Tuesday, March 3, 2015
A year ago, my then college-freshman son Shane (our seventh child and fifth son), wrote a paper for his English class entitled "Painting my 'White' Mask". What emerged from that assignment was an inside look at what it's like to live surrounded by stereotypes and expectations, what it's like to grow up in a big family in a small town, and what it's like for anyone to grow up, find their own way in life, and become a composite of their upbringing and their own person. I'm incredibly proud of the young man Shane is today and I thank him for sharing this story with me, knowing I would share it with you.
Painting my “White” Mask
There’s not much left to the imagination when you’re the seventh version of the same brand. An iPhone could tell you that. A new charging jack? Cool. Your camera can face forward and backward? Impressive. You’re still an iPhone. Being an iPhone brings along a set of expectations, most of which will accurately describe you. You’ll have an Apple, Inc symbol on your back, a touch screen, and will perform more tasks than the majority of your cell phone peers. There is a different set of expectations that come along with being a Mr. White. You can’t really get upset at people for judging you by the cover of your birth certificate. After all, you have twenty-five cousins and ten siblings, most of whom have acted in a similar fashion. So what are these expectations? Are they presumptions that you don’t mind solidifying, making the stereotype even stronger for those that will follow you, or do you find yourself searching for the white-out to cover up the memory of “your” mistakes? Throughout my years of living in a big-family-small-town world, I have learned that there are a set of “do” and “don’t” expectations, but that you are still able to make a name for yourself, seen by those that will take the time to look at the picture you’ve painted on your own White mask.
As I emerged into the social world after spending fourteen years in a cocoon known as homeschooling, I soon observed that there were at least a few things expected of me. The quick, pleasant glance over the glasses of Mrs. Kotarba as she called out my name revealed her expectation of me being a good, respectful student. Coach Moore, Coach Fortier, and Coach Waksmonski’s inquiries as to whether I’d be “coming out this season?” told me that they were chomping at the bit to have another talented athlete on the roster of each of their respective sports teams. The flirty giggles from immature and superficial freshmen girls, paired with the laughably loud whispers of “that’s TROY’S younger brother!”, showed their anticipation of me growing out of the gangly, awkward body I was trapped in at the time (although Troy, now a model, would be quick to jokingly point out that they got their hopes up too high for me). There were also a few dirty looks thrown my way in the halls, paired with comments behind my back by people that I didn’t even know, about how much better I assumed I was than everybody else. So after a few weeks of high school, I learned that, in a general description, Mr. White (the Shane was unimportant) would be not only a smart and respectful young man, but a cocky, stuck up athlete as well.
As I settled into my freshman routine, I learned that there were also a few things that I would not do. I sat through speeches in the first week of freshman classes warning me about how huge of a problem drugs and alcohol were. I laughed. I hadn’t even heard these “huge problems” mentioned to me, much less been offered them. So I asked the older Mr. Whites if they had noticed these issues during their high school days. To my surprise my teachers were right. There was a problem. The older Mr. Whites had been offered, but had declined. I soon realized that it was not the problem that was going away in our school, but that it was simply becoming common knowledge that Mr. Whites simply don’t do that. They don’t skip class, smoke weed or drink alcohol, so don’t even ask. These undesirable “opportunities”, however, weren’t the only ones I was being left out of. I was pursued by coaches for athletics, but why not band teachers or the drama club? The answers to my questions were becoming redundant: Mr. Whites don’t do that.
So there I was as a freshman with my entire high school story already written for me by others. Looking back on the final edition that I eventually wrote, I’ll be the first to admit many similarities. Mrs. Kotarba’s assumptions turned out to be correct, as I finished with the sixth class rank out of two-hundred and fifty students and multiple “Student of the Month” awards (one even coming from her class). Coach Fortier and Waksmonski went on to be names I said countless times over my four years of high school, as I was a three year starter in both varsity basketball and baseball. By senior year I had been offered alcohol and drugs, but declined every time, continuing the stereotype that younger Mr. Whites are now experiencing. I never did pick up an instrument or participate in the school play, although I wish I had. Lastly, even with my best attempts to avoid the reputation, there are a handful of young adults out there who, if asked about Shane White, will say “asshole!” instantly.
So did I fail at painting over my White mask? Some would say I did. I didn’t rewrite all the rules my siblings had given me to follow, but I liked the majority of the patterns they set. I find nothing wrong with avoiding drugs and alcohol, striving to succeed in academics, athletics, and being respectful while doing it. As for the negative attributes, I learned the hard way that old habits (even family habits) die hard. For those that looked from a distance, confidence was easily mistaken for arrogance. Even my girlfriend has admitted that “stuck up” was her first impression of me. But for those that cared enough to come closer and look for Shane showing through the White, they saw a subtly different Mr. White from the rest. Throughout high school, I am proud to say that I gained many real, close friends who made that choice to look deeper and realize that the decisions I made were my own. When they look at my faintly colored White mask, they call it Shane.