An older man, a little rough around the edges, called after me leaving the gym parking lot today. “You’re beautiful, you know that? You can tell your man I said so.” As I waved goodbye in acknowledgement, evading the uncomfortable exchange that logically follows, I smiled and laughed as a silent offering of appropriate gratitude. I was frowning by the time I pulled off the lot.
I don’t feel beautiful. Perhaps because I never left high school, I still compare myself to the girl I was when I sat behind the student desks. She was slender and toned with a budding understanding of the power behind coy eyes and body language that barely toed the line of a Sunday School standard. Whatever the arena, I was Joy and Tim’s daughter, PJ and David’s little sister, and that came with high expectations by association.
I had no doubt that I would change the world. I came from good stock. I expected it. I could be anything I wanted to be. In an assembly in fifth grade, I’d even learned that girls could be doctors and men could be nurses. I could ride out the wave of feminism and be a lawyer, as some of my career aptitude tests suggested. I could be an actress or a model.
As my students complete their final projects of the year, our “Career Discovery Adventure”, they’re proactively researching a potential career and presenting the journey they’ll have to undergo to get there. While my ulterior motive is to develop masters of the basic principles of internal citations, works cited pages, and responsibly avoid plagiarism, I ask my kids to look fifteen years down the line. What’s important? Your career should accommodate your values.
I shared how each of my siblings and I had pursued different careers to fit our envisioned lifestyles. My brothers chose to be a gastroenterologist, a theologian, and a marketing manager. I chose to be a teacher, like my mom. The life I envisioned was a mirror image over fifteen years that closely resembled my childhood family. Job security was important to me, ever assured of a changing economic American landscape, so a tenure track was a safe option. Most importantly, I’d be home when my kids were home.
And that was a guaranteed part of my personal landscape the future was certain to hold, so it was also safe, then, to dream about a career that paired with tending to the needs of a family. Fast forward to thirty-four year old me writing on the front porch of a rental I’ve tried so hard to make a home out of on my own, where the silence of the bedrooms practically mocks me. My brothers all married teachers, a similarity I can’t chalk up to coincidence. There’s a continuity to their lifestyles from childhood to present day. You can hold up the mirror in their houses, and it reflects our upbringing.
Not mine, though. It’s more than distorted. It’s shattered. On the weekends, Charming enters the frame, and the landscape improves. Kecoughtan’s senior prom was Saturday night, and Charming graciously escorted me. His button-down brought out the blue in his eyes. He’d sent me flowers at school the day before, just because, and our evening of chaperoning was a romantic masquerade ball.
Charming says I like to go to see the girls’ choices in dresses and dates. I’ll admit, those are factors, though it’s more about a chance to get dressed up myself and share my world with him for a bit. After meeting each student at the dance, I’d connect him or her to some anecdote I’d shared previously, giving him a unique Who’s Who moment in my living high school yearbook.
When my grandpa saw me dancing in plays, he’d lovingly call me his Jezebel. It’s with that sentiment that I nickname a girl who absolutely lit up the ballroom when she entered it. It wasn’t just the dress or the hair or the makeup; she was a stunning beauty with a brilliant smile who, at sixteen, carried herself with an almost royal composure. Jezebel would take your breath away. She did mine.
Just as easily as she would lie, effortlessly, about her whereabouts when she was supposed to be in my classroom. I’m not sure what Jezebel wants to do for the rest of her life because she’s skipped every block in this unit. In fact, she’s skipped every class since the afternoon I pulled her out into the hallway and attempted a heart-to-heart with her about the application of the saying, “Beauty is more than skin deep.” Like adolescent me, she’s discovered she can use her wit, charm, looks, and smarts to deliver results… but she’s testing the limits beyond toeing the line.
Unlike me, she didn’t have that one essential component in her childhood picture: a Bible. When I was in high school, I struggled to be good. After my grandfather died, I inherited his Bible. While I was uncovering the path I wanted to pursue for my future, I started each morning with daily quiet times with that Bible and dozens of prayer journals. I felt beautiful, not because I was a size four without an inch of fat to pinch, but because despite as many major failures as journals, I still woke up every morning and set my mind, again, on the right path. I knew forgiveness, and the reflection in the mirror was pleasing.
I see who Jezebel is now. Her writing scores are off the charts. Given the right mentoring, she could pursue a future as a journalist. Her ability to use her words and assets to influence people could find profitability in a rewarding career. It’s why I pulled her aside that last time I saw her before the prom. Jezebel is captivating, but I’m worried about the condition of her heart and how that might negatively influence the path she chooses for her life.
At the prom with Charming, I didn’t feel beautiful. It wasn’t out of comparison, though the disparities between my post-thirty curves and their teenage perfection might have made me rethink bringing my boyfriend. For me, feeling beautiful means I can look in the mirror and be happy with who I am, not what I see. After a month of couple’s counseling and an intense session just that morning, I looked at my reflection and saw the impatience, the temper, the stubborn will.
It’s not pretty. I want Jezebel to know what it looks like when the royal façade fades after midnight, when she’s alone with herself and the aftermath of her myriad poor decisions. Perhaps another better suited might rise to mentor her character in the future, but I’m comforted by the cherished image of my childhood home, a place where I learned that beautiful was synonymous with the woman of Proverbs 31.
Beauty is more than skin deep. It’s why I smile when I look at the green leaves of my vegetable garden. The greatness to come is still in the ground. That’s what pleases me. Charming’s flowers can make me feel beautiful for a handful of moments, a reminder that he’s in the picture even when I can’t hold him in the frame.
But to smile when I look in the mirror, really smile, I need to see goodness. Jezebel’s stunning prom attire didn’t make me smile. Instead, I grieved for what she’ll miss if she continues on this rebellious path without intervention. Mom and Dad intervened for me at every juncture. They modeled that in the mirror, too.
I suppose I shouldn’t give up on Jezebel. They didn’t give up on me.
I suppose I shouldn’t give up on me, either. I’m growing. Just green leaves right now, but I’m sensing there’s greatness to come, under the soil. That at more than twice Jezebel’s age, I can still make plans about who I want to be when I grow up.