Standing out, weirdness, and gardening

This morning, walking home from the gym, I noticed a rock garden my neighbor put in last fall. It’s oval, several tiers of big rocks around a small tree in the middle. It’s quite attractive, and I told him that when he was putting it in.

What I didn’t know last fall was that my neighbor was planting tulips.

I definitely noticed them today: they’ve popped up, strong and healthy and lush, in the upper tier of his garden. They will bloom next week. Most of the buds are still green, and those will probably be white or yellow once they’re open.

One is red.

It’s possible (because tulips can change) that some of the other flowers will turn red by bloom time. It’s even possible (although it seems unlikely) that they all will be.

Regardless, right now those pictures (copyright me, this morning) look like those posters from the middle school hallway (copyright who knows) that say things like “In a world full of copies — be an original!”

Those links go to a variety of posters, featuring a variety of things — cats and dalmatians, businessmen, 3-D emoji, various colors of umbrellas — and all of them show a whole bunch of one kind of thing and one different one. It’s beautiful, or at least striking. It’s engaging, or at least eyecatching. It’s a profound message that resonates with everyone.

And it’s wrong.

In middle school, I might have been that person. I did not fit in anywhere, even (maybe especially) my own skin, and my school had posters like that everywhere. I suppose they made me feel better, some days, when I walked through the crumbling halls feeling like a monster in a woman’s body; I suppose that the fact that there was some talk about not fitting in being not just acceptable but good might have touched me somewhere in the crumpled paper cup I had for a heart at the time.

But that poster, and all the other posters like it that hang in schools and on people’s office doors and come across social media electronically, and all the messages from counselors, teachers, coaches, parents, friends — they’re all telling us to excel. To work harder. To stand out.

But you’re never supposed to be a different thing altogether. In the posters, the umbrella is still an umbrella if it’s red, and it still keeps off the rain. The emoji is yellow, not blue, and smiling, not sad, but it’s still a little round guy telling you how to feel. The dog is a dog and the cats are cats, but they’re all calm, placid pets. The businessmen are all still businessmen, even if one is a George Clooney lookalike who’s not wearing a hat.

And the tulips? Are all still tulips. They come up in the spring through the stones and they bloom and then die back and wait for the next year. The one red tulip is sending you a message, but it’s not the one you think you see.

It’s saying, be pretty but not threatening.

Stand out but not too much.

Be different enough to be noticed, but not different enough to matter.

Be excellent, not weird.

I failed at that, back in middle school — I was neither pretty nor plain, but instead had a terrible perm, bad skin, and a vacant expression. I was neither athletic nor slender, but instead a huge gawky girl, as tall as I was ever going to get and the fattest girl in class. I was gay and in denial about it, never talked to anyone — even friends — unless forced to, and spent all the time I could in my room typing sad poetry on a 20-year-old word processor.

I wasn’t an original so much as a discarded first draft.

And those are the people that get left out of the inspirational posters. I didn’t fit in back then, and it wasn’t because I was the wrong color tulip. I was something else, some different kind of plant altogether. I didn’t belong in that garden.

The good news is that middle school doesn’t last forever, and there are other gardens that grow other kinds of flowers too. And vegetables, and herbs, and tall weeds, and kohlrabi that sprouted, and strawberries in combat boots. And there can even still be room for tulips.

I still write sometimes, and I have a buttload of already-written stuff. So there you go.

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