Saturday, June 10, 2006

Group Mentality

I grew up in a large southern family, the oldest of three children, and I've accepted that I'm a teacher, mentor, big brother, and father to many people. I know how to function alone, but sometimes left to my own schemes and thoughts, the world would be a different place.

Why plot world domination or wish for magical powers like Harry Potter or Dr. Bombay from Bewitched? With a wave of my hand and an incantation, I'd rid Africa of its ails, and bring back my dead relatives.

And then I think of what I'd do with magical powers when people piss me off. I've this fantasy role I want to write and perform on screen, the stage wouldn't contain my imagination. I'd play this diabolical character with a shaved head, long black fingernails, pirate's shirt, loose pants for my wand and gadgets, and an obligatory high-collared cape. This character is borne out of frustration and impatient times with people, if only temporary.

For as long as I can remember, I've been in a clan or group. In elementary and junior high, I was a member of the honor roll and performing arts clique. The honor students were given preferential treatment, and pity on other students who weren't as lucky. They were ostracized and cast aside. In some instances, the honor students had better clothes, homes, and parents than the others.

All honor students weren't performers, favoring books and studying over exhibitionism and competition. Some successfully navigated both worlds, while a few fell out of grace in one of the groups. An emerging comedienne's schoolwork began to suffer because she favored making us laugh rather than study.

My two cliques weren't impenetrable, but I know there was a feeling of exclusivity or snobbery within and without. I'm not passing judgment these many years later; just reflecting on where I started and where I want to go.

It was our natural abilities to excel, and we were grouped accordingly. Perhaps some of our parents didn't know what to make of our teachers gushing and fawning over us. There was pressure to always perform on the same scale academically, on stage, or in the glee club. I didn't know it back then, because it wasn't part of our vocabularies, but that was peer pressure.

We competed in the math club, for parts in the school play, for the spiritual or gospel solo, and for the teacher's attention. My kindergarten, second, and fourth grade teachers liked me. There was one teacher's pet in first grade, and I popped her on the knee that she'd hurt over the summer or weekend before. The timing is vague and unimportant in this retelling. I remember being paddled for my aggression.

Well, my mother didn't like my being spanked or paddled by anyone else, and made an appearance at school to inform said teacher of her boundaries. Perhaps that's why she didn't like me? It's funny now, but surely wasn't as I leaned forward to get paddled. I'm trying to remember if I hopped atop a desk.

* * *
There's an interesting group dynamic oftentimes seen in the animal kingdom. All groups have an alpha male and female, and must appease the leader to enter the fold, or suffer the consequences. Humans are no different than animals in this regard.

It wasn't until junior high and later than I became an alpha male in the groups I belonged. I wasn't shy in elementary school, but did my best to stay under the radar because my aunt worked in the front office, and would report any infraction to my mother by day's end. Having my aunt at school was a double-edged sword. My mother informed all teachers to allow her to chastise me should I misbehave. I didn't necessarily flaunt this with my first and third grade teachers (my second grade teacher also taught us in the fourth). My fifth grade teacher couldn't stand me! She was very butch and so wanted to pick on me, but knew my aunt would be all over her. She'd punch the boys in either the upper arm or chest when they said or did something she didn't approve of.

Did I relish the fact that she couldn't touch me no matter what I might have done or said? Short answer: Yes!

She was too masculine to be a woman, with her curly chest and chin hair she proudly displayed.
The women in my family weren't and aren't girly, but they look feminine. I've never been one to roll around in the dirt, and to her mind that wasn't normal for a boy. We'd return from recess and I'd be still clean. One day, I don't know what got into me, but I made a concerted to get dirty while playing kickball or dodgeball. She was so happy that I was dirty. She beamed like a proud mother. I was normal for a day, but wasn't looking forward to going home. My mother was famous for saying things like, "I send you to school looking decent and you come back looking like a hobo."

It's in groups that we discover who and what we are. Everyone has an integral role to the group's success or failure. Parents and teachers, knowingly and otherwise teach us to be a certain way before we form peer groups. Different personalities are nurtured or ignored according to the adult or peer in charge. I've always been a leader or co-leader in all my groups to date. I was recently profiled in the NY Times Style Section for forming and doing my best to maintain a group.

I have come full circle from the precocious tyke in elementary school who felt invincible because my aunt was in the front office. It takes courage and bravado to form a group, and I'm grateful to my mother and aunt who unknowingly taught me to take risks in life, and not be a weakened gazelle stalked by a predator, waiting to be eaten.

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