I am attracted to people who might be described as weird by some, but whom I see as wonderful. I suppose calling them “eccentric” would be more polite. Let’s just say they are unique. They are courageous souls who live consciously and authentically on the edge. They plunge forward in life with all aspects of their lives blaring, their identity and self-regard intact, no matter who might try to label them as misfits or fit them into categories or stereotypes.
I guess I’ve always identified with those who don’t fit in. Early on I developed a soft spot in my heart for such kindred spirits. I did so despite pressure from all around me to marginalize them. The pushing of whole populations of people to the edges of society has always been based on whether or not they “blended” in. The issues of race, gender, poverty, education, religion, and sexual identity or orientation are still used as excuses to demonize those who make us feel uncomfortable for some reason. We think they are somehow different “under the skin.”
But there were other, more subtle ways of marginalizing. I grew up in an era when autism generally went undiagnosed, “mental retardation” was used to describe a host of emotional and physical challenges, kids thought they were “stupid” because of undiagnosed learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder was treated as a discipline problem, and we heaped special pity on the poor kids whose parents were divorced. Society ignored shy children who may have been extreme introverts, socially awkward, highly sensitive, or maybe even clinically depressed as long as they didn’t disrupt the flow of the social norm.
Many school systems conspired to separate what they considered the “wheat” from the “chaff”. We were divided up according to our academic potential. Those destined for college had the most challenging academic courses. Girls not planning to go to college went into the secretarial or home economics tracks, where they either learned administrative skills such as short-hand and typing, or domestic skill such as cooking and sewing. A number of boys from difficult backgrounds who may have been troubled, intellectually challenged, or had emotional or learning difficulties were pushed into taking the industrial arts course which offered them basic training in trades. Sad to say the kids with Down Syndrome or more serious emotional dysfunction were unfairly grouped together in the “special” class, if they were allowed to go to school at all, where one could hear the sounds of bedlam within as we passed by the corridor door.
That’s not to say that in the mainstream of our student body we didn’t have our share of real characters. There was the young man I’d see in the cafeteria who was always in conversation…with his apple or orange. Then there was Jimmy with the perpetual silly grin who managed to get into everyone’s personal space. I’d feel his hot breath on my neck behind me in the lunch line as I reached for the day’s American Chop Suey. Gail was brilliant, highly sensitive and had a domineering mother and a pronounced stutter; both drove her crazy. Allison had a flair for the dramatic (she played Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore) and crazy-high academic potential. She eventually became a chef. Tony was melancholic and serious. We used to think it was because his parents divorced. Sadly, he later committed suicide. Albert and Jimmy were genuinely popular guys who gave out sage advice to the girls. They represented just two of the many extremely closeted gays and lesbians among the 2000+ in our high school.
University was a veritable feast of oddballs. I was in the pre-dental program at Boston University during the “hippy” era. There were few constraints on behavior. No one took attendance at class and we were free to come and go (especially to escape particularly boring lectures by heavily-accented professors whom we couldn’t understand anyway).
In my own way I was a non-conformist just by being one of the few practicing Christians on campus. I recall with great affection Joy, my poetry instructor, who was a brilliant waif who enabled me to see the beauty in words. My female French professor had a strong, masculine energy. She smoked like a chimney (smokers could light up in class in those days…once she started others joined in …and I choked!) She reached out to me and we met for coffee and a chat about religion. Then there was Robert Fulton, a descendent of inventor of the steam boat of the same name. He was very laid back, gentle, with a caring heart, long brown hair and a killer goatee. He lived with his sweet girl friend. On a couple of occasions he invited me over to his pad. His girl would give me a strong affectionate hug and we’d sit down to tea and conversation. I always felt proud that they considered me a friend, especially since our life-styles were so different. I had a crush on both of them.
I can’t forget my brilliant lab partners, Susan and Laura. Biology labs were brutal and these ladies saved me more than once. Not only did they help me plug the right numbers into the right formulae, but they also taught me Yiddish! B.U. had opened up a new world for this parochial Bostonian. I soon discovered that it was a popular choice for New York Jews looking for a good education and possible mates. The very-well-put-together Sherry Fishbein ceased sitting next to me in class when she discovered I was a Gentile. Oy! Who knew?
Estelle Toby Goldstein deserves a whole blog post for herself. She was proudly and unrelentingly brilliant and unashamedly eccentric, as was her whole family. I met them at B.U. and they became real cheer-leaders in my life. Estelle’s brother Harry had Asberger’s Syndrome and struggled to overcome the social limitations that went with it. He adored his red convertible. Her father was an accomplished musician and composer and taught music in Chelsea public schools. His hobby was collecting and painting miniature toy lead soldiers and recounting the history behind all of them. Estelle’s mother Lillian was my adopted Jewish Momma. She chauffeured the family around and fought diligently for anything that might help her kids get ahead in life. Alas, she died too young.
Estelle enjoyed a wide range of interests such as collecting fans and singing in cabarets. She was highly precocious and it was difficult finding her schools that wouldn’t bore her to death. She was the first Jewish girl ever to attend Beaver Country Day School, at the time an exclusive finishing school for Boston’s female Brahmins. She naturally excelled and graduated fluent two years early. After attending B.U. at the age of twenty Estelle packed off to Amiens Medical School in France to earn two degrees, an M.D. and a Ph.D. She became a psychiatrist and has developed an alternative approach to psychiatric diagnosis, medication, and nutrition. She’s helped countless of clients who were not being helped by traditional means and has had an intense interest in aiding veterans who suffer from P.T.S.D. Look for her on Facebook.
Of course there are many more weird and wonderful people around us. If we think about it, we are all unique and can celebrate it by fighting against the pressure to conform. How tragic if we succumb to the “norm”! Each of us offers a glimpse into the divine spark within us through our bold, full out expression of our truest selves. Tell us how your uniqueness brings you joy!
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