Let's Help Our Kids Understand It's Good To Be Different

Mary Katherine Backstrom

The first day of kindergarten was show-and-tell day at Blossomwood Elementary school, a sort of “get to know your class” activity. Letters went home to parents, and kids returned to school carrying the most fascinating things.

Turtles, dried-out bee hives, summer camp T-shirts — every child had an object and every object had a story.

That is, until a brown-eyed girl marched up to the front of the classroom empty-handed. The teacher seemed unsure, but the child smiled with excitement, so she shooed her along. Little feet stomped up cement block stairs to the center of the makeshift stage. She turned to face the classroom.

And that is when 5-year-old Mary Katherine pulled her hands out of her pockets and pointed straight down at her girly-bits.

“Theeeeeeeese are my private parts!”

(Then, pointing to the class)

“Yooooooou cannot touch them!”

(Hands now on hips)

“If you do, I will scream. And then I will dial 9-1-1. Thank you.”

And with a curtsy, I hopped off the stage and headed back to my desk, beaming with satisfaction.

The teacher handled things well, all things considered. After settling the classroom, she headed to the office and called my mother, laughing.

“Let’s just say MK is not like her sister. She’s definitely…different.”

Different. A label that stuck for the next 25 years.

In kindergarten, I didn’t mind it so much. All a kid really cares about is pizza and playgrounds at that age. But sometime, right around sixth grade, that label started to hurt. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to have shiny hair, an LL Bean jacket, and Express flare-cut jeans. I wanted to look and act like the popular girls in the school.

I wanted to blend in. To fit in.

Because by the ripe age of 12, I had already discovered that sometimes being a standout means being a stand-alone.

And standing alone can get pretty lonely.

Well, my family couldn’t afford name-brand clothes. So off to school I went, wearing combat boots and hand-me-downs. I walked through those double doors, whispering my mantra to the universe:

“Different is cool. Different is cool. Different is cool.”

A few years later, I discovered pom poms and popularity. I borrowed fancy clothes, rolled my hair, and smeared powder-blue makeup on my eyelids. I was voted “Best Dressed.” I got myself a boyfriend. And at the pinnacle of it all, I managed to nab a lead role in the high school play.

Every night before the curtains rose, I was sick. My stomach knotted up, and I just kept thinking, “Nobody is going to buy this. I’m not this role. I’m not this person.”

But each night, I managed to get through it. Delivering the right lines. Feigning the right emotions.

Applause, curtains, rehearsal, repeat.

When the play was finally over, I was so relieved. So I resumed my normal life.

Applause, curtains, rehearsal, repeat.

Even though the play was over, my show still had to go on. I curled my hair, grabbed my pom poms, and took on the role I had been assigned. I was cool. I was popular.

I was miserable.

Let me tell you, friends, that’s no way to live.

But how many of us have wasted entire seasons of our life walking in the shoes of a stranger? Scared to be ourselves for fear of being isolated?

It’s true that standing out can mean standing alone. But when it comes down to it, is there anything lonelier than being a stranger to oneself?

Let me answer that from experience: No!

I finally quit my career as an actress. It just didn’t suit me. Not as a person, and more importantly, not as a parent.

You see, I want my children to know it is okay to be a stand-alone. That its okay to let their freak flag fly.

I want my kids to be one in a million, not part of the crowd.

I want them to stomp on to the makeshift stage of life with confidence and announce to the world that different is awesome.

And maybe parents will talk. And maybe the teachers will stare.

But I’ll smile, pat their little butts, and whisper:

“It’s okay if they stare, baby. That means they are watching.”