What a dysfunctional society and childhood, teaches me about adulthood
In this particular story, it was the 90’s, I was 8-years-old and smuggling my father’s Playboy magazines into school. And what it has taught me about power and integrity in my adult life.
It goes like this.
Every month my father would receive in the mail a very distinct looking, opaque black plastic envelop, and since I can remember, that black envelop was never a big deal. Anyone who would pick up the mail at home would then shout out ‘your magazine is here’ and that was that.
My father didn’t hide ‘porn’ from me, and today I thank him for that.
While that is an already controversial instance, it is much more so coming from a family with a very religious background, but our household had a kink, which I didn’t realize as such until much later into adulthood.
We, usually as little girls are, had no interest in the magazines as much as the grown-ups did, and to my mother’s dismay my father would let us flip through them for a while until we got bored, ultimately finding the jokes the most forbidden thing of all, because they were so raunchy, not the nudity.
Until then to me it was not so evident how taboo this little household habit was, we took the sporadic nagging that my mother’s had about the magazines, as strictly due to her constant need for tidying-up and my dad didn’t always keep his collection neatly stacked as she would like, I thought.
And the simple existence of those magazines went on.
Until one day, when the Gods’ of Mischief cooked up a scheme and graced it upon their most fervent and adoring worshiper to dutifully put into action. So there went little me.
At school that morning I was listening to the most amusing fable from one of our most daring little classmates, of how shocking it was, he recollected that someone from our class, while away on vacation got to sneak out during the night, at forbidden hours, and have a peek at a ‘porn’ TV series. This forbidden knowledge was a thing of such mystic that the heroine was even called Emmanuelle, a name I had only ever heard before in church and strictly reserved for the Messiah.
Curious as always I asked what about this series is so forbidden, and between faint whispers, they said: ‘it has naked ladies.’
But ‘oh! wait a minute.’
I thought for a second and proceeded to utter the first of many ill-advised things I’ve ever since verbalised — “at home we see naked ladies all the time, my dad has these magazines and he always let us look at it, I will bring them to school, it is not a big deal.”
I sat there at the height of my collected wisdom and truly meant it, while silently being hailed a heroine among my admiring peers.
The next day, on my merry way to school I went, carrying inside my backpack, my stack of porn magazines and once in class, as you can imagine the fun turned to disaster pretty quickly.
While stealth, as I presumed recess time, was to share such novelty, as we all assumed adults wouldn’t be around, because recess was our time.
Clumsy dear eight-years-old me, instantly proved it not to be such a good idea.
Once no longer captive to the crippling monotony of our classroom that fated day, my little troupe of adoring fans and I as soon as the bell rang, we ran away with much enthusiasm to patio freedom.
Grasping for air and at my naked ladies in the euphoria of the moment, I slipped on the little step in front of our classroom, and my backpack, notebooks, printed lady boobies and all else fell to the floor.
Flying away openly with their titillating content the magazines went, downright to the feet of our screaming bloody-murder and disgusted principal.
I should point out that it was indeed a very religious school, and religious people like to stick with religious stuff apparently, but there was I thinking, that her being a reverend’s wife and a high ranking captain for church morality had nothing to do with the horrifying face she made. I was frightened.
There were such disgust, anger, and contempt, which were until then emotions that I couldn’t relate to the magnitude of what I had done, which in my head wasn’t so dangerous after all.
Still, I was old enough to recognise that face, and I was naive about many things, but that array of emotions on the face of a guardian were familiar ones, and it never went away without violence following up, so I held on for what was to come.
Luckily violence never came, and now I am much older and wiser, I can name such expression as shame, it was the shame that usually triggered violence and abuse even among loving families that are unaware of their dysfunction and shame is hard to hide, it is even harder to acknowledge, even on myself sometimes.
Shame we carry with us, for some reason or another, and it shows up always taking out the space of respect and love within ourselves, because whenever something is so shocking and threatening to our sense of identity, that we can’t help but wobble on our own feet for an instant.
Coming face to face with this powerful metaphoric disrobing of our perceived virtues, if they have escaped us even if for a second, we are exposed indeed just like the ladies in my magazines.
And catatonic for a brief minute, and sizing all the chaos that was before her, the principal was livid, she was a very tall, blond and handsome woman, who by now looked like as red as pepper, in her dignified face. Making me pick up all the smut from over the floor, she proceeded to pull me by my scrawny little arms as she barked like a rabid dog “move quicker you crummy little creature” and took me to her office.
After a few drinks of water and a couple of prayers, she regained her composure , she dialed my father at work to inform him, there was an emergency, and he was expected at school shortly. There sat both of us, me waiting for him to pick me up, and her drawing up my punishment on paper.
At this point, sure I was aware I might have done something spectacularly forbidden. But I was also sure that it was more about having taken something without permission from my dad than it was about the nakedness of ladies. I was wrong.
My father arrived, just as I used to see him daily at midday while he picked us up from school, he was in fragile health and tired from working three shifts as a teacher in a public school, he was also hungry that being lunchtime and having missed his break to check on me.
Even at eight-years-old, I was very conscious and possessed a reasonable understanding of the shared burden my parents carried out to be able to afford our education and livelihood as a family of four. He stood in front of us as he was, overworked, sick and underpaid, while little me “was always adding to the grief of an already hard life” as my school’s principal pointed-out.
To my surprise as soon as he stepped inside her office, the principal shifted targets and proceeded to barrage him with a list of blame.
First for not being “Christian enough” then for not controlling me with perhaps harder corporal corrections.
Because if I dare take the magazines I was a child who wasn’t afraid, and a scared child wouldn’t dare do it, and above all for me knowing there were things like that in the house in the first place, moreover the absurdity of allowing me to flip through them.
The lecture kept going with how and why he should better hide this magazines from me, so she doesn’t have to deal with it here at school anymore.
My dad sat there, listening until he could hear no more. On his turn to talk, he said “I see no need to defend myself, and as an adult I educate my children as I please. Moreover that he was appalled at her for telling him that children should be kept in the dark about sex and nudity because she was an educator first and she should know better.
My father never got his magazines back from her though, and towards home guessing of what was for lunch, we went.
Over the years, I have tried to see this story through the eyes of every single person involved, and I can’t take sides with either adult stance without feeling that the child is always the one worse off given any point of view.
While they did handle it the best way they could at the time, which is not saying much about their damaging behaviors, but it is a story that I carry with a tremendous sense of pride because it always teaches me something new about me, every-time I recount it.
That little incident and interpersonal exchange have been a source of long-held debate with family at home or with friends even now after many years, and these discussions have taught me so much about the goals behind our educational systems, religious dogmas, work life, and parenting.
These lessons still see me through my days even as a grown up where I need to keep learning about workplace authority, personal power, integrity, and self-compassion, and it is why I am glad, pornography wasn’t hidden from me.
Among many others of them I would like to share the top 5:
- Authority figures sometimes do not mean what they say or well — but they don’t realise it until confronted with the outcome of their actions, and it eventually hurts all involved but the child first.
- Educational and professional establishments have to be a safe place — and it won’t happen, if we deny ourselves or anyone freedom of thought, especially children the allowance remaining inquisitive and curious upholders for truth by punishing them.
- Dogma doesn’t apply only to religion — check other areas in your life where it can be just as damaging.
- Children won’t accept double standards — and like any self-respecting adult so shouldn’t you, they will always try to re-enact something they see inside the home, outside the house too. So if their same behavior would embarrass or shame, you are a parent, by them watching what you are doing or saying in private if it came out into the public, stop doing it.
- Power is only constructive if you know who has it — everyone has potency, but the majority of people, lest a child doesn’t know how to exercise it. Teachers and parents are interchangeable authorities inside a child’s psyche, and the power of influence is always power over your child. If you can’t get along, respect or agree with the other authoritative figures involved in your children’s life, prepare yourself to have a tough time remaining forever complaining about how difficult your child is.
Thank you for reading! And if often our private and professional concerns, views or beliefs won’t fit neatly in orderly stacks like magazines. Try and be a good enough educator and parent to yourself first by residing in that freeing idea of child-like integrity, where you live in and set as few as double standards in your life you possibly can.