes were completely different from what I knew, understood, and was comfortable with. It is really no wonder that my standards of physical female attractiveness do not include those with dark skin or overly black features such as broad noses, thick lips, and kinky hair. My high school had one other black boy in it besides me and neither of us dated much, or at all in my case. For me, it was a case of race and not wanting to put myself in a vulnerable position to be rejected for the color of my skin, which is what I expected. I also had to contend with not being popular or handsome enough to have any expectations that anyone I was attracted to would have any reason to say Yes.
I think that, overall, I developed fairly well for the first few years of my childhood. Unwittingly, my mother followed the Lev Vygotsky model of childhood cognitive development and did not solely rely on formal schooling for my education. She actively encouraged me to learn on my own and never placed restrictions on my reading material. I would often, even throughout my high school years, come home from the public library with half a dozen or more books to read. It was that voracious appetite for reading material that lead to a corresponding interest in writing. To this day, writing is the primary outlet for my creative urges and desires. Two of my greatest unfulfilled ambitions remain, even today, to write a best-selling novel and to write a screen-play that eventually is turned into a Hollywood movie.
Erik Erikson s theory on childhood development makes the most sense to me of all of the others that I have explored. Much of what Erikson proposes makes sense in relation to my childhood and adolescence. For instance, the earliest clear memory that I have is that of standing and looking up at a giant male figure as he smacks me. That person was my biological father and, according to mother when I asked her about the incident in later years, I was being disciplined for having colored with crayons on the coffee table. I am positive that incidents like that were not isolated occurrences and so it does not surprise me that I was a shy child. I much preferred playing by myself and pursuing solitary interests than socializing with peers. The guilt that I experienced during those early formative stages was from a sense of not feeling comfortable in establishing my independence for fear of doing something wrong
and provoking a punishment response. This undoubtedly fed directly into feelings of inferiority during my elementary school years. Those feelings are still an issue that I have to struggle with to this day but they were much stronger during my adolescence when they were routinely reinforced by my clothing, appearance, and all of the other associated things that are so important to teenagers as they try to fit in.
Although I am currently in the midst of the fifth of Erikson s stages, that of intimacy versus isolation, from a standpoint of age, I honestly cannot profess to be making much progress in successfully completing that stage. The biggest problem with doing this is that I have regressed, or perhaps never really passed out of, the stage of identity versus identity confusion. I have never really been able to say with one hundred percent accuracy just who I am as a person. I can speak in generalities about I wish that I were, or could be, but I cannot see myself as that person yet. It is fair to say that I still don t know what I want to be when I grow up. From the time that I ended high school and throughout my twenties, I drifted through life with no clear goals in mind. In some cases, such as going to college immediately upon graduating high school, I simply listened to those who supposed knew better than I when I should be doing. I lost confidence in the advice that those people gave me after three years of feeling lost and adrift and ended up leaving school by the simple means of getting myself too deep into debt to return. In hindsight, and with the knowledge gained through hard experience, I was simply doing my best to sabotage myself by exhibiting masochistic personality traits. The feelings of masochism and, most importantly, identify confusion are problems that I do recognize and feel, with some confidence, that I will able to resolve positively in the future. I no longer feel that race is a large factor in my life as I have integrated and accepted that I am a product of two races. Since it is a part of me, I now need to concentrate on what I want to be when I grow up. Once that has been accomplished, I will be able to move forward in resolving the intimacy versus isolation that I feel keenly lacking in my life.
When I eventually have children of my own, I do not foresee very many differences between my own development and what they will go through. By that, I do not mean that their experiences will mirror my own, because I certainly intend to make sure that they have far more positive experiences than I did, but that their stages of development will almost certainly be the same. I fully intend to take a page out of the book of Lev Vygotsky and challenge my children to learn and soak up all of the knowledge that they are ready for. The technology is already there to make interactive learning games that are fun and so they will learn how to use computers from a young age. I can foresee that their
favorite toys will not be G. I. Joes, Transformers, or Lincoln Logs, but the PC sitting in the den. This makes sense though as, according to Vygotsky, we learn through the tools associated with our culture and our society in North America is very much driven by the latest technological advances in computers and telecommunications. My children will be linked in from a young age with their own cell phones and email accounts and it will be my responsibility to make sure that they are safe in using such technology. They will also have the ability to socialize more with their friends than those of my generation were able to do as they will be able to see and talk with each other easily even when not at school, which was where the primary social interactions took place during my day.
In the end, despite being in my mid-thirties, I am still a young adult searching for his identity and place in the world. My racial makeup played a large part in defining the person who I was during my early and teen years. Today, those feelings of inferiority related to race have been resolved. However, I am still, in many ways, the sky, awkward, glasses-wearing, overweight kid who has problems talking to pretty girls and has only the smallest clue as to what he would like to be when he grows up. That, for now, is enough for me to be comfortable in my own skin. My development may not have progressed as far as that of many of those whom I grew up with but I am still progressing. There is something to be said for progressing at one s own speed and, in the end, I believe that I will have had a successful, if long, journey on the path to integrity, Erikson s final stage of development.
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