I always look forward to a new school year and the potential for growth and change that lay ahead for my kids. I also love how the High Holidays are so perfectly aligned with the start of school. September is fresh start, a way to clean the slate from the year before.
When I was in middle school and high school, I didn’t always feel like I had the opportunity to reinvent myself each year. There were only four types of people it seemed you could be: jap, jock, nerd, or burnout. There was never any room for self-expression, for change, for figuring out who you were or wanted to be. You had to homogeneously fit into one of these four categories and then were stuck with this identity until you left for college. If you were lucky, you knew no one in college from high school and could finally begin to be someone else—yourself.
It’s funny to think about it now, but when I was growing up in the early 1980s, what I really wanted to be was a Jewish American Princess. These were the girls that always had nice clothes and lived in beautiful houses in the fancy part of town. Most of their mothers wore big diamond rings and drove Jaguars and didn’t work. The JAP-y girls always had good hair.
I was awkward. My nails were always dirty. My hair was frizzy. I had braces for six years and wore headgear. My parents were artsy. My mother worked.
The pressure to fit in was insurmountable. As hard as I tried to fit in to the JAP clique by buying the right kind of jeans or wearing the right kind of blue eye shadow, I could never keep up. One particular middle school memory still stings: I begged my mother to buy me a pair of shoes that I just had to have—shoes that none of the JAP girls were wearing but I loved them so much I didn’t care. I showed up at school one day feeling really cool and proud in my new shoes only to be made fun of all day long. The girls all stared at my feet as they passed me in the halls and they laughed at me. I didn’t take many fashion risks after that day or take many risks at all.
Ultimately, I failed miserably at being a Jewish princess. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere and somehow that felt worse than being labeled a jock or a burnout for life. I felt invisible and that was a different kind of label that stuck with me for a long time. Let’s just say I am grateful every day I’m not back in middle and high school.
It’s probably intentional, then, that my husband and I chose to raise our kids in San Francisco. Sure, San Francisco has one of the highest inequality rates in the nation, but the counter-culture of the 60s is still alive and well. Self-expression is a “thing” here just like Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were a “thing” in 9th grade. My kids are free to be anyone they want and even to mix it up on any given week or even in a single day.
My kids are growing up with social diversity and with it, an acceptance amongst their peers that astonishes me (in a good way). They have friends who dress preppy, others who are super stylish, and still others who don’t care about fashion at all. They have friends who have two mommies and two daddies and friends who have just one parent. My kids have Jewish friends and Christian, Muslim, Atheist, and Buddhist friends. There’s a friend who used to be a girl and is now a boy. Some friends live in big houses and others live in smaller apartments. All their friends have different opinions on all sorts of things. They learn from each other. They respect each other.
At home, too, I refuse to ever to let my kids be boxed in. When my daughter spent a year wearing basically the same athletic shirts and shorts to school every day in 3rd grade, I said nothing. And when my son wore a wool hat that buttons under his chin to preschool for the entire year, I kept my mouth shut. You will never hear me say to my children the words “tomboy,” “weird,” “girly,” “anxious,” “shy,” “lazy,” etc. Labels don’t exist in my house. I know these emotional labels can do enormous damage. They can stick and last way longer than the labels I buy for the kid’s camp clothes that eventually fade over time.
My son just started 7th grade and my daughter is a Freshman in high school. Looking to the year ahead, I want to give my kids the room to grow and figure out who they are on their own terms. And I want to raise them in an environment that supports and accepts them and where they feel safe. I try hard to parent with open arms and with the breath and depth to understand all the possibilities that one person can be.
I hope my kids never feel limited, labeled, or boxed in as I did. I hope they continue to grow and stretch themselves in all different directions. For me, I still feel like I don’t quite “fit in,” but now that I’m older, I like that part of me. And I’m pretty sure my husband and friends do, too.