In college I signed up for a creative writing class. Among the painfully mundane classes I chose to endure (the knowledge from which I have yet to drawn upon), it was the only class on my schedule that should have helped form me. It should have ushered me into a change of major, from Criminology to English. It should have been the springboard from which I jumped into Stephen King’s well-described "language pool...where we all go down to drink." Should’a, would’a, could’a...
Instead, I dropped the class and immersed myself in the pool of inhibitions, drowning in those murky waters for a long time. I remember the exact moment that my inhibitions pulled me under.
The class was small. I took my place in a circle of pale yellow, cold, plastic chair-desks, secretly feeling as synthetic and fake as the wood grain veneered on their tops. As we waited for the professor, the other students oozed relaxed creativity – it was falling from their lips like beautiful flower petals as they discussed books and politics and philosophy. My lips, however, stayed tightly shut, trussed by inadequacy and fear. These kids weren’t ordinary, like me. They weren’t scared they might say something stupid and look like an idiot, like me. They didn’t care if someone disagreed with their opinions, like me. They were not tethered firmly to the earth by self-consciousness, like me. They were magnificent birds soaring through the air of originality and confidence. I, on the other hand, was a flightless bird. I was a penguin.
The professor finally came in and took her place among us, completing the circle and rescuing me from the students’ glares that clearly communicated their suspicions that I, looking oxymoronic with my poufy hair and grunge clothes, didn’t belong. Upon her instruction, we opened our books and began reading aloud. My defenses went down a little as I settled into the story, just in time for the in-class assignment to sucker punch me square in the jaw.
“Close your eyes and think of the color red”, she instructed. After a minute of peeking through my closed eyes insecurely to check if I was the only one with them shut, she continued, “Now open them and write about what you saw, how it made you feel, what imagery it brought to mind”. Terror. That’s what I felt. Not because the color red summoned that emotion (although it sometimes does today, latched on to that memory like a blood-sucking leech). No, I felt terror because the other kids started feverishly writing while I was frozen with a blank mind.
When the professor started to go around the circle asking people to read what they wrote, panic joined terror and the two bounced off the walls of my stomach like bad seafood. I was staring at a blank white sheet of paper, a mirror reflecting what my mind looked like at that moment. What would I say when my turn came? I obviously couldn’t be honest and explain my terror and panic. Once I did that, they would surely stone me to death (so I imagined). Or worse yet, they would affirm my suspicion – that I was an ordinary fool with no creativity, no imagination, no talent, no gifts, no color…just a boring brown-eyed cliché walking around her gray world with nothing to offer.
The professor dismissed class before the others had finished, again rescuing me from their judgmental stares. I raced over to the registrar’s office and dropped that class like a hot potato. Whew, dodged a bullet there, one that certainly would have shattered the façade I had spent years buffing to a high shine, a brightly polished icy finish that deceptively projected a cool, fun-loving, free-spirited extrovert who didn’t care what people thought. Why face my fears, acknowledge a passion, let go, and perhaps grow when I could safely live behind that glossy veneer, drowning in my own insecurities.
The dark waters of inhibition eventually poured into nearly every aspect of my life. That’s not to say that I was a miserable person. I wasn’t. I loved and lost and laughed and cried – lived as real of a life as I allowed myself. But I was still a penguin waddling around a gray iceberg, watching the soaring birds above me from the perch of my flightless, personal prison.
So the question begs, how did I become so self-conscious, so scared? My life has been abundantly blessed – loving parents, the best of friends, strong relationships, good grades, faith. But sometime during adolescence, I became very concerned with how people saw me and, through the years, I allowed that to become a ruling authority in my life.
With an ever-increasing collection of years piling up behind me, however, I am discovering the power of rebellion and am plucking out those heavy feathers, preparing for flight. I’ve started molting, I guess. I’m a scruffy molting penguin – not pretty, but essential for growth. And while I’m no soaring bird, I do get some good air under my penguin wings sometimes.