It was the summer after second grade, I think.
I was sitting on the redwood stained deck in the Sacramento summer heat, damned it is a thing, with the garden behind me. The blackberries had not been planted yet, there was still a bit of lawn because Betty hadn’t lost that landscape to the planter boxes and berry trellises yet. I think it was a few more years before those would come.
The clothesline anchor still freshly painted black without a sign of rust or a crink in the line, the clothespins didn’t squeak or splinter.
I had been selected for a summer camp in The City. The big city of San Fran.
My Teacher Ms. Judy signed me up for a marine biology class. Yeah, I was precocious. She believed I could do it.
But, much to my not really excited wee little self, we had homework before the class even started. What weirdness is this? We had to read a book. As a teacher I realize it is a book that could be assigned to any reader and each reader would get a different message. Any book is a kids book if they can read…thanks Mitch. I was simply reading a book about a seagull who didn’t fit in. I would not grasp the philosophical finer points until I would read it again years later.
I read the little book because I knew if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be able to go to the class. Homework back then was way better than pulling weeds all day in the garden. Also, my grandparents absolutely made me do both of those things.
Ms. Judy picked me up, and we drove to the class. What a different time that was when a teacher could just do that for a kid. I don’t remember if she was teaching it, or there as a learning lab for her to observe or whatever. I was used to having adults around class all the time so I didn’t think anything of it. My second and third grade years were in a classroom on a University campus. We were observed through two way mirrors by students studying education. That’s a story for another day though.
At this class, I learned how some big whales eat. They siphon krill through their teeth things just like I did drinking buttermilk as a “kid” to catch all the butter pieces. I colored ecosystems, kinda learned that word but knew the circle of life which is way easier to spell. We stood outside and measured how big a great blue whale was to get a visual. They are really, really big like the whole parking lot big. The biggest living thing on the planet. Nifty.
We dissected a shark. I actually got to help. I had killed and gutted a good number of trout by then, so I wasn’t grossed out as many of the much older kids were. Running my fingers with the grain of the shark skin was smooth but, petting it the wrong direction made tiny cuts on my fingers. Don’t rub a shark the wrong way. Good lesson, in general…don’t rub things the wrong way. The shark was pregnant. A surprise for everyone. I imagine that was a Oh Shit moment for the teachers of that class, an unintended learning moment you didn’t really want to deal with. But it was cool to see.
I got to keep the baby shark. I kept it in a jar of rubbing alcohol to take home. I thought it was neat, my mom not so much. Now, knowing that she would prefer to swim with them than anything else it makes sense why that shark didn’t last too long.
But the book, that seemed to last.
I’m not sure why that was the book we were asked to read, except that seagulls are at the ocean. It’s a pretty big book for kids to read, but I understood it. The seagull. Jonathon. He didn’t fit in either.
I remember reading about him diving and trying to fly faster and faster and everyone thinking he was crazy. That part I could relate to, I mean I was still at that time convinced I would be the first woman to win the Triple Crown, I liked going fast. I hadn’t been told I was too tall to be a jockey…yet. But I understood not fitting in even then.
Looking back, I fondly remember that book and the summer I read it. I felt smart because I had read the same book grown ups read. I could imagine every time I saw a seagull that one of them was a daredevil. I have picked up that book a few times over the years. It is one of those books that has a different meaning each time you read it, kinda like one of my other favs The Alchemist. There are lessons in Jonathon Livingston Seagull. Lessons not just about the crazy seagull trying to find his way. There are poignant moments in that we all need to be reminded of. It is important to find your tribe, the people who get you. Keep looking until you do, because even though it may not seem like it, they are in fact out there in the big, big sometimes very scary world.
On a fairly recent trip to the ocean to sit, listen, and lick rocks that is how you know whether or not it is a keeper, I saw the seagulls and was teleported into thinking about that book again. I see seagulls all the time, well the ones that look like them as I’m not at the ocean. I don’t think of the book all the time, in fact I hadn’t thought of it in years actually. But there I was shivering cold, thinking of Jonathan, drawn to the birds. I needed to know which one was Jonathon. I was talking to the birds, like they actually understood me. I have no doubt that between talking to the birds and licking rocks I looked like I was either crazy or on drugs or both. The birds didn’t answer, but I am pretty sure I saw him diving and darting around and I smiled. I was sure I had seen the bird that wanted more, wanted to fly faster and farther and was searching for his tribe. Aren’t we all? I went home and looked up quotes from the book because I didn’t have a copy with me, but new there was something in it that I needed to read again. There it was, the lesson I needed to hear in that moment… the Universe giving me that gentle reminder we so often need. That reminder that seems so simple, yet is so hard.
You have the freedom to be yourself here and now.
Second grade me even kinda understood that. Grown up ish me knows that we need to be told that lesson and learn it again. We try so hard to fit in everywhere but with ourselves for so many wasted years. Thanks Monkey, yes I now hear Iron Maiden. And then, after sometimes decades of trying to fit in, we stop trying. Finally, we do that one tiny first thing we think we can’t possibly do. That simple thing of wearing red lipstick, or taking the walk around the whole block, wearing that outfit, not making cookies for the bake sale. Those simple not so simple things that lead up to the big things like…quitting a toxic job, sharing our art or asking for help. It isn’t easy. War memorials will remind us that Freedom Isn’t Free. It is that hard. But we do it anyway and along the way we find people who think it’s awesome. Being yourself may take practice, as most things worth doing do, and we may need to be reminded a lot. I know I do.
You have the freedom to be yourself here and now.