My primary school, in the years that I was there, had a sort of miniature forest planted in a corner of the school grounds, near the staff carpark. There was a little dirt path that curved and wound its way through the mini forest, and connected the playground at one end with the little pond at the other. Along the way, there were a few benches, so one could sit and enjoy the serenity.
I hadn’t thought of that little forest in a very long time, but the other day, when I was walking down the street in the middle of the day, and the wind rushed through the trees that I was passing under – at that precise moment, I thought of that little forest, and for a split second, I was back there, sitting on a bench about midway down the path, reading a book. It was exactly as Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird – the way random, seemingly insignificant memories resurface out of nowhere years after the fact, and years since you last thought of them.
In this case, however, I think my mind might have been primed toward that kind of memory. This post isn’t actually about memories or forests. It’s about childhood and change.
When I was a kid, I was incredibly shy and quiet, yet I was also active and energetic. In the first few years of primary school, I’d happily play on the playground amongst the other kids, but not with them per se. My school had a rule that only children in grades 1-3 were allowed on the playground, so when I reached grade 4, I had to find other ways to spend my lunchtimes.
I suppose that’s more or less the time I started reading chapter books. (Not sure if this is coincidence or connected in some way.) Despite being a very small school, the library had a decent collection (from what I remember anyway), so I suppose I spent a lot of time there. And once the forest was completed (I think it was only completed midway through my school years), I did some reading there too.
The oval (or field) and the handball squares were on the other side of the school, so the forest was generally pretty quiet during lunch. Well, the playground would usually be full of loud children, and a few of them would occasionally run up and down the forest path, but, for the most part, it was peaceful enough. If nothing else, it was as secluded as any other space I was going to find on the school grounds.
Fast-forward many years, and I find it incredible that this shy kid is now an extrovert (according to those MBTI personality tests, if they are to be believed) who spends all day talking to people at work, will talk to friends of friends at parties, and will even talk to random strangers on the street or at bars or anywhere.
(If I’m travelling alone, a small part of me is disappointed if the person next to me on a plane overtly does not want to make conversation i.e. they’ve got headphones on, fall asleep before the plane’s even taken off, or otherwise preoccupy themselves in such a way as to avoid eye contact or any hint that conversation might be welcome. But mostly I don’t mind because I usually have my own things to do on planes anyway…)
A colleague of mine (MI) once told me that she experienced something similar in her life: when she was a kid, and all through her teenage years, she was very shy, very introverted. Twenty-plus years on, she is now one of the most sociable and out-going people I know.
Of course, this change/reversal brings about many questions – mostly in regard to why/how it happened that way.
I suppose I’m inclined to say that I became more socially involved in high school, but that’s not necessarily true. Yes, I made friends more easily, and I talked to more people (it was a very large school – probably six or seven times the size of my primary school – so you had to talk to more people); but I was still quiet and shy and reserved.
When I think about the little forest at my primary school, there are two main things I remember: the cage thing they had to put over the pond so that birds wouldn’t eat all the frogs, and this one random encounter…
One lunch-time, maybe when I was in grade 6 or 7, I was reading in the forest, when a kid – perhaps in grade 2 or 3 – came up to me and asked me some questions about the book I was reading. I vaguely remember her asking why I had the book open at that particular page when my bookmark was further along, and I vaguely remember telling her that I was just holding the bookmark there, and it wasn’t actually marking that particular page, but I don’t remember much else about that encounter.
Maybe that was actually the whole extent of our interaction, or maybe she asked more questions, but I do not remember feeling uncomfortable about it. And, apart from the small possibility that I was annoyed that she was interrupting my reading, and wanted her to go away, I probably didn’t mind talking to her.
Sometimes I remember random things from my childhood, like that conversation, and I wonder why my memory decided to hold onto that random event. Why does my brain think it’s important to remember these things? I wonder if I’m supposed to learn something from it, but I’m sure it’s as likely as anything that my brain is just a hoarder, storing things just in case and not for any practical, thought-out purpose.
But maybe this memory persists so that I might conjecture that I always had it in me to be chatty and easy-going in social situations. Maybe this was just one of those things that time and place took care of. I wonder if my ten-year-old self would have laughed or cringed at the thought of becoming an extrovert …or maybe that’s what she really wanted.