We lived in East Cambridge, MA and moved to Woburn just before I turned five. East Cambridge in the 1950s was overwhelmingly Italian with large populations of Portuguese and smaller of Irish and other ethnic groups. My parents baptized me at St. Francis Church, the “Italian” church run by the Franciscans. The Sister of Notre Dame de Namur taught in the grammar school. There my parents enrolled me in kindergarten.
St. Francis School was an imposing four-story 19th century brick structure. I vividly recall the wide hallways and the smell of old wood. There was a large auditorium on the top floor, typical for many school of the period (but not so great for in case of evacuation!). The toilets were in the basement (in fact no matter where they were located in schools, old and modern, most people used the phrase “going to the basement”).
To get to the toilets we assembled two by two, traipsed down a couple flights of creaking wooden stairs and passed by the imposing metal-clad boiler room door, where we could hear a frightening roar (of the heating system). Older boys taunted us that the “bogie man” lived beyond that door.
Once in the toilet room we boys were greeted with long, black troughs dripping water down the wall. There we were expected to do our duty. One day a classmate thought it would be funny to pee on my woolen dress trousers. I was horrified, wondering what I would tell my mother. I began to cry and found a nun to whom I recounted my tale of woe. She patiently consoled me, patient with my highly sensitive self. Thank you, Sister!
Snack time became another occasion to display my high sense of being a good boy. The kindergarten classroom had tall windows and clean hardwood floors, with neat rows of tiny desks and chairs. Shelves lined the walls, where the teacher would put out our milk in neat rows. The milk in those days was contained in half-pint flat-topped cartons, which were opened via a tab on the top corner. This style carton was notorious for having milk reached the very top of the opening (later to be replaced by cartons with peaked tops and easy-pour spouts!). The teacher had already pried open the cartons and had stuck a paper straw stuck into each. One day I went up for my milk and on the way back to my desk, some of it spilled from the carton onto the clean floor (!!) I was mortified. I immediately retrieved my clean, neatly folded cotton handkerchief from my pants pocket (provided by Mother) and wiped the floor.
Last story: The teacher had not yet arrived and we were milling around waiting for instructions (at least I was!). In the corner there was a bookcase which stored miniature percussion instruments: drums, sticks, tambourines, cymbals, etc. Some of the kids began to play with them. Not I! I felt sick about getting into trouble for crossing some kind of boundary. I was not about to break any rules.
Some of these anecdotes may sound familiar because they are typical of many highly sensitive children. In my case I was also highly regulated. My parents had instilled in me a clear set of guidelines, with consequences if I broke them.
What was really going on? In retrospect I needed to please others in order to get their approval. I had learned to identify my “Self” with how others chose to define me. At my core I wanted, no, needed the approval of my superiors in order to feel good about myself. I developed lots of unconscious ways of finding this validation from the outside. And the more I got it, the less I practiced a healthy and consistent self-validation.
In time I realized this process was unsustainable. I had to make a radical change. I began to ask myself, “What do I really WANT?” I try to keep out of the equation what I think others would do and want and focus on who I am, what I want to do, what I need to give myself, and how I want to be in this moment. This has changed my perspective radically and has enabled me to find my true center and a renewed sense of life-purpose. So….What do YOU really want?
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