I am P.T. Barnum. Welcome to the Freak Show

Everyone you know is a collection of stories. Some of those stories are up on high shelves, hard to reach, difficult to read. Sometimes you’ll see only a glimpse of the cover and decide it’s not for you; it’s too weird; you just don’t get it at all. But then more than ever is the time to read on.

As we celebrated our 11-year anniversary yesterday, DH and I decided amidst a packed schedule to squeeze in some time for a movie. We picked The Greatest Showman, as several of our friends had been raving about it. It did not disappoint. Arguments about artistic license aside, the story is packed full of meaning and sentiment, not the least of which is this: it is greater to understand than to fear that which is different.

Something about the environment I grew up in taught me this from a young age. There were just so many unique personalities in my family, and they were all worth respect and love and understanding. Growing up that way made it easier (safer?) to befriend the weird kids, the quirky kids, the nerds, the dark kids. I listened to the shy kids, opened my mind to the art of the goths, adapted to the strange register of the spectrum kids, and learned to walk along the awkward gait of the gimps. And every one of them had amazing stories to tell.

And I rarely did things the “right” way either. I was never taught how to read; I just learned by immersion. I did not know about grades or grade levels or tests; I was taught by environment, experience, and exploration. You see, I started out home schooled, by which I mean that I stayed at home and painted and danced and planted the garden and cleaned the house and built forts and went to the library and completed activities in workbooks whenever I felt like it, which was pretty often. No one ever told child-me about cool kids or smart kids or bullies. No one ever told child-me about fashion. No one ever told child-me about labels. I was unmarked, uncategorized. Just me.

And after home school, I had the miraculous opportunity of being part of a Sudbury School (or “Unschool”). At a Sudbury school, every child has a voice and a vote. There is no curriculum, there is no age segregation (except as happens naturally), there are no tests (unless someone wants one). There are no grade levels or A students. There are no “good” kids or “bad” kids. Instead, what you’ll find at a Sudbury school are resources, opportunity, natural curiosity, massive amounts of learning, and a whole slew of weirdos who don’t know (or don’t care) that they’re weird. I am so proud to be one of those weirdos.

Being amidst the weird made me aware that I didn’t have to be afraid of differences. I didn’t have to be afraid to challenge the norms, the status quo, the expectations. I never had to be Phillip Carlysle. I never had a legacy or status that demanded adherence to some facade of authority and illegitimate rules.

I have always known that “men suffer more from imagining too little than too much.”

Imagination is the first step of every great climb. And the great thing is that it’s impermanent. You can imagine all you want before you commit to action. So why not?

I question the education system, I question the political system, I question our legal system (our crimes, our punishments, our burdens of proof, our practical rules), I question belief systems, I question social hierarchy, I question authority, I question standard narrative forms, I question language and its use, I question creativity and art with its boundaries or lack thereof.

Sometimes it’s awkward being weird, living so far outside the box; there are a lot of questions to answer:

“You didn’t graduate from high school???” they always ask me. “No. I never intended to,” I say. “But you’re an attorney, right???” they look at me in utter confusion. “Yes,” I sigh. Without fail, I am met with blank stares until I explain how easy it is to completely sidestep high school grades and get into college. They don’t believe me.

“Wait, you were never taught how to read??” they ask me. “No,” I answer. “Then how did you learn??” they ask. “How did you learn to walk?” I ask them back.

“You said that to your boss???” they ask me. “Uh…why not? Don’t you think they’d want to know?” I respond. “Well, yes, but, that’s so…,” they say.

“You’re friends with him???” they ask me. “Yes. Why not?” I ask. “He’s just so…”

Of course, answering these questions is just another way to broaden the worldview of those around you. A definite net positive in my book.

I cannot tell you how much I have learned and how much happier I am having grown up outside the box, shaking hands with the freaks, listening to their stories, uncovering the falsity of my fears about them. And I’ve provided my share of such enlightenment to others who dared to get to know me, especially those who did so at times when I looked the part of the ring master at a circus.

It’s a little awkward at times, and there’s this learning curve where I have to work hard to understand the bureaucracy, false authority, or red tape of certain circumstances. There are handshakes and lunches and Mr.’s and Ms.’s, and sometimes I have to just humor the pomp and pretense as I somewhat shakily get my bearings. But in the end, I would much rather be a foreigner to red-tape land than a local of status-quo country. Having unrestrained vision is worth all the awkward stares of those who fail to simply look where you are looking.

Too many are clamoring to get to the top of the box, stepping on one another to get there, laughing and pointing at the people on the outside whose perspective is so different than theirs. They would do much better just to seek understanding. Listen to that quirky kid. Befriend that freak. Ask them what makes them tick. Because it is not until we step out of the box, that we can finally see how to use it as a building block.

In our search for happiness, understanding, progress, meaning, it’s not always a box of accolades that we need. Sometimes, it’s a tent. And a freak show.

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Thoughts. About Stuff. On purpose.

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