Defying Conformity

Bullying and alcohol abuse were the norm for an average teenager at the little prairie school where I used to teach. In order to combat these rampant problems along with a growing drug subculture, my school had become involved with STAND, Students Taking A New Direction, a nationally-sponsored drug and alcohol prevention program that partnered with our county health department. I became the sponsor of STAND after two years of watching it falter in the hands of a too-busy counselor. I ran it as STAND for a couple of years, but when I realized the national group didn’t exist anymore, I took the liberty of changing the name of the group to STARS, or Students Taking A Right Stand, simply because the “war on drugs” was not a “new direction” at all. It’s because of this group that I met a girl named Erin Wells.

Erin was an eighth grader who had moved just outside of the city limits and, even after several months, had not made many friends. A group of sophomores saw her eating lunch alone one day and all six of them came to sit with her. The resulting friendship caused a change in Erin for which I’m sure she’s still thankful. Their love and acceptance allowed her to relax and be herself, and their encouragement over the next two years helped develop her talents in theater, choir, creative writing, academics, and leadership. Without them she would not be who she is today.

I met Erin through these girls, some of whom were members of STARS. They brought her to a meeting where she instinctively took initiative with presentations, with interactions with our school resource officer, and with kids who needed help. The trust she felt in her circle of friends she willingly shared with others. She discovered that many kids didn’t feel the same level of trust, so she set about changing that standard. She felt comfortable stepping outside the boundaries of conformity to do so.

Rather than fall prey to the herd mentality of partying and gossip, Erin stayed away from negative influences. She tried out for and got the lead (usually assigned to a senior) in the school play during her sophomore year. It was an unconventional “theater in the round” sort of thing that didn’t really work too well with a traditional small audience, but she gave a great performance, often switching roles and perspectives. The director was flighty and disorganized, so Erin organized rehearsals, props, stage space, and the program. The show was fun and had twice as big an audience as was originally expected as a result of Erin’s extra work.

Erin was raised in a single-parent home, and often her father worked late at the Air Force base and asked that I drop her off at her house on my way home after drama practice or a STARS meeting. During these car rides, along with the usual teen angst issues, Erin shared with me the details of her family: how she missed her half-brothers because they were living in Arizona with their mom, what it was like being on her own with her dad, and what it was like growing up without a mother (hers had passed away from breast cancer when Erin was three years old). One night as I pulled up in her driveway, Erin asked me, “Will you be my mom?” I looked at her and we both burst into tears. Of course I said “yes,” and our relationship has continued to be one of my most cherished. We jokingly started calling ourselves “Big Rin” (that’s me, because my toddler-niece couldn’t pronounce DeLyn, so she called me “Rin”) and “Little Rin,” short for eRin, which is how she writes her name.

During her junior year, Erin used to sit near my desk and act as my secretary. She’d make copies, run errands, and do my bulletin boards. She even designed and typed up worksheets for me. One  morning she found my copy of Hamlet and eyed it longingly with her recently-awakened love of Shakespeare, that had blossomed into a Shakespeare film marathon over the weekend. Next to Hamlet was the entry form for a poetry contest sponsored by the Donor Awareness Council. I asked her if she was interested in entering the contest, and she said, “Sure, I have 15 minutes before class starts.” She sat down and blasted out a poem, glancing at my copy of Hamlet as she did so:

A Gift From Beneath the Snow

One heart, two bodies, much the same,

once two, now one alike.

A gift given through sacrifice,

the precious gift of life.

The gift of life that passes,

from one soul to the next,

A connection made through time and years,

much different than the rest.

I give of myself, that you should live,

the surgeon makes it so.

That you may run and jump and play,

while I lie beneath the snow.

To sleep the sleep of dead men,

whilst you frolic overhead,

I gave my organs and tissues—

to you who would be dead.

I shuffle off my mortal coil,

so you may carry on.

I leave behind a legacy,

for you to build upon.

Little did she know that her burst of creativity, which took all of about ten minutes, would win that contest. She was asked to read her poem at a special function to honor organ recipients and their families at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They also gave her and a guest free passes to the museum, a generous buffet lunch, and a stack of free coupons. Yeah. I got to be the guest.

We arrived at the museum a few minutes early and stood around uncomfortably as guests began to arrive. People who had received a transplant organ proudly wore their scars for all to see, as a badge of honor. We felt really awkward. After a few other awards, Erin read her poem to the group, and several people in the audience began to cry. When she returned to her seat, many of the organ recipients came up to ask about her inspiration for the poem. “Are you a donor?” “What organ did you have replaced?” “Can I see your scar?” She didn’t have the nerve to tell them she cranked out that poem in a few minutes before class and submitted it on a whim. Very sincerely, she told them about her mother’s struggle with breast cancer and her life without a mom, which she explained was the reason she entered the poem into the contest. I guess now the truth is out.

The Donor Awareness Council put the poem on gift bookmarks and featured the poem on their website for a year.

A Gift From Beneath the Snow

A picture of the bookmark with Erin’s poem. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Coincidentally, the event was on the same day as the prom and we were worried about honoring the Council, having enough time to see the museum (which we were very excited about since Erin had never been), and getting back home before Erin’s date arrived to pick her up. After literally running past as many exhibits as we could, we drove back to Colorado Springs and I helped her get ready for the dance with just minutes to spare.

In her senior year Erin became President of STARS. She was a great president because she constantly inventoried the needs of the student population. When she saw problems with addiction, she asked if we could consider helping addicted kids instead of concentrating just on prevention. When she saw problems with bullying, she organized student-generated “freeze plays” where a few students would act out an instance of bullying or peer pressure, then freeze in mid-story while another student asked the audience, usually middle schoolers, “What do you think should happen next?” Then the actors would do what the audience suggested, always with the nudging of the narrator in the right direction. Erin wrote, directed, and starred in five different freeze plays that won rave reviews from the middle school kids who wrote to me, “I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.” “Thank you for dealing with real-life situations.” “Thanks for giving me a way to fight back.” “I didn’t realize that what I was doing was bullying. I promise to stop.”

Erin was quite vigilant about tobacco use, too. She contacted the health department and got permission to borrow a set of pig lungs from the tobacco prevention coordinator who taught Erin how to set up the display. Two lungs, healthy vs. diseased, could be inflated and deflated with a pump to simulate breathing and demonstrate the hazards of smoking. We also made a “jar of tar” which was really just a jar full of molasses, but which represented the tar buildup in a smoker’s lungs. Not real, but it sure was effective in creeping people out. Erin set up a whole presentation around the displays from the tobacco program, educating students about the dangers of smokeless tobacco and cigarettes. One student came up to her after the demonstration and said, “I didn’t realize the impact that my smoking had on other people. I thought I was just hurting myself, but I didn’t think anyone cared what it did to me. I didn’t think anyone would miss me.” This statement still haunts Erin today.

By the end of her high school life, Erin and her dad had moved into town and very near our good friends who had two kids, so she became their go-to babysitter. When the family was getting ready to be stationed overseas, Erin helped me plan a surprise getaway evening where we showed up at their house in a limo, she stayed with the kids, and a big group of us took the couple on a whirlwind tour of the city for one last hurrah before they had to leave. Without Erin’s help, we couldn’t have pulled it off.

Erin and I are in contact daily, and our relationship remains strong despite our heavy school and work schedules. We make time to grab a meal or coffee, discussing everything from books and games to heartfelt problems, just whatever comes to mind. I have raised her correctly: she is a staunch member of the Grammar Police, and it really irritates her when people don’t proofread. Both of us agree that we only correct people because we want them to appear in writing as smart as they are in person. In other words, we want to keep people from embarrassing themselves.

Yes, she’s conventional when it comes to grammar, but she’s defied conformity in almost every other way. Gender stereotypes? Check. She remains a tomboy in and out. She loves to ride motorcycles and shoot guns. Weight stereotypes? Check. She is beautiful inside and out, and anyone who judges people by their size gets a scathing upbraid. Societal stereotypes? Check. Erin has much of her body tattooed, including a huge red phoenix on her back that she daringly displayed with a backless wedding dress.  No one picked “sides” for seating at her wedding, and there was no formal dress requirement. Nerd stereotypes? Unchecked. That’s my girl!

Erin and Steve

Erin and her dad dancing at her wedding. (Credit: Erin Jackson)

Tomorrow is Erin’s baby shower. After dating a wonderful guy for six years, they got married two years ago, and now are expecting a boy. Again Erin defied conformity, because most of her cohorts from school got pregnant outside of marriage, and many are left to raise a child on their own. Erin decided a long time ago that she would finish her degree before providing a stable family-oriented environment for her child; she has worked constantly to ensure that for him. She’s also defying conformity because she’s asked for a “book” shower instead of traditional gifts. The kid’s going to have a library of books to read, and he’s not even out of the womb yet.

I love Little Rin. I tell her that often, even though some might say it’s inappropriate for a teacher and her student to have bonded as closely as we have. Hey, Conformity, go ahead and criticize. We can handle it.