Actually, 11 years rather than 10 years separate these two photographs, but that doesn’t make for a nice alliterative title! In the first photo, I am dressed in my Townsend High School uniform, probably just before my brother (in his Hillside School uniform) and I left Macha Mission to travel by train to Bulawayo for school in 1961. In the second photo, taken in the summer of 1972, I’m posing in “hippie” clothes with Dale’s new motorcycle in front of our first apartment in Mechanicsburg. The obvious reason for the difference between the me in the first photo and the me in the second one is the passage of time – from age 13 to age 24, from adolescence to adulthood. As I look at these two photos, however, I see more than the normal passage of time; in fact it feels more like a lifetime. Knowing what I know now about myself, I see the transformation of a young and very shy, awkward, innocent, and naive teenager into a considerably more mature, worldly-wise, and self-confident young woman.
It’s a transformation that didn’t come easily. I’ve told the story before about my “re-entry” into American culture at age 13, and the difficulty of that transition. I came to the U.S. from Africa having spent the previous five years in three different schools – wearing a uniform to school every day, living a relatively regimented and ordered life, not really being allowed to express my own individuality. During school breaks, I was home out in the proverbial boonies on missions stations (three different ones – we moved a lot!), playing with dolls, sewing and knitting doll clothes, reading, playing with my little brother and other missionary kids, riding bike – and largely oblivious to what life was like in the U.S. I was completely unprepared for my introduction to high school in the U.S. Yes, I was prepared academically, but socially I was clueless.
Throughout high school and college, I struggled with self-esteem, and often felt ugly. I tried really hard to fit in, especially in how I looked and dressed, but I had no experience or know-how (and no money), and I was too introverted and embarrassed to ask even my best friends. I learned mostly by watching and imitating. I did not date because no one asked me out, which intensified my feelings of inferiority and rejection. On the positive side, I made friends and did well in school. My parents valued education, and encouraged my school success and pursuit of a career. I made it through high school, college, and graduate school, and got my first full-time job as an English teacher at the high school from which I had graduated only six years before.
Most people would not have had any idea of how much pain I was in emotionally. Sometimes I didn’t recognize it myself. Even when I allowed the pain to rise to the surface, I covered it up and put on a brave front, which I was good at because, after all, I did have some competencies and my mother always modeled stoicism very well!
While I was in graduate school, Dale came into my life. I had known him in college, but the trajectory of my life changed when we started writing to each other while he was in voluntary service in Zambia. Our relationship blossomed over the year and a half between the time I sent him a Christmas card in December 1968 from my graduate school outpost in Idaho and he returned to the U.S. in August 1970, but I still didn’t know what would happen when he returned and we finally saw each other face to face. Those feelings of self-doubt were very close to the surface as we met awkwardly for the first time as boyfriend and girlfriend (I hoped!) at the old Harrisburg airport. And then the love that had begun in those letters deepened as we spent time together, got engaged, and then married in June 1971.
That girl in the first photo could never have imagined in 1961 that in a mere 10 years, she would be married and look like the girl in the second photo. My high school senior picture taken two years after “uniform girl” shows the beginning of the transformation, but you can still see the naivety and innocence in my eyes and general demeanor.”Uniform girl” had difficulty blending into American culture in the early 1960s; by the early 1970s, “motorcycle girl” could almost pull it off!
“Motorcycle girl” – in her bell-bottom jeans, sleeveless crop top, and long straight hair – looks like she had almost completely acculturated. Some might think that’s a bad thing – especially those conservative, plainly-dressed folks in my church – but to me it represents an important and positive sea change in how I began to view myself. “Uniform girl” had a generally happy and interesting childhood that I wouldn’t trade for a different one, but I was ill-equipped for the culture into which I was thrown at age 13. I had been sheltered in so many ways. And most significantly and painfully, I felt very much alone. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling, or how to get help. My parents, though I know they cared deeply and understood some of what I was going through, were themselves ill-equipped to help. So I muddled through mostly on my own. A measure of the emotional pain I stifled during those years is how easily I can still feel it. The self-consciousness that was my constant companion then is something I still have to actively work to overcome. I still struggle sometimes with the social anxiety that was so real in those days.
When you’re young, 10 years seems like a long time, but at the age I am now, 10 years doesn’t seem long at all. The 10 years it took me to get through high school, college, the beginning of my professional life, and the beginning of my marriage seemed endless at the time – especially those earlier years when I felt so awkward, self-conscious, and ugly. Now they seem like a drop in the whole bucket of a good life. “Motorcycle girl” and the person I am now owe much to Dale (I probably would never have bought and worn a crop top without his encouragement, for example!), and I’m grateful to him for loving me as I was and as I am and for his part in my “transformation.”