By Barb Stanley
I remember standing at the back of the room squinting up towards the wall of drawings. Hands in pockets, mouth downturned, I felt as discouraged as I looked. It was the early 1990s, back in my high school glory days, and there I was wrapping up my favorite class, Art. We had just finished up a lesson on Still Life drawing, painstakingly studying how to shade light and dark with our graphite pencils. Our teacher, Mrs. Mackey, had hung each schoolyard masterpiece up on the wall, side by side. And there it was, undeniably, right in front of me, one of those drawings on the wall did not look like the others. And that drawing was mine.
You see, in the sea of finely shaded, pencil-tipped precise, smooth compositions of fruit bowls, lamps and other found objects, my drawing stood out like a sore thumb. Where the others were soft and fine-tipped, mine was rough and sketchy. Where the others were refined and quiet, mine was loose and loud. Where the others made sense together, mine did not fit in.
Disappointed, I turned to my teacher and asked a seemingly simple question. “Mrs. Mackey, how do I get my drawing to look like everyone else’s?”
And that is when she said something that I would carry with me for the very rest of my life. “You don’t.”
This was not the answer I was expecting. I had thought, instead, that she would give me some tips on how to sharpen my pencil or vary the amount of pressure on the lead as I drew. But not this - not utter hopelessness of ever being able to be the same as everyone else. Not the idea that somehow my being different could never be erased or covered up with a few well-placed strokes. I sucked in my breath, knowing that the truth was, my being different went a lot deeper than just a Still Life taped to a wall. She continued.
“That’s not your style. You have your own style. It’s not less, just different. So, don’t try to be like everyone else, just be you.”
She spoke those words like they were weightless, something to throw around on your way to tidying up paint tubes and neatly stacking canvases. But to me the words felt foundational. Meaty. Freeing. They marked a before and after in my life. It was OK not to be like everyone else. It was OK to have your own style. It was OK to not compare yourself to others.
Staring back up at the art wall, I noticed that my drawing looked different than it had just moments before. It was now interesting and unique, and suddenly I felt good about it. It was then that I tucked Mrs. Mackey's words deep into my heart. And for the rest of my life, when I have felt the comparison trap closing in I have pulled them back out…
Like when… growing up, my family didn’t look like others, where the older brother playfully teases the younger sister and protects her from bad boyfriends. Because in my family it was the younger sister who helped the older brother cross the street, cut his meat, and calm down after a public Autism meltdown. Typical sibling relationship - “Not our style” But that was OK, because as Mrs. Mackey had said, different is not less.
Or like when… I was a young mother, watching the other suburban moms arrive to play group with neatly combed hair, socks that matched, and a miraculous gift for never forgetting anything in their diaper bags, such as tiny, sealed baggies of bite sized snacks, non-dried out diaper wipes, and professionally posed baby portraits. “Don’t worry, you have your own style.” I would tell myself as I twisted my hair up into a makeshift knot held together by whatever pen I found in the bottom of my purse, and fished through my own kid’s diaper bag searching the crevices for random wipes and leftover Goldfish crackers, praying that no one would take a photo of my baby and me in our ‘whatever we ran out of the house in’ outfits. “You be you.” I would tell myself, shoving a few aging Goldfish into my mouth.
Or like now when… I spend an evening scrolling through photo after photo of smiling, perfect families celebrating the world’s most perfect (take your pick) spouse, children, vacation, award #blessed - and then look around my own home filled with a cranky teenager, a dog that eats one of every sock in the pair (still not matching socks these days), and a husband who hasn’t (take you pick) sent me flowers just because, hidden love notes around the house just because, or planned the perfect surprise date night just because. But then I remember, Mrs. Mackey’s words, that I don’t have to try to be like everyone else and neither do the people that love me. We can just be ourselves, and just because we aren’t perfect doesn’t mean we aren’t perfectly good just the way we are. #blessedanyway
And the truth is, I could name a million and one more examples of when giving myself permission to not compare myself to others has pulled me back from the lurking jaws of the comparison trap. Which is not to say that I never find myself trapped there too, because sometimes the things that I really want in life, like shampoo commercial hair, are hard to ignore. But, when I find myself comparing myself to others, I try to remember that the only person in the world that I need to try to be like is Jesus, not the Pantene spokesmodel, and then I am reminded that when I embrace “my own style” I am set free. When I stop trying to impress other people, I can take risks and allow myself to succeed OR fail, and when I fail, I can get back up and take new risks again. It is this freedom that has shaped me into the woman that I am today - a woman who still does not always fit in. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Which prompts me to ask this question.
What would have happened if instead of Mrs. Mackey encouraging me as I was, what if she had sat me down and taught me how to hold my pencil differently instead? What if she had said, “You’re right. Yours isn’t the same. Let’s fix that.” What would have happened then?
Would I have gone on to get a degree in Visual Art, where I had to continue putting my artwork up on the wall amongst the other artists? Still with my own unique style, only this time surrounded by others with their own unique styles too. Would I have learned that, that’s OK because the world is big enough place to make room for everyone.
Would I have kept coming back to those suburban play groups, where friendships were formed and I learned that even when someone has it all together on the outside, more often than not, we are all a bit disheveled on the inside. And that’s OK because it’s only when we are our real selves that we can be real friends.
Would I have followed my calling and gone into ministry, taking a leap of faith and trying something new with Wonderful Works. Or would I have been too afraid of how I might stack up to others if I failed. Would you even be reading these words right now?
We will never know. Because on that day, the answer to that critical question, “How can I be like everyone else?” Mrs. Mackey told me, “You don’t. That’s not your style.” And I believed her.
What about you? When you’re having your own sketchy Still Life moment, when the jaws of the comparison trap are closing in on you, what words do you cling to? “If I just try harder.” “I’m not good enough.” “How can I be like everyone else?” Or have you had your own Mrs. Mackey set you straight and set you free. Because if you haven’t let me tell you now.
You don’t have to be the same as everyone else. That’s not your style. You have your own style. It’s not less, just different. Just be you.
Because the very best style you can have is your own.