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Returning to Me

“Still chasing my fourth grade self.”

That’s the six-word bio I submitted for a work assignment. Its meaning seemed clear when I penned it. As I re-read it now, I can see that’s not the case. It could suggest that I was a real hellion in fourth grade and that I’ve spent my life atoning for it. Or that my time on the one mile has only gotten worse with time, and I’m clocking hours at the track trying to improve my speed.

Neither of these were my intent.

Rather, I wanted to convey that, in my estimation, the truest version of myself existed in the fourth grade. I was strong, fearless, and unapologetically myself. Here’s a starting list of evidence:

  • My favorite outfit was a mustard-colored, gaucho-style jumpsuit that my mom sewed. It was sleeveless, zipped up the front, and had a large hood. I had never seen anything like it. That made it cool.

  • I excelled in kickball. When teams were formed playground style, I was chosen before most of the boys. I came up to the plate and the other team backed up, anticipating a big kick. My physicality felt like a superpower.

  • The Bionic Woman. I never missed an episode, and to emulate Jamie Sommers, I told my classmates that I had a bionic knee. I invited them to kick it and to observe that I didn’t cry or even flinch. (Okay, maybe this belongs on a list of evidence for “I Was an Oddball” but I’m leaving it here anyway.)

Beginning in fifth grade, my confidence began to wane. Not all at once but over time. So much so that as I sat in first college class, I prayed “Please don’t call on me.” Disappearing in the large lecture hall was the only goal.

What happened?

Like all tweens and teens, many things shook my confidence. I was the tallest girl at my school in sixth grade, which meant that at the cotillion class my mom signed me up for (why?!), I always had to dance with the high school chaperones. By middle school, my thick hair had become an untamable mane. The boys that sat behind me in science threw toothpicks into it and laughed when I didn’t notice. My best friend since the third grade found a new one, junior year. And my dream college said no.

But I’ve come to recognize that my experience is part of a much larger problem. Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in researching for their book The Confidence Code, found that between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels drop by 30 percent. They note, “As girls approach adolescence, openness to risk and failure becomes buried under an avalanche of biological and cultural signals telling them to be careful, value perfection, avoid risk at all possible costs.”

An avalanche buries girls under the message, “Shrink.” That’s scary.

The good news, for me at least, is that these signals grow weaker or quieter as I grow older. And because of this, I find myself becoming braver and bolder. I’m working on more competently skiing black diamonds, and last summer, I picked up a tennis racket for the first time in four decades. I wore a green velvet pantsuit, replete with candy cane trim, to a holiday gathering in December. I launched this blog.

That fearless ten year old no longer feels far away. I’m closing in on her.

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