Saturday, August 17, 2013

"There are times when you can feel your childhood ending."

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

--Langston Hughes


The sound no woman wants to hear as she's being zipped up in to a dress mere minutes before an event. The real-life manifestation of a game-crashing error message. The acceptance of the fact that you are no longer in the same body you were in five years ago when you first bought that dress. That's what my mom said when she tried to zip me up in one of my favorite black dresses, a simple shift with a lace petticoat I'd bought at a thrift store just before I left for graduate school: "Uh-oh." I was due at a wedding in less than 24 hours and the zipper wouldn't even go halfway.

It was a bit of a shocker for me. I was sure I'd already cleansed my closet of Ye Olde Clothing, the things that had lingered since my high school days and no longer fit me. Yet here was proof that even the things from my years as a 110 pound undergraduate with big hopes and little ambition weren't suited to me anymore. I grabbed a different dress, one I'd worn a little over a year ago, and managed to wiggle in to it. But for some reason, I put the little lace dress back in to my closet, knowing full well it was way too small and probably a few years too young for me.

A few weeks later, and less than two weeks away from my first teaching job since graduate school, I decided to take action. Being an adult, I decided, was about being prepared for what was to come so there'd be no surprises or issues. I wrote lesson plans and created activities for the first two weeks of my speech class. It took hours to figure out the timing, what I should include in each lecture, and which video clips best suited each principle of good speech, but it was invigorating to get it done. Then I dragged my old bag of teaching clothes upstairs and tried each item on. Anything I couldn't zip, I immediately discarded; anything I COULD zip, but looked far too exposed in or downright stupid wearing, I also discarded. The end result: all of my size 2 pieces--and a significant amount of the size 4s--were prepped for donation.

And all the while, I felt like I was moving forward with my life. Yes, I was still living in my parents' house and kinda-sorta sharing a room with my sister (who spends most of her time with her fiance at their house and visits roughly once every two weeks). I'd also have to spend a chunk of change on new pencil skirts and slacks to fit my size 6 frame. But I had taken control of my career and prepared a good space for it, complete with a multipurpose desk/vanity/lounge spot and fridge o' delicious foods. And by teaching two classes while working at the grocery store 3-4 days a week, I was finally going to be able to start a big, bad savings account. I was going to move somewhere completely different with my nest egg. I would live like a pauper and work all the time, but I was going to enjoy doing it, because I would be on my own, entirely self-sufficient and fully prepared for the world around me.

The next day, quite unexpectedly, my speech class was canceled. My teaching load and budget were, in an instant, slashed in half.

I suddenly became aware of how ridiculous I'd been. Ok, so maybe I'd finally chucked the cutesy button-ups and mega-high-heels of my early twenties. Maybe I'd managed to get a "big girl job" that involved using the skills I'd carefully honed in college. Maybe I did have a bit more space in a house with four adults in it. But who was I kidding? It was, and still is, my parents' house, and if they weren't letting me stay here rent-free, I'd be out on the streets. Forget saving up for a big move and a new pair of glasses, then quitting the grocery store so I could frolic about during my last Pennsylvania October; now I'll be working every day of the week just to make ends meet.

Suddenly, it didn't matter that I'd supported myself for 2 years and earned a Master's degree. All I could think about was the fact that I'm 25 years old and living with my parents. My sister's posters are still on the walls. My yogurt and fresh vegetables are too big for the mini-fridge and share real-estate with my brother's protein shakes and my dad's six-packs. I play my Wii or watch K-dramas in the evening and, like a bratty teenage girl, get irritated when my mother yells up the stairs for me. How could I ever think that I was a grown-up?

Of course, as soon as I realized one of my two classes had been canceled, I spent the rest of the day in an immature sulk. I put on my cashier uniform and acted like it was a moral outrage when customers continuously jammed coupons under my nose and bitched about the cost of grapes. I wanted to scream. And why shouldn't I? I was no further along in my life than a child. Children scream about the stuff that pisses them off all the time, and sometimes, it gets them all the candy they want. (Trust me, I've seen it.)

Then a certain couple came through my line. Both in their late 20s or early 30s, pleasant but quiet, with an average-sized order that included nothing out of the ordinary, they shouldn't have made such an impression on me. But as I listened to them discussing how unsure they were about where they'd be next year, geographically and financially, I understood. I understood that being an adult isn't about having "the sure thing," the stable job and the relative lack of worries. I had absolute stability as a child, when there was nothing to worry about because my parents handled it all for me and occasionally gave in to my pouting. Being an adult is about having a dream, admitting its limitations, worrying about how you'll achieve such a thing, and working towards it regardless.

Molly Ringwald published an article in Vogue's June issue. I read the article purely out of a nostalgic love of The Breakfast Club, not expecting to be so touched by Ringwald's description of a bad relationship she'd stayed in because it was safe. One line in particular stuck with me: "There are times when you can feel your childhood ending."

In the past, I've claimed a perception of the "end of innocence" based on a number of insignificant occurrences. I went in to graduate school a size 2, became a size 8/10, got my Master's whilst wearing a size 4, and have since stayed at the aforementioned size 6. And when I made a post about cleaning out my closet...oh, a year ago, that alteration in body shape seemed to be the undeniable sign of adulthood. "Here is proof that I am no longer a waif, and I accept that! Onward!" But my dress size had nothing to do with my preparedness for the real world. Nor did getting rid of half of my makeup or sending applications to 200+ schools and being inundated with rejections and maybe-next-years.

When my speech class was canceled--when I finally accepted that my dream would not happen oh-so-soon, and definitely not in the way I thought it would--that is when I felt my childhood end. It's not because I came to some epiphany about the world's cruelty and unfairness, because anyone with half a brain gets that the world is a bit of a bitch. It's because I realized that hitting a course-altering bump (or two...or ten...) isn't the end of the world. I don't know where I'll be in a year. For now, I'll have to keep living with my parents, wearing a grocery store uniform on some days and a pencil skirt on others. With the way the job market and higher education are at the moment, I will quite likely be unemployed within the next year. When I do get hired full-time and live on my own again, I will not be safe, protected by the endless patience of my parents or the guaranteed Graduate Teaching Assistant paychecks of yesteryear. I will never be safe again. I have accepted all of this, and I no longer see it as a series of insurmountable limitations. I see it as a part of life.

The dream is deferred, but not forgotten.

And the little lace dress? Is going to Goodwill.


  1. I know this post is years old, but it's a reminder of what adulthood is these days. I am glad I read it.