Who I wished to be

One morning, in fourth grade, my teacher told us to pick up our chairs and follow her outside.

We were going to watch a demonstration.

I didn’t know then what the demonstration would be and I can’t remember now what it was (a model rocket launch?) because something else happened to fill that space in my memory.

My class lined up our chairs in a row on the blacktop where we usually played foursquare. Then we sat and waited as the rest of the fourth grade filed out, carrying their blue and orange plastic chairs, forming rows behind us.

It felt like a long time to sit in the sun. I counted how many kids wore Birkenstock sandals.

Emily also waited somewhere in the row of chairs. She was one of the most fantastic girls in our class. She made everybody smile and her hair swooped away from her face in a way I couldn’t replicate. From where I sat, I saw her stand up about ten chairs down the line. She turned to face the kids near her and sang a little song and did the silliest dance and they all laughed and laughed.

Her song and their laughter brought up a wish in me, as bright and burning as the sun over our heads:

I wish I could do that.

I could, of course, do that. I considered it. I imagined standing up right then and doing exactly what Emily had done. I pictured the movements I would make. And because I hadn’t heard the words she’d said, I tried imagining my own.

But then I realized that I didn’t just want to stand up and do a dance that everyone laughed at. I didn’t want to just copy Emily. I wanted to be the kind of person who would do what she did, easily, without overthinking—the way I was overthinking right then.

The wish changed: I wish I could BE Emily.

So badly. The strength of that wish flared up in my throat and made it tight.

And then came the stomach-clenching recognition right after it: I would never be her. Goofing around came to Emily as effortlessly as breathing. For me, it did not. While waiting, Emily’s natural impulse was to get up and do a silly dance. That idea would never have come to me had I not seen Emily do it first, had I not seen how her silly faces made everyone love her.

I longed, all that day, to be a person other than who I was.

That longing took away the rest of the day. We fourth graders were outside to witness an unusual thing, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. That morning is still etched in my mind, but the actual reason we went outside is lost to me.

That longing follows me to other parts of my life sometimes—a wish to be stronger, funnier, prettier, more admired. But those wishes never actually makes me stronger, funnier, prettier or more admired. They just take away the time I could use being the best version of myself.

I picture that quiet, lovely nine-year-old on her orange chair, looking down the line at the class clown she’ll never be. She doesn’t see that her best friend is sitting right next to her and they could be giggling. She doesn’t notice the wide, shining sky or the sunlight warming her arm. She doesn’t recognize what a glorious thing it is to be nine and still new in the world and completely herself. Instead, she’s aching to be loud and hilarious because she believes that’s how to be loved.

I want to tell her: Honey, don’t. It’s too beautiful a day to waste time wishing you were someone else.