Who Are You?

This past weekend I parked my dangerously pale, post-menopausally (yeah, I know that wasn’t a word until right now) plump body in a beach chair and began to read, the ocean generously drowning out the sound of any distractions.

The late 80’s brought me a lot of things, among them a devilishly elusive college degree and a pack of the world’s finest girlfriends. There are five of us women who have carried each other through the darkest valleys and toasted each other’s happiest moments. We have a vault stacked to the very tip top with the most delicious secrets and stories. I could whip a couple of those stories or secrets out and cause some eyebrow raising and pearl clutching, trust me on that. My chosen sisters laugh with me, cry with me, love me despite the many reasons I’m not loveable, and have this uncanny way of blessing me in the most unexpected ways. One of those blessings arrived this recent Mother’s Day when a member of the Fabulous Five sent me Viola Davis’ new book, “Finding Me.”

Only six pages in Viola Davis recounts a conversation she had with Will Smith on the set of Suicide Squad. He asked her who she was. She responded indignantly, questioning what he meant, and stated that she knew who she was. He pressed her, asking again, “No, who are you?” He elaborated by telling her that he would always be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. (Which opens up a whole other conversation, does it not? But let’s stay on topic.) He then asked again, “Who are you?’

I stopped reading. Stopped reading and dog-eared the page. I needed to think about that. I mean, who am I? It’s easy to list adjectives. I’m a mother and a rescuer. I love Charles Barkley, cellos, formal dresses, and the Dallas Cowboys. I’m baffled by people who pay money to make the muffler of a depreciating asset louder and I can’t sleep past 7 am. That’s information about me, but that’s not who I am.

There are events in life that define us. Sometimes it’s a series of events. In all likelihood, for most of us, it’s some kind of trauma. A careless label by a teacher or a loving parent, cruel words from a wounded classmate, or the loss of a friend or loved one. Maybe we grew up with limited resources, had a learning disability, or were raised by a single parent. Those moments crystallize and tell us a story about ourselves. We grab onto that new identity and drag it with us through childhood, pack it up and haul it off to college or to our first job as an adult, and let it silently and surreptitiously govern our lives. When that story is negative, we begin to expend precious energy to hide this part of ourselves that makes us feel unlovable or unworthy. It’s exhausting; mentally, physically and emotionally.

I didn’t have to do too much soul-searching. I knew pretty quickly who I was. I was the kid who never could excel. The one who lacked the drive and focus to make everyone proud. The underachiever. My parents endured an endless cycle of meetings with teachers and administrators who pointed to my standardized test scores and said, “She tests really well. She should be making better grades” or “She talks too much in class and instead of paying attention during math, she hides library books and reads.” I was the kid that makes a parent grit their teeth and say bad words. I had all of the ability and none of the focus. I sailed through elementary school and early middle school, but as the course work demanded more from me in the form of homework and projects, I balked. When I did turn assignments in, they were late and I rarely applied myself. Most of my work was, shall we say, half-assed.

Why? Even now, I don’t really know. I’m sure today I would have been diagnosed ADHD. All I know is that my brain was in 100 places all at once. I might start writing that paper on Hawaii but then realize South America is just east of Hawaii and, oh my, what about the Andes mountains? What animals live there? At bedtime, i was swimming in a sea of Encyclopedia Britannica, my paper wasn’t finished and I knew more about bespectacled bears and alpacas than a wildlife conservationist. Upside? I’m a delightful, sarcastic, fountain of useless information. You definitely want me on your Trivial Pursuit team. The downside? As a smart underachiever you realize pretty quickly that your parents are going to spend more than one school year gazing dreamily at those kids racking up all of the end-of-the-year awards. My testing placed me in advanced classes, but I couldn’t harness my brain power in a way that allowed me to deliver the goods. The guilt was overwhelming but the shame was worse. Shame, after all, is that awareness that you just don’t measure up. How did I cope? The way any kid does. I pretended not to care but my self-confidence plummeted. After a while I just settled into my underachiever role. I began to put my energy into things that didn’t require a great deal of mental focus. Things like parties, concerts, friendships, and boys…very cute ones. Upside? I’ve seen some great shows, collected some of the most talented, interesting, and accomplished friends, and attended parties of legend. Downside? I can list my notable achievements on the side of a nickel.

I went off to college and dragged my neon-flashing underachiever identity with me. Changed my major…many times. So many times, I could possibly have been a pretty impressive freshman advisor by year three. Made a .9 one semester because if I had gone to the trouble to withdraw and take a hard look at myself, it would appear that I cared. And if I cared and still couldn’t do it, then I would be a confirmed failure. I bartended, partied, drank tequila frequently, which shockingly didn’t seem to help anything, and took a break from school. Then, I re-enrolled with my declared major as Business. Go ahead, you can laugh. I can’t hear you. It was like eating sawdust and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Through sheer dumb luck, I enrolled in an Introduction to Poetry Writing class. The professor, who ended up being a favorite of mine, was feeling charitable and took the time to tell me, in the nicest way possible, I was a dumbass but I could write. The needle on my self-confidence meter moved up a little. Hey, I’m failing miserably at life, but I’m marginally good at stringing words together. It’s something, right?

Wherever you are, Dr. Pat Bizzaro, my parents thank you for your role in my final change of major and their brief moment in the sun, smiling broadly, while I accepted my degree. I thank you for seeing beyond my lackluster classroom attendance, as well as my complete absence of self-awareness, and pushing me to be more. In that experience, I fell in love with the pursuit of knowledge. Hell, I would spend the rest of my life enrolled in a university if I had an extra $70,000 lying around.

How did I get it together? I have no idea. Maturity, I’m sure, had something to do with it. I was far more immature than the people around me realized. Being a good communicator is polite language for being a good bullshitter. And we can’t discount the willingness of the wise professor to deliver a little kick in the ass and some encouraging words at just the right time. That was huge. Maybe those things coupled with the realization that there is no pause button for life was a winning combination.

Or maybe it was simply that I was able to stumble around cluelessly and without an audience, until the universe delivered a mentor, my pre-frontal cortex developed, and I found my footing. Most of my peers had moved on in different directions, they were saying “I do” and popping out babies, but I didn’t have a front row seat to all of their accomplishments. I wasn’t measuring myself against anyone else’s six-figure salary, 3500 square foot completely remodeled starter home, or impossibly perfect European vacation.

I had the luxury of bouncing off of (many…sharp) obstacles until I finally got it right. I wasn’t constantly reminded how far behind I was, didn’t feel the need for self-flagellation, or find myself drowning in my shortcomings. I was able to fall on my ass, learn a lesson, get up and dust off without an audience. That period in time allowed me to learn more about what I was made of, find direction, and meet some of the most influential people in my life. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was hard then, but it scares me to think how I would have struggled to navigate that period of my life in today’s world.

Our kids don’t have the gift of failure without an audience. There’s no stepping back and figuring things out without feeling like the whole world is watching and, more importantly, judging. The pressure must be incredible. Social media, and the technology it employs, even with all of its downfalls and known negative impact on mental health, is incredibly hard for kids to abandon. To do so is to isolate themselves. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In many ways, every single day is a performance. Every day there’s an underlying concern about how the world perceives you. Am I good looking enough? Am I achieving enough? Does my home measure up? What about my career?

In the end, I moved on relatively unscathed, if you don’t count the compound-interest I missed out on due to the late start on my retirement account. Are there times I still see myself as the one who just doesn’t measure up? You bet there are, but having the time and grace to mature and the freedom to flounder meant that story didn’t end up derailing me. I didn’t find myself overwhelmed by anxiety and drowning in depression. Instead, I found friendships that lasted a lifetime and I found myself. I am still her, you know, the underachiever, but the lights have burned out on my flashing neon, underachiever sign and I love myself despite the imperfections. It’s a choice, love. It’s a decision, not a feeling. Choose love. Especially, when it comes to you. Because, how can you possibly give love if you can’t accept it from yourself?

I watch from 35 years down the road and I wonder, “What happens to the kids like me now?” The underachievers, the screwups, the kids who lack structure, the ones who struggle to follow the prescribed path. The ones who don’t just think outside the box but wonder what the box is made of and what kind of music the guy who assembled it at the plant likes to listen to. How will that kid who just can’t quite get their act together navigate the world now? Will they find tolerance, time, and a place to grow into themselves and out of their difficult beginnings?

How will they answer the question, “Who are you?”

While we’re on the subject, tell me, who are you? I would love to know.

27 thoughts on “Who Are You?

  1. As an underachiever myself, this article really spoke to me! I have always referred to myself as “happily average “. Rhonda , you have a beautiful gift !

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  2. Excellent piece, again, and I too shall ponder the question ‘who am I?’ Your parents, I’m confident, are mighty proud of the young woman you’ve become, ( if we live to 85-95 we’re still young😉)

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  3. You described my 23-year-old son to a “T” except he did not test well. We started to see the issues late in grade school. We had a 509 Plan for him and fought (with an attorney) the schools for it all the way through high school. He was diagnosed with a learning disability but it was one that he needed to find workarounds to master. It dealt with how he processed auditory information. Early on he was diagnosed with ADD but I never felt it was the correct diagnosis.

    He switched majors once (so far) and also received a 1.0 GPA in college one semester but now he has learned the wisdom of withdrawing. He just received his AA after 5 years of part-time attendance. I do not push him because it will do no good. He needs to figure it out himself. He took 6 months off and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. My gift to him is to let him go at his own pace and live at home when he needs to as long as he is going to school. I have faith he will get there eventually. He is just on his own path.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re a good mama, Melissa. Our school systems to teach to a pretty specific kind of learner. I love that you advocated for him and the accommodations he needed to be successful. I recently learned that ADHD misdiagnoses are frequent. Things like anxiety, poor sleep hygiene or an inadequate diet can often present like attention deficit. While it took me YEARS to find my way, my brother sailed through life like he was following a checklist. I was very lucky in that my parents never once compared us. I’m afraid lots of people don’t get that kind of grace. As for your son, taking 6-months off to thru hike the Appalachian Trail is an incredible education and experience that requires knowledge and expertise most people don’t have. He would never get that in a classroom. BRAVO for him. He sounds like an entrepreneur to me! Wherever life takes him, I hope that he finds a path that provides him with enjoyment, satisfaction, meaning and purpose. After all, that’s the fastest path to happiness. Thanks for reading and for sharing with me.

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  4. A lot of your story could have been written about me Rhonda. I was 29 I think when I finally found my career which is creative as well. I’m not the outgoing type, but somehow have managed to find friends that care about me and I care about. I didn’t get married til 44 and didn’t have my first baby until I was 47 and didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until 48. My girl is 17 months old now and me and my wife (40) are trying for more. Guess some folks are just late bloomers (maturers?) Thank you for this article.

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    1. Congratulations on your daughter! Gives you a new appreciation for the word “love,” doesn’t it? Hope you are blessed with more. I think many of us “late bloomers” are creative in nature. I, like you, am introverted at heart. I need an hour or so every day with no interruptions other than nature and my own thoughts. Thanks for commenting, Virgil. Makes my day!

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    1. Thank you, Terri! I have this unrealized goal of writing a book. Even if no one reads it but me, I would consider it a success. Thank you for the encouragement. It’s so nice when someone identifies with your thoughts. Hope your day is wonderful!

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  5. Again, you never cease to amaze me! I guess I am considered a bit of a late bloomer since I took that leap of faith and chased a silly dream at age 56. For your part in that, I thank you again. I will ponder the “who am I” question now. Just reading your post stirred up some good and not so good memories and put a little tear in my eye. Not ashamed to admit that. Blessed to call you friend!

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    1. When you’re young it’s easy to forget how short the years are. Still so cool to me that you followed your heart and are spending your days doing something you love. No doubt in my mind, your reputation is already outstanding! Thank you for your support and your friendship over the last 50 or more years, Steve!

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  6. Rhonda..I see so much of myself in this !! I had siblings who were straight A’s and it came easily it seemed.. I struggled so much to make great grades. I panicked at every test, doubted myself, couldn’t focus, and felt totally inferior! I felt everyone was beautiful and I was this ugly girl with braces and awkwardly big boobs for my age! Lol I struggled in college, and I made a bad decisions in love early in my 20’s and thought I could fix everyone because I had a great love for people in general. Finally, I made up my mind to go into nursing and spread my love and the desire to fix people. I was petrified I would fail at the academics but my Dad passed away the year before I started and I was determined to make him proud and graduated with great grades! Like you, I’m still the same self doubting insecure girl but overpowered by the knowledge of what I should be. Faith in God helps immensely because he loves all my flaws and crazy ADHD personality! I love your writing and you definitely have the talent to draw people in! Keep it up girl!! You’re amazing to me!!🥰

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    1. And I always thought of you as one of the “beautiful girls.” I can’t imagine you being anything other than a nurse. Thank you for your warm, loving heart and for taking the time, not just to read my stuff, but to encourage me. We insecure girls need that push ❤️

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  7. Hi Rhonda! What a joy your writing is to read and it is a personal springboard for self-reflection. Unlike you, my personal chains can be labeled “overachiever,” “perfectionist,” and “pleaser.” However, this was not always the case. I remember the very moment it happened. You may recall that I was raised on a small tobacco farm. I believe it was my senior year in high school that I overheard my Daddy say to my Mama, “Farming would be a lot easier, if I had boys.” Please know that I adored my Daddy. He would have been mortified had he known that I overheard him. He was always appreciative of my hard work on the farm, but from that moment forward, I changed. I became a driven overachiever, earning degree after degree and seeking continual advancement in my profession. Like many daughters, I wanted my Daddy to be proud of me and forget the fact that i was not a boy. Daddy passed away in December 2018. Without a doubt, I know he was proud of me. I can’t say that he ever articulated that to me, but many family and friends have told me that he bragged on me constantly. Although, at times, I continue to be my own worst critic, with age, I have learned that success is not measured by the number of degrees you have , your professional accomplishments, or how much you have in your bank account, but by the love you share and the memories you make with those you love. Thank you for sharing your journey with us! 🙂

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    1. Amanda, the men of our father’s generation saw women in a different way than the world sees us now. In some wonderful ways like believing our doors should be opened and our gas should be pumped but they lovingly and unintentionally underestimated us a little bit too. Men in their age group are my favorites. My dream would be all of the chivalry from that generation and the professional opportunity from ours! You and I share a similar belief system about life and love. There’s nothing, in my opinion, more important than educating our society and I greatly admire what you’ve done with your life. Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your story with me. The sharing, for me, gives life such a wonderful texture. 😊

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  8. I’m Pa. With six grandchildren and six (soon to be seven) great grandchildren, I will be Pa from now on. I love it. When I was in school, I scored high on IQ, SAT, and those type of tests, but just did enough to get by. In college, I graduated at the bottom of my class, but I graduated early. Some semesters I didn’t buy any books because I knew I wouldn’t use them. You have apparently inherited something from your third cousin three times removed. Pulitzer prize winning playwrite Paul Eliot Green was your great grandpa Whittington’s third cousin. 😀

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    1. Wow, Dewey! I didn’t know we had that connection. Pretty extraordinary from our little area. Thanks for sharing that with me. I love to write. Always have. Even as a wee thing. Some work is good and some is not so good but I always lose track of time when I’m doing it. Pa is a wonderful person to be!! Thank you for reading and taking the time to drop me a note. Blessed to call you family.

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    1. Haha! They’re plentiful here. My husband had to explain to me that it was intentional and there was nothing wrong with the vehicle. I should add that my being baffled should come as no surprise. I buy a car and drive it until it begs for mercy.

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  9. I think I have blocked out most of my school years . Who am I? Then I was a person always wanting to be noticed, accepted , be one of the cool kids, but never quite getting there. I thought having a boyfriend would get me there/ it didn’t . For years I thought I needed a boyfriend to be accepted . Now, who am I? I’m enough, I’m self sufficient, I’m a person who finds love and acceptance through words in books. I’m a nurturer, a live in the moment person who is still trying to stop dwelling on the past and what could have been. I’m a person doing the best I can with what I have. I’m trying to be the best version of me without any drama.

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    1. Wendy, you have the same kind and giving heart now that you’ve always had. That coupled with everything else you described is a whole bunch of wonderful. Thank you for your comments and for taking the time to read this ❤️

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  10. Rhonda

    Thank you. I’m the parent wanting my 24-year-old son to shine like other kids as he finds his way. It’s so frustrating. This piece let me breathe and appreciate his journey. Beautifully written. Poetry actually. Love your stuff. Ha. Ironically – I’m the underachiever reading your writing. I say I’m going to write but you actually do it. Fear of failure for me. What if my writing sucks? Bravo for you taking the time and having the courage to put it all out there for the world to see. Sing it sista! In this social media fishbowl we drown in, we need reminders not every family and child is FB perfect . There’s beauty and growth in the journey. 🙏❤️

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    1. Thank you, Sue. The social media platform is tough on everyone. As parents, when our kids are struggling, we instinctively fault ourselves. Whew! Talk about anxiety and stress. I would love to just slow everything down. And for the record, I second guess myself every single time I write something. I read it after I post and cringe. Oh, the notebooks of scribbling that will never see the light of day.

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