An excerpt from Ben and Erin's first chapter of Make Something Good Today, a memoir about seeking out the good in life, celebrating the beauty of family and friends, and prospering within our communities—because everything we need to be happy in life is within our grasp.
Decide what to be and go be it. — The Avett Brothers
"Sometimes becoming who we're supposed to be means building walls around ourselves. We grow protective of what we are, afraid the world will not open its arms.
As we age, our differences form our identities, set us apart, become something to be treasured. But when we are young, they are treated as liabilities. They're like scars people point at, laugh at, attack us for having. And they mark us in a way that never quite goes away.
Though nothing ever broke me, a lot of it bruised.
I was an introverted child sensitive and overly imaginative, and most kids didn't quite know how to take me. Some of them laughed at me, excluded me, bullied me for never quite fitting in. Fitting in was unnatural to me, and I felt punished for failing at it. I didn't know the right jokes to tell, the right things to like, the right way to blend in in our little rural town. It was embarrassing to have no idea how to relate, to feel as though I spoke an entirely different language.
And because I stuck out, and because adolescent girls feel the need to fit in at all costs, I was the easiest to keep out of the inner circle. To feel that you're weird or unlovable by people your own age is to feel like an ugly duck, off in some fundamental way. It crushed me. In a small town, it can be harder; there aren't as many options. Outside of my friend Kandace, whom I'd grown up with in church, I was lonely. When I was very young, I coped by being quiet around kids my age. I dragged my tattered yellow blanket to school because it smelled like waffles and syrup and my mother's perfume.
I would bury my nose in my Goosebumps books or play dodgeball with the boys, who seemed to care less that I was different. But it broke my heart that the girls wanted nothing to do with me: girls who didn't know how cool Mattie was in True Grit and didn't collect arrowheads from their grandparents' garden.
I remember a sleepover at a girl's house in fourth grade. I was a little shy about it— I never liked sleeping away from home—but I was excited just to be invited to something. Early in the evening, everyone decided to play hide-and-seek. Before I knew what was happening, the pack of girls called out "You're it!" and one told me to go to her bedroom, shut the door, and count to a hundred. I did as I was told and leaned up against the closed door, counting in anticipation.
When I came out, they were all gone. They had quietly sneaked out—every last one of them—to a neighbor girl's house. It was all a joke on me. It stung worse than not having been invited at all, to be the thing sacrificed to make their fun possible. I felt small and stupid; it confirmed that there must be something wrong with me. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I'd done wrong, why they didn't want to be my friend.
When I called Mama in tears and asked her to bring me home, she said all the right things. "You are different from those kids,"she had told more than once, "and it will set your life apart in all the best ways." I couldn't see that back then because what nine-year-old can? Children have no choice but to look to other children—who are just as confused and just as scared. That's the problem: kids are the cruelest mirrors.
As the baby of my family, I struggled to relate to people my age, so I became a teacher's pet—connecting with those closer in age to my parents and aunts and uncles. Though my family made me feel less lonely, they couldn't take away the feeling that I didn't belong.
On a sixth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C., many parents, including mine, came along. Mississippi was just so far from the "center of things" that the chance to step into the store of America drew everyone.
I was so excited that morning, having to wake up long before the sun, the day full of possibility. As I nervously boarded the whale of a bus, my eyes went hunting, hoping to find someone to sit with for the eighteen-hour ride. I searched for a friendly face, eyes of recognition, or maybe even a smile. Row by row I asked awkwardly, quietly, if I could sit beside this girl or that one. Again and again I heard "This seat's saved," or witnessed the dropping of pillows on empty seats, the staring out of windows, the ignoring me as though I weren't there. Each rejection was like a sharp cut, embarrassing me in a way that felt like the world would end.
Then, at the back of the bus, I found my parents. Mama made room for me, reassuring me quietly without saying a word. I sat there soaking in shame as the bus pulled away. I knew better than to shed any tears, so I held them back, heavy as they were.
I stared out the window and thanked God for my parents, who loved me even if other children did not. Mama reminded me again that I was different— but in the best way possible. And one day, she said, the world would catch up."