My childhood years were pretty boring and uneventful. I grew up in a two bedroomed home, in (what some would call) the “hood” of Port Elizabeth. My neighbors, and childhood friends, were Afrikaans speaking and my sister and I (both very much of the English speaking variant of brown people) kinda fumbled our way through communicating with them but, somehow, we all made it work, unperturbed.
Our summer holidays were the best. We woke up extra early to a quick breakfast of jam sandwiches and hot tea, and hastily dressed ourselves in arb short and t-shirt combos, running our fingers through our long hair until we were presentable enough to leave the house (according to my granny’s standards).
We almost always exited via the kitchen door and ran straight across to my bestie’s house, climbing over broken fencing to get into her backyard (pretty sure this would be called trespassing now).
Those days were blissfully filled with innocent childhood games, all renamed and reinvented by us. Our favorites were ‘rope-rope’ (or ‘tou-tou’ in Afrikaans), ‘school-school’, ‘klip-klip’ and ‘ball-ball’ aka ‘skop skaloolie’ (See the trend? The games are so nice, we named it twice lol).
Being the eldest, I was the unannounced leader of our group which means I was in charge of arranging the talent shows and modelling competitions (another favorite). We knew how to entertain ourselves and were generally good kids, besides for the occasional “let’s pretend to smoke cigarettes behind the tree in your yard” moments. (Another post for another day)
One particular year, my 12-year old brain had concocted an extra special ‘grand extravaganza’ show that we would “rehearse” during that school holiday break. I couldn’t wait to get started!
A few days into the holiday, we sit on our spot on the boundary wall in the front of our house, chatting about our juvenile plans while watching the boys play a particularly boring game of cricket in the road. (The game had been “particularly boring” because they would cease play every few minutes to move the make-shift cricket stumps to make way for cars that were passing through). We pretend-watched the cricket game but also pretend-didn’t-watch, because boys were still gross to us back then.
There I sit, in all my gangly-legged, bushy pony-tailed, 12-year old glory when suddenly a smile, from across the road, made my heart skip a beat. The bearer of the smile: a teenage boy, probably three or four years my senior, who had been visiting his cousin that holiday.
And while I couldn’t care less (I honestly couldn’t, I mean, I had a show to plan), I found myself caring very much… the unwelcome attention suddenly very much welcomed.
A boy had never smiled at me before. Well, most certainly not like that. What did it mean? And was I meant to do something? I most certainly did NOT smile back! I mean, what would my friends think if I was out here smiling at boys?! Gross!
“Why would he smile at me, in the first place?” I scribbled in my diary. “I mean, was that his way of greeting? Is he trying to be friendly, because he wants to make friends?” Chaos and confusion had ensued and I found myself mulling over the illustrious smile.
The long summer days dragged on, and we continued to plan and rehearse for our grand extravaganza show, but this time around I found myself so self conscious.
For starters, I refused to rehearse our carefully choreographed dance moves in the front yard because I didn’t want “that boy” to see. I couldn’t tell the others though, so I had to devise a quick cover up, to make me not look lame.
Uncharacteristically distracted, I found myself less and less excited about the show. In fact, it felt downright stupid and childish at that point. The innocence of childhood had ended for me.
I had suddenly become more aware of my worth as a woman… wondering if I was pretty enough, mature-sounding enough, interesting enough, cool enough… worrying about the fact that my hair wasn’t straight enough, my body not developed enough and my clothes not expensive enough.
Suddenly the things that meant absolutely nothing before seemed to be the only things that mattered!
And although the boy isn’t really important (in the grander scheme of my life), now knowing that it was a turning point for me (not a girl, not yet a woman, or something like that, right Britney?), I wish that I totally ignored that smile and held on to my childhood a teeny tiny bit longer.
Now that I’m a mom of a little girl, who will soon experience her own “first smile” and probably her first heartbreak, I’m more determined than ever to build up her confidence and self-worth.
I try to teach my daughter that her identity is not found in the approval of others and her worth is not something that fluctuates. I mean, that was one of the biggest life lessons that I wish I had learnt at a young age. When you want a boy to like you, it’s so easy to want to change everything about yourself, to impress him. (Oh the stories I can share about my relationship fails and how I totally changed, even the way I ate my eggs, because of the guy that I was dating.)
But hey, we dig these wells so that we can pass the wisdom learnt on to our kids.
At the end of the day my aim is to make my daughter a lot more mindful about how valuable she is and a lot less generous with how much of her heart she should give away, for a smile.