I always hated the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I felt ashamed; I blushed, stammered. Choked out something I thought might pass for non-fiction. (Which made me feel worse since I knew lying was wrong.) The truth? I didn’t want to be anything; I had no ambitions. How do you tell people that? I felt unacceptably weird.
I didn’t want to be a nobody. I had interests and talents, both. But I was wary of staking my future, as if it was the meaning of life, on one college major or career. I watched friends do this. The pressure started early, maybe even elementary school, to have everything all figured out. How could I say I wanted to be something when I didn’t even know what all it entailed? And what if I got there and hated it? Nobody else seemed to be bothered by these thoughts so I just figured everyone else knew something I didn’t.
The worst part though – and mostly all this just floated around in my sub-conscious, it wasn’t something I could have told you – was that I sensed pursuing a career, no matter how fantastic, was not the right way to define my identity. If I answered the dreaded question with a career of any kind, I was really answering “What do you want to DO when you grow up?” But that still left the identity question unanswered.
I decided this in fourth grade. That I wanted to be a person of integrity, that is. A poster hung on the classroom wall with the word “integrity.” That’s all I remember. I don’t recall if there was a definition. I’m certain there were other posters hanging, but I don’t remember them. I’ve seen and forgotten a bazillion posters since. I still remember the word “integrity” on the poster in that fourth grade classroom.
Sounds noble and all, but there were hang ups. For example, that same year, I wore hot pink lipstick to school. No kid wore lipstick to school in the fourth grade. In the whole elementary school. I wasn’t out to set trends; I just liked it. For about two hours. When we were getting ready for recess, my male teacher met me near my desk.
“Are you wearing lipstick?” (It was hot pink, people.)
To be fair, he was probably being as kind as he knew how. He probably asked it quietly though I heard it like a megaphone. He really was a great teacher. I, and probably half the other girls in the class, had a crush on him. Except that day I was crushed.
My face turned the color of my lipstick as I fled, wordless, to the bathroom to scrub it all off. So much for integrity.
When I was fifteen, I courageously penned my non-dreams in my teen Bible. A colorful personalization page prompted me to answer “When I’m an adult I’d like to.” I shouldn’t lie in a Bible, right? My answer: “Get married, Be close to God, Have friends.” I carefully guarded the page which revealed how sinfully unambitious I was.
With the benefit of twenty years’ hindsight, I wish I could send my younger self a letter. This is what I’d say:
Stay tuned for Part 2 – A Letter to My Younger Self