The year was 1981. I was in the fifth grade. Outside my classroom window, the trees were budding with green, and the playground called my name. Inside, I was being called to the fiery pits of the principal’s office. That’s where the bad kids went.
The principal was a tall, stern man with deep lines on his face. The corners of his mouth gravitated down. He stood up from behind his desk and motioned for me to sit. We both sat. He leaned forward, steepled his hands, and gave me a grave look. “Do you know why you’re here?” he said.
I might have had an inkling. During music class, we were learning to square dance. It was a piece of our historical Oklahoma land run curriculum. We would dress in western apparel, and our parents would be invited for the culminating hoedown. The music teacher had asked if anyone couldn’t dance for religious reasons. Despite the dance lessons I took on Mondays after school, I raised my hand. So I had lied. My religion did not forbid dancing. I didn’t want to square dance. Truth be told, I didn’t want to touch the boys’ hands. Is there anything wrong with a fifth-grade girl having boundaries?
The principal said, “You’re a leader,” along with other words that sounded like blobbity blobbity blah blah blah. In the end, guess who square danced?
As a girl, I was taught two big lessons: Be nice and respect authority. That day I learned two more lessons: Do what you’re told and what you feel doesn’t matter.
I sometimes wonder about the correlation among my fifth-grade self with boundaries, my seventh-grade self who lost them, and my adult self who is still learning assertiveness. I wonder about the roles of society and family, hormones and people pleasing. I don’t have the answers. Different people react and internalize differently. Forty years later, I realize two more things: Some lessons are hard to unlearn, but it’s never too late to try.