Recently, I bumped into acquaintance at a road race while waiting for the results to be posted. We engaged in some small talk, which brought up her weekend plans. She mentioned that one of her grandchildren was celebrating his 20th birthday, but that they weren’t having a party for him because “having a party at his age isn’t cool right now.”
I paused for a second, partially struck by her words and partially aghast at the fact that it’s even possible to think a party be uncool. Parties are great! Parties usher in wonderful things like clowns, balloons, cake and stuffed midget horses filled with saccharine. You can even skewer them with sharp pins in their behinds. Who doesn’t love a party?
And aren’t 20-year-olds supposed to be the ultimate party animals? It’s the age right before 21, which makes sneaking into parties and scoring fake IDs oh-so-glamorous. After 21, you begin to find glamour in the PA Wine & Spirits App when Ghost Pines pinot noir is $3 off.
I was incredulous that anyone could find a birthday party uncool, but it is easy to forget the moments when I, too, deemed seemingly wonderful events as embarrassing or unwanted. I travel back to 4th grade as I’m standing on the hill before school, Mom’s car idling behind me. I’m hustling to throw my enormous LL Bean backpack over my shoulders, when I hear those four little words no grade school child wants to hear:
“Give me a kiss goodbye.”
I can feel all of us collectively recoiling as far into the front seat as possible, hoping it will swallow us up and spit us back out at our desk in school. I recall this memory with a mix of horror and sadness, because when did we allow our peers to convince us that showing our parents affection was bad?
There were other occasions the Coolness Plague visited me throughout my childhood. Suddenly, wearing a Halloween costume in 8th grade was just the worst. Pathetically, I remember taking a second to step away from my trick-or-treat group to wipe away a few tears, because I realized at that moment that trick-or-treating was done. It wasn’t cool anymore. Sayonara, innocence.
At the core of every embarrassment from childhood stems a desperate need to fit in….a need to not stick out. I seem to recall finding the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers extremely hip and stellar until, one day, they just weren’t. I remember walking to school with my next door neighbors, and our conversation turned to TV shows. I brought up the recent Power Rangers episode (because even back then I was reviewing pop culture), as we had always seemed to enjoy it in the past. However, I remember one of them dismissing the show as “stupid” and “lame.” This, from the same person who used to play the Blue Ranger to my Pink Ranger (but, most often the Green/White Ranger, because of the Saba sword).
How did our favorite TV show go from a backyard make-believe standby to old news overnight? And why did I suddenly feel so bad for having liked it?
We go through so many transitions in our life that inform us our tastes are changing…sometimes, against our will. Sometimes, we have to change what we enjoy because the “cool kids” deem it weird, odd or goofy. When we’re young, few of us are strong enough to push back against the tide of popular opinion. I know I wasn’t. I was horrified to stick out. As a result, a lot of my early passions and interests were muted due to an overwhelming fear of being odd. Let me put it to you this way: how many 9th graders do you know who have an intense admiration for John Williams movie scores?
I remember riding the basketball bus to away games, sometimes a 2 hour trip. During those 120 minutes, I was ecstatic to plug into my personal CD player (skip-free protection, of course) and tune into one of my favorite Christmas presents of all-time: John Williams Greatest Hits: 1969-1999….a 2 CD set. Upon hitting play, the opening strain from Star Wars poured over me, always ensuring chills up my arms. Parade of the Slave Children…The Imperial March…Flight to Neverland….these themes became my personal anthems…but nobody knew.
How could anyone know? How would anyone on that bus understand? Certainly not in a time where Eminem, Sisqo, and Jay-Z were all the rage. I silently hoped and prayed that no one would ask me what I was listening to, because what played in my ears definitely wasn’t rap. While the other girls were getting pumped up listening to “Big Pimpin'” or “Forget About Dre,” I was blasting “The Raider’s March” from Indiana Jones. I loved that 2-CD set so much, but was deathly afraid to let anyone know.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my life is that we all need a lot more goofiness in our lives. My heart aches for my 14-year-old self, observing how I put my passions on stand-by to seemingly fit in. Looking back, though, I don’t think I ever did. How can you fit in when you know you’re not being true to yourself? Fitting in is not about changing who you are: it’s about finding like-minded people who feel the same way. I think, in fact, I was always lying in wait to find a group of people who would accept me for me, and that took at least another 10 years. You want a real measure of who your true friends are? Ask yourself this question: who can you be your goofiest with?
Goofy is good. Goofy means we don’t care if people see us acting silly or weird. The world needs more goofy. We need to embrace goofy.
In the emotional powerhouse Inside Out (yep, I’m positive you didn’t think I was going to follow up that description with an animated film), the main character, Riley, is seemingly controlled by various feelings inside her head (Joy, Anger, Disgust…you get the idea). Riley’s likes and dislikes are represented in five different “islands”: a reflection of each aspect of her personality. There’s Family Island, Friendship Island, and even a Hockey Island.
As she grows up, these islands change and modify depending on the events in her life. One island that faces impending destruction in the film is Goofball Island, a place that celebrates her silliness and quirks. When Riley is young, Goofball Island is alive and thriving. As she progresses into her teens, however, Goofball Island begins to crumble and decay. Riley becomes less apt to engage in silly behavior with her parents as parts of her personality adapt to what she experiences at school. It’s a very sad and poignant moment the film, which delivers more emotional realizations than you’d expect from an animated movie.
At the age of 30, I realize that there’s still a great deal to learn from living that I haven’t touched upon yet. But, one thing I do know is that is it vitally important to never give up on goofiness. Never give up on being silly. At the core of goofiness is an intense desire to laugh, and how can that ever be wrong? There is absolutely a time and place for serious thought and reflection, but just like innocent playtime, it needs to be tempered and balanced. We get so caught up in worry and fear, more frequently than we get caught up in appreciating a good fart joke. Why can’t it be the other way around?
As a middle school teacher, I see the importance of goofiness first hand. I watch as 5th and 6th graders smile and giggle their way into puberty, only to have those facets muted in the throes of 7th and 8th grade. They lose their freedom to be wacky and become inhibited, simply because of a fear of not fitting in. I encourage my students to be goofy on a daily basis because, simply, being goofy means you’re not afraid to be yourself. And if you can’t be yourself, who can you be?
We need to reclaim Goofball Island. Raise quirky children. Inspire silly students. Encourage responsible irresponsibility. I waited almost 24 years to finally let go of my fear of sticking out. I wish I could reclaim some of that time, but I also know those years got me where I am today: proudly standing on the highest mountain of Goofball Island, fart jokes in one hand and a can of silly string in the other.
Be goofy. Choose goofy.