Childhood Lessons From Unlikely Teachers

Childhood is a time where every encounter and every experience contains a lesson. Here are ten of my favorite childhood lessons and the (sometimes shocking) teachers that related them.

Lesson: Acceptance

Teacher: Selling shampoo to naked people

How it went down: I grew up in an environment where nudity was acceptable. From a young age, I learned that the human body, in all its variations, was natural. I was taught that nudity could exist apart from sexuality and that an unclothed body was not a source of shame or embarrassment. I first appreciated this lesson one summer in early high school when I spent a few days selling shampoo to patrons at a nude sauna at the Oregon Country Fair. I was at the height of teenage insecurity about my appearance and my body. Yet, when standing alongside hundreds of other exposed bodies, my anxieties about my own form dissipated. I realized that I had been accepting others yet judging myself. I have generally had a positive relationship with my body and my weight and I believe that it is because of my early experiences with nudity. On a side note, somehow people wearing nothing but socks appear to be even more naked than those entirely in their birthday suits:)

Lesson: Tolerance

Teacher: A variety of churches, synagogues and temples

How it went down: I was raised in a fairly liberal Methodist church yet I had friends from just about every religious background imaginable. I spent many a weekend at their houses and would attend religious services with their families. It was not uncommon for me to attend a youth group activity with my own church on Friday, visit the synagogue on Saturday and end the weekend with a Catholic mass. As a child, I was accepted at each church and my questions were welcomed and answered thoughtfully (I always had plenty to ask!). I was probably one of the only kids to go to catechism and Hebrew classes even though I was not Catholic or Jewish:) Later on, my mom’s experiences led me to be exposed to the wisdom from the East as well as from the Native Americans. I had friends that were Buddhist and friends that were Baptist. I learned to respect the beliefs and I learned something from them all.

Lesson: Patience

Teacher: Two very different parents

How it went down: My parents could not be more different. My father is an introverted engineer and my mother, an extroverted counselor. And me? Somewhere smack dab in the middle. As a kid, it was sometimes difficult trying to be understanding of each of their temperaments when they were so different from each other and from me. I had to learn (yes, kicking and screaming!) that my way was not the only way and that I needed to be patient with each of them. My mom often says that we choose the parents we need. Yeah, I certainly needed lessons in patience and often still do!

Lesson: Curiosity

Teacher: Books

How it went down: I was an only child who didn’t need much sleep. To preserve their sanity, my parents instituted an “off duty at 9:00 pm” rule when I turned three. As a result, I needed to find a way to entertain myself alone in my room before I was ready to go to sleep. After learning that a xylophone is not an appropriate nighttime toy (who knew?), I turned to books. I started out reading along with records (dating myself here!) until I could read independently. I soon discovered that entire worlds were available to me through the pages of books and that I could discover more with every page turned. I also learned that the Pizza Hut reading incentive program could earn me a free pizza a week:) I’m still an avid reader and questioner, always on the lookout to learn something new.

Lesson: Consequences

Teacher: A hippie music festival

How it went down: By the time I was in high school, many of my friends and classmates had begun experimenting with alcohol and drugs, often to tragic ends. I was never tempted because I had seen the reality. For most teenagers, they only see the glamorous side of drinking and drugging – the movies, the ads, the parties. Because of my time spent camping at a hippie music festival every year, I was exposed to the realities from a young age. I saw the fun parties but I also saw the effects the next day. I witnessed lives spin out of control from one summer to next as festival-goers fell to addiction. The lesson went beyond the effects of drugs and alcohol; I learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that every choice has a consequence.

Lesson: Goal setting

Teacher: A Cabbage Patch Kid doll

How it went down: Like many children of the 80s, I was enamored with Cabbage Patch Kids. I was given my first as a gift from my mom, but I soon lusted after a second. My mom smartly chose to make me purchase this one on my own. For months, I saved my allowance while visiting the intended purchase on each trip to the store. I would be tempted by cheaper toys that I could purchase with the amount I had saved yet I was encouraged to hold out until I had reached my goal. That lesson has served me well in life. Although now I see that doll as a waste of money, the ability to work towards a goal is priceless.

Lesson: Compassion

Teacher: A young girl with a profound disability

How it went down: I spent two summers in middle school volunteering at my church with a group of preschool-aged children with special needs. One little girl was the most severe. She had PKU, a genetic mutation that prohibits the body from breaking down an amino acid correctly (this is what the doctors are checking for when they do that heel prick at birth). Her abnormality was undetected and, as a result, she had a very high fever that caused extensive brain damage. I spent two years paired with this child. She was difficult to work with. She would screech and kick. She ripped my earring from my ear and left scratches on my arms. She would hit herself repeatedly and fail to make any eye contact. Even through all of this, I connected with her. Over time, she began to show signs of interaction with me and with her environment. To this day, one of my favorite moments is when she gave me a hug on our last together. She taught me to respond with compassion and empathy rather than fear or aversion.

Lesson: Imperfection

Teacher: An art teacher

How it went down: I was always a high-strung student with perfectionistic tendencies. I would cry when I received a 98, berating myself for failing to earn the final two points. I had an art teacher throughout much of high school that had a policy of never giving a grade higher than a 95. His rationale? Art can never be perfect. True. And neither can life. There is a freedom in embracing the imperfect that I first learned in that tempera paint scented classroom. Of course, I would still cry if I didn’t earn a 95:) After all, I’m not perfect…

Lesson: Adaptability

Teacher: My many “adopted family members”

How it went down: After my parent’s divorced, my mom and I were the only blood relations in the entire state of Texas. Instead of bemoaning this fact, we simply made family. We have a friend who joined us for holidays and trips. I would assimilate into other households for other celebrations. Our definition of family was flexible and fluid. I have used that lesson in my own life, not only with family but with adapting to any situation. You can complain or you can change your perspective and your circumstances. The latter seems a lot better to me.

Lesson: Perseverance

Teacher: A bicycle

How it went down: I’ve shared before about my struggles with riding a bike. Even with my father’s expert tutelage (he was like the Lance Armstrong of the neighborhood, only without the performance enhancing drugs), I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I turned 10. Go ahead and laugh, I know you want to:) My parents would not let me weasel out of this task, even though I tried. It took tears, threats and bribes (two banana splits!), but I finally learned how to pedal without falling over. Even more importantly, I learned the value of hard work and determination and that true failure only comes when you do not try.

I am thankful for these childhood lessons and childhood teachers. It’s amazing what we can learn from others even when they may not know that we are studying.

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