I was nine years old the first time I ran away from school.
The nuns at St.Mary of the Annunciation had a strict rule: “the boys play with the boys and the girls play with the girls.” I ignored that rule, mostly because I thought of myself as more of a boy than a girl, thusly assuming that that particular rule surely did not apply to me, and partly because I liked the rush of risk-taking. So I broke this maxim daily by engaging in physically demanding games with the boys like Chase, 4-square, and Rumble which was my absolute favorite, its simplicity found in the one directive: tackle the person with the ball. The group of the aggressive hungry lived to destroy the one brave and masochistic individual holding onto the ball, the player willing to get ripped to shreds before ever giving it up. A trip to the nurse’s office for bandaids and ice packs was routine. Ah, the glory days of a rough and tumble, bruised, and banged up childhood! Revelling in the sweat and physical exhaustion of the outdoors at recess every day, we were then lined up at the door (by sex, of course) to re-enter the classrooms lined with desks and chairs in rows to receive our academic instruction, which I enjoyed immensely. My body got what it needed, so my mind was ready to re-engage with intellectual pursuit.
Apparently, a mass of sweaty boys jumping on top of a nine-year old blonde with spindly legs, wearing a skirt no less (I wore gym shorts underneath), didn’t quite sit well with the nuns who were understandably horrified by my unusual proclivity for expressing full-fledged aggression and hard core competition. “Mrs. Bakis, the boys are jumping all over Maureen in the schoolyard” poor St. Helen Julia pleaded with my mother, in order to make it stop. I was causing mayhem. I represented disorder, crossing boundaries, breaking the school’s limits. This would not stand, so one fine day in the spring circa 1978, the recess monitor shooed me away from playing with the boys and insisted I go play with the girls. Devastated to be separated from my best friends and also furious, I was the captain of our team after all, I dutifully walked away from the boys toward the furthest boundary of the playground, the edge, nearer to where the girls were drawing with chalk, and kept on walking– past the girls, up the steep hilled driveway of the school, and around the corner toward freedom– or so I thought. My heart was pounding with fear and excitement, my “I’ll show them” mindset gaining momentum as I walked down the sidewalk homeward. “Keep me from doing what I love? I don’t think so.” I was in a fight against “the man,” even though I had no vocabulary or clue about what that meant. If you are thinking, “You go, girl in your fight against unjust rules based on gender norms” you’re about to be very disappointed.
When the school discovered I did not return from recess, the secretary in the main office, Mrs. Ann Cyr, drove Sr. Helen Julia to my house. They didn’t even knock! When they came into my house, I fled upstairs to my brother’s bedroom– the only room in a house full of females that had a lock on the door, barricaded myself inside the eves and refused to open it. I don’t remember what happened after that, only that I didn’t get into trouble with my parents because if I had, I would have recalled the punishment. My father was not one to spare the rod to spoil the child.
To credit my mother, a devout Catholic yet living in the exciting reality of the women’s liberation movement, her response to the nun’s fury with my rebellion and inability to follow the rules to play with the girls, and indeed, act like a girl, was not to demand equality on my behalf or to change the rules of recess for me so I could play Rumble with the boys. She and I did not raise awareness or command social justice. We didn’t rally or protest. Nope, my mother apologized to the school, told them what they wanted to hear, and promptly disciplined me– that is, she told me to follow the rules whether I (or she) liked them or not. This was called tough-love, something in short supply these days not only among parents but in many other milieus. People don’t want to do what is difficult. It’s hard to do the right thing. But without mud, there can be no lotus, an adage recently made popular by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist spiritual leader.
I didn’t like being disciplined one bit– does anyone enjoy doing what’s difficult but that is good for them? Our default wiring is fight, flight, or freeze, after all.
My mother’s insistence that I play with the girls at recess was not intended to change me intrinsically, to deny my personal identity; it was not an attempt to alter my essential nature or to make me act like a lady or behave like a typical girl; it was to teach me that life has limits, that I was limited, and I had to follow rules. I could play with boys after school and whenever else I wanted, and so I did. I climbed trees, built forts and bikes, played whiffle ball for hours on end, spit like a cowboy, got into shouting matches and fist fights with other boys (and naturally made up quickly after) and played Little League baseball, one of the first to do so in my small town. I learned to live with the compromise, not at first, but well enough soon after. Yes, I had to repress a small part of myself, and yes I was angry at the school and deeply disappointed to be forced to play with the girls, but I made more friends and learned an important lesson: how to make lemonade out of lemons, make the best of a bad situation, to pivot. All of this as the result of one “problem” and a swift and deliberate parenting decision for which I am eternally grateful.
Despite my mother’s understanding that gender norms were changing, I had to respect limits set by the institution where she chose to send me for an education, a necessary trade-off to receive the plethora of other benefits the school provided for me. I was not a boy despite thinking I was in my own mind, and my mother was not about to go along with a fantasy a nine-year old held about her identity. I was exceptional in terms of being outside the “typical” or the “normal,” but that did not mean I would be excepted from rules. I was not special in that respect. I did not deserve accommodation.
My seemingly huge “conflict” was really no big deal for my mother, as I was the youngest of five and she was experienced with raising children. She had been seeing the positive results of enforcing the values she implemented in our family for years, duly reinforced by my father. Her disciplining me did not mean I was wrong, my feelings were wrong, or that there was something wrong with me intrinsically, but only that I was to learn about compromising a piece of myself for the sake of the group— for the sake of order– same as I was expected to do at home in a family of seven. I had to learn that I did not always get what I wanted and that I could not always express my authentic nature when, where, and how I wanted at any and all times of my choosing. And most certainly not at the age of nine. She wasn’t going to a raise the type of child people wouldn’t like or want to be around and therefore treat poorly; to say she did me a favor is an understatement.
My mother did not try to change my environment to better suit my authenticity; she did not make demands of the school on my behalf—rather, she taught me to cope with the environment within which I found myself, my external circumstances, and that it was my individual responsibility and only mine, within my inner landscape, to figure out how to both be true to myself, retain my integrity as me and respect limits, even if I was uncomfortable with that, even if it caused me pain. She did not teach me how to be a victim of an outdated and patriarchal institution, nor did she criticize the institution itself and call for its destruction. She recognized the school’s and society’s norms had to be updated, to grow, but she also knew that, in the meantime, empowering me, the individual, to take responsibility to live authentically, to compromise when necessary, and to deal with blows whether to my ego or my feelings that really hurt was the proper way to raise a child and create change, over time. Indeed, both the institution and and I have transformed rather steadily over the past forty years, not to say that either process has been easy. But, an easy life is a virtual life, so not really life at all.
Often, the change we want in our social world is slow and requires great patience and ongoing persistence, something most people living in our current world of instant gratification and speed cannot compute. I mean, it just seems so inefficient to have to wait! As well, a severe lack of appreciation for everything that is good about the more traditional institutions we’ve built is pervasive among those who choose to focus solely on its inequities. What person or institution doesn’t have its corruptions?
My mother, in concert with the school, taught me the nature and value of external limits imposed on people by others: by parents, peer groups, small social groups like in a classroom or on a sports team, and by larger institutions, but more important, she gave me opportunities to create internal limits I would be required to set for myself and be accountable to myself for, forever, which would inevitably include when she wasn’t around anymore. It appears that, in life, someone else or something else has to keep you honest as you learn the process of doing it for yourself. And when you learn to effectively answer to yourself–to your truth, that’s called personal integrity– total accountability to an honest self which enables you to respect yourself and, in turn, respect others.
Instead of keeping me locked up in a safe space away from pain, away from the uncomfortable consequences of discipline, my mother used my absconding from school as an opportunity, a “teachable moment,” for me to authentically learn– to practice coping with my own discomfort and take responsibility for my own pain, my own suffering, that resulted from not only not getting what I wanted, which was to play with the boys at recess, but also the struggle of not being able to express myself, as me, completely. And this is the way of one’s identity– a continual balancing act between the individual and the group, a give and take, a yin and yang.
Parents and schools must allow children to suffer limits, for “without grit, there is no pearl” says Thich Naht Hahn and that “when we know how to suffer, we suffer less.” This is what I compare to yoga which is practicing doing something hard, something I don’t want to do because it’s uncomfortable, something my ego rebels against but that simultaneously creates amazing growth. In the process of yoga, or self-actualization, limits are indispensable; they are the crucial component, the double-edged sword that at once helps to carve and carefully design you into the truest you you can possibly be while also inviting you to work hard, with patience and persistence, to transcend them.