As a home-schooled child, let’s just say I didn’t get out often. That is to say, I got out all the time – generally in the backseat of my parents’ Lincoln Continental town car while they traveled over the sun-scorched roads of the southwest. But, in terms of doing kid-appropriate things with kid-appropriate people, not so much.
Around eight or so, my notoriously over-protective parents made two very uncharacteristic decisions: (1) they gave me unfettered use of a library card and (2) signed me up to be a volunteer at the local library branch where I would be left without parental supervision for hours a day.
Perhaps its a testament to how much they trusted me to behave well, or perhaps they were at a loss as to what to do with their bespectacled bookworm of a daughter who curled in a ball on the blue shag carpeted floor of their 1977 Lincoln to stay away from the sun pouring in from the windows. Maybe they wanted free childcare, or perhaps they thought it was a learning opportunity. Regardless, there I was dropped off several times a week for many hours at a time. Plop. “We’ll come back in a few hours, honey.” Buh-bye.
The library was wonderful, if small. I was a superlative book-mender, although a lazy shelver. It was far more interesting to flip through the pages of the books on my cart and terribly difficult to put them away. Prior to this point in my life, I was a dedicated fan of the good doctor, Theodore Geisel, under all of his pseudonyms. (Talk about being a late bloomer.) Now, thanks to the shelving cart, my horizons were broadened. Histories and pseudo-histories of Anne Boleyn, Gone with the Wind, heroines created by the great Russian authors, with a healthy infusion of Harlequin and young adult period romances featuring virginal damsels awaiting salvation at the hands of a dark and dashing man. It’s clear that not all of my reading was of the highest order but it was diverse.
I immersed myself in books, checking out the library card limit of 20 books at a time and returning them within a week or so for a fresh batch. I read in bed, at meals, in the car, lying on my back in the swimming pool, in the shower, and possibly with a fox and a non-human named Sam I Am. As an 8-year-old seeking input on what life is like as a young woman, how to be beautiful, popular, desirable to be around, these books were powerful stuff.
But they also left me confused. Clearly I should defiantly shrug my shoulder with a spirited fiddle-dee-dee when faced with challenges a la Scarlett O’Hara. On the other hand, if I acted petulantly like Mary Lennox perhaps a Yorkshire farm lad would see through my sallow exterior and woo me to warmth by nurturing a garden. I could be bold like Elizabeth Wydeville or Anne Boleyn and earn passion and power by ruthlessly seizing what I want or I could act like any number of paperback romance heroines (all with full bosoms, wasp-like waists, and blushing modesty) and elicit the ardor of a vaguely dangerous man who falls under the spell of my charms. Is it better to behave like a sweet, optimistic innocent like Anne Frank or a mysterious, caustic truth-teller like Cassandra?
I suppose my experience wasn’t that different from most girls except the message they receive may be more consistent: look like Tiffany, act like Debbie Gibson (or whoever today’s starlets are). And, because everyone else is doing the same thing, it all works out and you fit in.
Unfortunately for me, imitating Annie Oakley was too much and I was no closer to fitting in wearing the Laura Ingalls Wilder-style pinafore dresses I had asked my mother to stitch for me. When I tried to act knowledgable about adult matters, it was good only for awkward silences (rather than the admiration hoped for) and when I acted demure, I was outshone by more vivacious personalities.
The end result was a sub-conscious commitment to adaptability. Since I couldn’t figure out which personality best fit me and my environs, I drew upon all of the women on paper to borrow just enough to fit in where needed. Are you shy? Let me try on “Jane Eyre.” Do you want a party girl? Let me dazzle you like Verdi’s Violetta. Would you rather a bookworm to study with over coffee? No problem – I can be Jo or Beth March. I don’t need to pick a single heroine to imitate – instead, I can borrow bits and pieces of each as the situation demands. Just call me a chameleon because I can be whoever you want me to be.