So, National Poetry Month is over, but the poets haven’t left me alone just yet. I was listening to Studio 360, one of my favorite weekend NPR programs, and Quang Bao, a Vietnamese-American poet, was asked to describe the work of art that had the biggest impact on his life. (This is an ongoing series on the program.) He cited “I like my body when it is with your” by e.e. cummings.
It’s a beautiful poem. Okay, fine: it’s hot. And Quang Bao’s description of what it meant to him, was even more beautiful. I recommend you listen to it. However, it was in the brief description of his background, having been a refugee and then living in Sugarland, Texas, that really resonated with me. He said:
“I was in the [student] government. And, I was captain of the swim team. I had a buncha buncha buncha people in my life. But I didn’t really have “a friend” in high school. So, in that sense high school became an alienating experience. It really did feel like I was performing my life instead of actually having one.”
This hit on something I had been thinking earlier in the week. In junior high school, in particular, I had a laughing disease. I had this uncontrollable giggle, and at least one teacher, a kind old math guy name Mr. Dey, took notice. I said I’d get an A if I could make it through one class period sans giggles. In retrospect, I was likely annoying him. But he never let on. That year, he gave me a nickname: Wall. He gave everyone a nickname. And he gave me good grades. He was whiz with numbers, as any math teacher, I would imagine, should be. But he could manipulate your test grades like the pieces of one of those slide tile puzzles so that they fit together in such a way that they came out to – hey – a 91 average! That my kind of math. Anyway, I realized that the giggle was a mask I was wearing. It was a role I was playing.
At the time, I realized my laugh wasn’t totally authentic. I am a good audience and being pegged as having an “easy laugh” is better than being a “tough cookie” or “humorless.” However, in junior high, at least part of the time, at least that day in Mr. Dey class where he promised me an A if I could contain that laugh, I was playing a role. It was a mask I was wearing.
I won the Million Dollar Smile superlative in the fifth grade year book. My mother often cited this and I took it as sort of validation (though it was only the fifth grade yearbook, it wasn’t, like, the high school yearbook, or something important like that – ha) that I had a decent grin. Sometimes, however, I found myself smiling too wide. Another mask. I remember smiling at a guy I liked in high school. But not just smiling. I imagine I sidled. Because, he turned around and I was standing there smiling. He jumped, like I had spooked him. It’s totally funny now. I was so trying way too hard.
Now I seek serenity. Seek may not be the right word: “seeking” serenity could be like trying to hold a moonbeam in your hand. It’s more like a state of just “being.” But I can relax my face, put my eyebrow down, breathe deep, in and out, and just…be… The show, thankfully, is over.