Being a Square Peg in a Square Hole.

Conformity. From an early age it is something we are taught – to fit in, to be like others, to want to be like others. Society operates that way. It works on our deep-seated desire to belong, to act in a certain way, to meet approval , to want what we see is desirable that others have, or to own the things society expects us to have. A home, perhaps a car, a job – children maybe. It is a form of control, without which, I suppose, life as we know it wouldn’t function.

The majority of teens, today, will follow a pattern – hair styles that are deemed on trend, clothing from popular chain stores – nothing too ‘out there’, make-up inspired by YouTubers and of course the ubiquitous Sports logos. If you follow these rules you fit in. Those who don’t, risk the ridicule and suspicion of their peers. A sad but true fact. And many of us, as parents, buy into that need because we remember times when we, ourselves, didn’t fit in at one point and how that made us feel.

In my teenage years there was a trend to be ‘alternative’, which of course by becoming a trend, wasn’t at all. Depending on who you hung out with, you conformed. A punk rocker sitting in a pub on the King’s Road, London would barely have raised an eyebrow – but walking down a suburban high street may have rustled many a feather. Maybe you belonged to a group of Goths in your local town – but still you conformed to the group. To truly rebel you would have to have gone out with your black-eyed, spikey-haired friends, as a Nick Haywood/ Simon Le Bon look-alike to the local Goth drinking hole !

I am aware that I have always modified my behaviour, desires or appearance to fit in with others. Having to wear spectacles from the age of 6 to 13 was a huge dent in my confidence. I hated being ‘Four-Eyes’. When I hit my 13th Birthday I was told I could have contact lenses. Not the soft, comfortable sorts we wear today but lumps of glass that took forever to get used to. But it didn’t matter. I felt normal again.

School crazes are also part of this need to belong. When I was 8 we had a bizarre class craze of using Vicks inhalers. We would sit there unscrewing the things, sticking them up our nostrils then putting them back in our pockets or pencil cases – all day long !

Throughout my school life, there was always the girl that wore the best version of the school uniform, that I wanted to emulate. The hue and thread of the pullover would be slightly different, the skirt would be perfectly fashionable, the shirt collar just that little bit trendier than most school shirts. The rest of us would be playing catch-up.

Nowadays, I try to pretend not to bother about trends or brands, but I can’t help but get a feeling of gleeful satisfaction if I am bought something that modern society has declared desirable – a pair of Ugg boots or a Jo Malone perfume, or I treat myself to a lipstick from a high-end cosmetic company. It feels special. I feel I have bought a little piece of belonging to a different lifestyle. I remember my first pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. They felt so good. I wore them with pride, happy to show off the logo. That sense of belonging to something better. Weird and somewhat embarrassing to admit !

In many ways, though, my life has not conformed. I dropped out of university. I married a foreigner. I have never had to worry about rent or a mortgage and I think that, in turn, has made me less ambitious. I turn my nose up at spending money on bettering our home and prefer, instead, to spend money on a holiday every year, much to my Dad’s bemusement as he observes the state of our kitchen floor and misted double-glazing.

Sometimes, I wish my home life and marriage was more like others. But of course we all think that. We all have the version we present to the outside world and the truthful reality, with all its nuances, known only to the people involved. And life has shown me that there is no right or wrong way to conduct a relationship, as long as both parties are happy.

It takes bravery and supreme self-confidence to truly buck the trend of ‘normal’ living – to not care what people think of you and your choices – to know that all that matters is that you believe in you – to not seek the approval of others. I still find myself wanting to be a people-pleaser and to fit in, but age and experience now allow me to feel more comfortable in my choices and not to make it my goal in life.

It’s OK to be different.

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F for Fish

At what age do we start to worry ? When do we stop expecting the best to happen and start to contemplate the worst ?

When I was three, I started attending a little school called The Kindergarten. Up until the age of five we were in the Nursery – a room that had the Alphabet along the wall that we would recite phonetically each morning. I can still remember most of it to this day. A for Apple, B for Balloon, C for Cake , D for Duck, E for Elephant , F For FISH….

Life in the nursery was mostly carefree. We finished at midday and activities were informal and play-based. At the age of 5 we moved into the Schoolroom on the other side of the cloakroom and we would stay for the whole school day. With that came school lunches and, at some point early on, Fish Pie.

Fish Pie was salmon pink with potato on top. On its first appearance the enthusiastic school cook, hair in a bun and flushed with heat from the kitchen, dug her spoon into the cooking tray and put a large dollop on my plate, smiling reassuringly. As the steam hit my nostrils the unfamiliar smell of fish turned my stomach as I took my plate back to my seat.

We didn’t really eat fish at home. My parents would occasionally have fish and chips – but I always had a sausage instead. The only other time I remember fish being cooked was when my Dad brought a trout home from a fishing trip. It lay there staring into space, glistening on the kitchen side. Then, my Mum, with a certain reluctance and my my Dad, the proud hunter-gatherer, decided its fate would be in the oven. I stayed in the garden because of the smell and wondered how anyone could eat something like that. In the end, only my Dad partook of the catch.

Yet, here I was, at school, with a plateful of it. I picked some of the potato off the top -but most of it was touching the fishy filling. I could eat no more.

It was customary for us to parade past the teachers’ table with our plates after our first course. It was at this point that it was observed, and a comment made, that I had ‘barely touched’ my food. I wasn’t forced to eat it, and that was all that was said – but for the people-pleaser that I was – and still am to some extent, it shattered my confidence. I had done something wrong. A grown-up was unhappy with me – and Worry fired its first fiery arrow into my life.

From that day forward my whole experience of going to school was over-shadowed by worry that today would be Fish day – and that I wouldn’t get away with not eating it. Up to this point my life had been worry free. I had lived in the moment, not anticipating anything but normality or good things.

Dad used to drop me off at school on his way to work and I was often the first to arrive. I would wait in the little cloakroom and play with the owner’s kids until the others arrived. The lady who owned the school lived upstairs, and one day, after sheer panic on my part in the car on the way there, Dad agreed to go to the bottom of the stairs that led up to her accommodation and shouted up, “Mrs. Hughes, Mrs Hughes – if it’s fish today, Claire doesn’t have to eat it !” The relief I felt was overwhelming . I knew she knew I didn’t have to eat fish- and my Dad knew she knew. I was safe !

But once wasn’t good enough, you see. Adults forget things. Mrs Hughes might forget that I don’t have to eat fish. So EVERY day I made my Dad go through the same ritual and Mrs Hughes would yell down, somewhat impatiently, that she understood.

Nowadays, I suppose a written letter would have solved the problem, or a little meeting to make sure I understood that everyone was onboard with the Fish issue. But somehow, things didn’t work like that back in the seventies.

And so Fish Pie – in fact Fish anything for school lunch became my first real worry. This, in turn, became a kind of phobia that I carried through to my next school, where I ingeniously managed to convince them I had an allergy to it. Instead, they would give me a slab of cheese when it was Fish day – until the time I left some of it on my plate after they had given me a hunk of cheese large enough to make a Ploughman’s lunch for a couple of hungry adults. As I approached the slop bucket, I was shamed in front of the whole dining room and told I was ungrateful and wasteful by the sour-faced dinner lady and cooks. The next day I arrived with a packed lunch.

Growing up brought more pressing worries than Fish and my fear subsided. As a young adult, spending more time in Portugal, Fish even became something I enjoyed. And I knew when my mother-in-law placed a grilled fish head on my plate one lunchtime that my fear had been overcome. “There’s plenty of good fish on that! Here’s another plate for the bones .”