strong vs sweet

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“You’ll never be called a sweet little girl” – my middle school teacher.

Seems harsh, no? Let me give you context because this isn’t a pity party. This is actually a great thing that happened.

I went to a private middle school but a public elementary and high school. I needed a little extra attention (nothing has changed) in middle school because I was really struggling in school being dyslexic. So here I am in my religion class, middle school, age 12. For religion we split up the class for just boys then just girls so we could have more serious, albeit revealing, conversations. Which was so healthy. One of the activities we had was based off the objective of “discovering who we are” and “who we were made to be”.

We would go up one by one and sit on one of those really tall stools they had in school, and our peers would raise their hands and say things about us and our behavior in hopes we could see ourselves from an outsider’s perspective. The conversation was productive and positive. No one was hurtful or harsh, just honest.

When our peers were done telling us how we are perceived, our teacher told us how sometimes the traits we have can be taken advantage of. Or, in other words, the downside to our God-given traits in hopes we could be aware of how some things that are positive about us need to be harnessed to not be taken as a negative.

For example, the girl who went right before me was described as sweet, generous, caring, kind, loving. (Cute right? Sweet girl!) Our teacher reiterated, “you’re a sweet, good friend and you are very lovable. What you need to be careful of is being taken advantage of. You’ll have to learn how to stick up for yourself so people don’t walk all over you.” A good lesson to learn for her! (But here I am in line thinking, yeah that’s not something I’ll really have to ever worry about. I think I check the speaking-up-for-yourself box. Go me! I am awesome!)

12-year-old Gracie’s Brain: My turn! Everyone is about to talk about how great I am. This is literally a dream. I am a star. And it definitely won’t be boring adjectives like “nice” – that’s lame.  

I sit on my perch and my friends start raising their hands. They say words like: determined, strong, a good person to have on your side, will go at bat for me, dedicated, independent, courageous, zealous, tough.

12-year-old Gracie’s Brain:  I am literally a badass this is amazing.

While I’m on my high horse, my teacher says her piece. She starts to explain the downside: “You’re going to have to understand that no one will call you a sweet little girl. That just doesn’t describe you.”

I was immediately defeated and begun thinking I could only pick one: sweet or strong. My tendency is to be strong. I like being strong. Being sweet is secondary for me still to this day. For a lot of my life I felt like being vulnerable, crying, being emotional, and having/expressing feelings – all of those things made me really uncomfortable because I thought it wasn’t representative of me on my a-game.  

To some degree the whole experience made me feel really confident in my strong self. When all was going right, I was being 100% my strong self and felt very secure there. The downside, of course, is that there are things that go wrong that we have no control over. When I would get frustrated I would have no idea how to react. I wouldn’t feel like my strong self when I was sad or upset, so I pushed those feelings aside because they simply “aren’t me”.

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I get what my teacher was saying, but for the majority of my life I grew up thinking: this is who I am, I am aggressive, and strong, I’m not sweet or emotional, and I don’t have a sweet side – no one will ever call me that. What she was really saying, and how she arguably should have phrased it to a 12-year-old, is: “You’re independent and strong, remember to show your sweet side and get in-touch with what that feels like because you can’t let being strong control your life. You’re allowed to cry and be hurt by others.”

It’s so crazy because I remember being little and getting my feelings hurt by my brother or a friend and wanting to cry but I wouldn’t. I just didn’t cry. In my mind, it’s not who I was. I can now tell you confidently I get those tears out a healthy amount (partially credited to the cast and production of Queer Eye which makes me cry at every moment of the show and then for like a week after for no reason).  

I walked out of class that day with hurt feelings but also thinking I wasn’t allowed to show I was hurt. I had just been told how strong I was, I couldn’t not be strong now. There were a lot of good things that came from that conversation.

I came to the conclusion at age 12 that I didn’t need to be sweet. I was going to be badass instead. I was going to have big dreams and aggressively chase them. And when people told me no, I would find another way to achieve my goals. I would get big things (like leather mules with fire on them – jk BIGGER!) and the way to get them was not going to be crying about it. It was going to take working hard.

One last story of my childhood and how I showed signs of independence from way too early of an age. It’s the first day of kindergarten. Bowl cut and bang game is rockin. Socks with lace are paired with my trainers and my outfit is probably 100. I’m in the back seat of my dad’s suburban and as we pull up to the school I go, “oh SHOOT.” My dad whips his head around thinking we forgot something essential and asks what’s up. I say, very politely, “Um, I was going to ask it you could maybe drop me off around the corner so I can walk in by myself.”

My dad explain that it’s the first day of school ever and I have no idea where I am going. I insist I can figure it out but with no luck, I am walked into school with all the other 5-year-old’s, hand-in-hand with my dad, and it was literally so embarrassing. My dad still laughs at this because it was as if I was telling him “Dad, what am I, 5?!” and he was like, yeah you’re literally 5.

Moral of the story— you can be strong and sweet… and the way you phrase things can unintentionally really mess with people! So be nice, badass, strong, and sweet because you can do everything.

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