I ran out into the sunlight, my purple, plastic box banging against the side of my knee as I clutched it. I caught an elbow here, a bump there in the mass of children pouring onto the playground after school. It didn’t matter because preschool was done for the day.
The teachers herded us to the waiting area for pick-up. Bits of stray asphalt poked me as I plopped my three-year-old self on the ground.
A few feet away, three girls in the grade above me huddled in a circle. One of the girls whispered in another’s ear. She giggled and passed the secret on. Every day after school, those three girls sat together so close that their cross-legged knees touched.
I rested my box in my lap and opened it, but only a crack, so nobody else could see. I leaned down to the crack and looked inside, to make sure that everything was still there. When I peeked at the girls around my box, they were staring at me.
The girls giggled to each other. I closed my purple box and clutched it tighter. One of the girls stood, motioned for the other two to stay seated. She flounced over to me, her ponytail bobbing beneath a neon pink bow.
“You can be friends with us,” she said, looking back toward the other girls, “If you show us what you have in that box.”
I looked up at her pudgy four-year-old face and pictured myself sitting with them. Four girls huddled together with our knees touching, giggling, telling secrets.
“Ok,” I said. The leader beckoned the other girls over. I set the plastic box on the ground. I released the latches and flipped open the lid, exposing my treasures. I looked at the other girls, waiting. They had seen and now I could be best friends with them too.
The girls’ faces contorted as they giggled. The same sounds they had emitted moments ago, only closer, and louder, and directed at me. The girls laughed as they ran away, and the sound of their tittering continued when they gathered at the foot of the playground jungle gym.
I closed my box and cried until my mother came.
When I graduated from UCLA, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I took a seminar to try to figure it out. I was one of the youngest people in that seminar. There were all these older people around me realizing they weren’t happy with their careers. I didn’t want to turn around when I was 30, or 40, or 50, and say, I wish I’d done x, y, z when I was in my twenties.
I looked back at that incident on the schoolyard when I was three. I don’t even remember what was in that box – pipe cleaners or Silly Putty (which I still find cool, by the way) or something. It is easy to remember what it felt like sitting alone, wishing to be part of their friendship. When they laughed at me, I knew it was because of that box, and how I was different. I decided I was not going to be different anymore. I was going to conform, to do what was right, what everybody else said I should do. Then they wouldn’t laugh at me. I decided, no more purple boxes.
I can track this decision through my life – I did what I was told was the right thing to do. I got good grades, went to a good school, joined a sorority. Normal. When I graduated, I thought I was going to go into marketing. Wear a suit, get a corporate 9-5.
Then, as I saw how that preschool experience had affected my life, I was able to let it go. When there were no constraints, no “should’s,” nothing to do that everybody else said was right, I was left with questions: What did I really want? If I could do anything, what would it be?
Write. Write, write, write.