Recently, someone asked me what I was good at. "Being excited, " I replied. "And nonthreatening."
I didn't really expect to say the second part, but it's something that's been on my mind lately. Why would I say those two things as opposed to... I don't know, "transcribing a capella arrangements" or "making ergonomic workstations out of random furniture" or "absorbing printed material at extreme velocity" or even "math"? Why is it that even when I hang out with groups of people my own age, or even a few years younger, I still take on the role of the enthusiastic, wide-eyed newbie?
I am an enthusiastic, wide-eyed newbie; I'm still less experienced and far more naive than even my slightly younger peers (for many reasons, not the least of which I've never overhead the conversations most kids have absorbed by osmosis before they get to high school). And I've certainly played other roles many, many times. But why is the kid sister role the one I feel most comfortable in?
I've lived my life in a world of boys; when you're interested in numbers and technology and things that speed and blow up and hit each other, most of your peers have Y chromosomes. I'm not big or strong or fast, went through puberty late and emerged still scruffily androgynous, never was particularly physically graceful, and, thanks to a late birthday and a skipped year, have historically been the last one to be able to drive, to vote, to drink. I've literally been an adopted little sister for a long, long time.
Think about how boys feel about a little sister. She's cute. Sometimes annoying, but endearingly so. Catches on fast - she's fun to teach. You watch out for her, protect her - because no matter how sharp the kid is, there are things she just doesn't know about, things she'll miss. (Things you want her to miss.) She can whoop your ass in physics without being a rival that you have to hunt down and destroy - who taught her physics in the first place? You. Who fends off the boys with crushes and silences the dirty jokes before she pops into the hall? Who taught her how to curse, to throw a punch, to climb the roof? You did. She's no potential rival nor potential mate. Not threatening; do not court, do not destroy. Teach. Your little sister is yours to teach.
And so a world of willing teachers and free knowledge opens up. Stuff beyond that which I could get in books, stuff I can't overhear. A wealth of information that I'm painfully conscious could be withheld - not cut off, but made so much harder to get that I'd only reach a small subset of it by plunging through the library, unaware of what I'm missing. People to belong with. People to belong to.
I learned early on that people strike back when they're afraid of you. I've written before about how I cried when I was in second grade and forgot to rein back on an essay that I wrote. I learned to absorb insults and snide comments from kids who wanted to beat me even though I didn't want to compete against them. I learned (with difficulty and a lot of failures) how to forget the constant press of winning and allow myself to love the learning despite everything. Some of my happiest moments in middle school were at 3am hiding in the bathroom reading science essays. At night, it's safe to think and dream.
Life becomes much easier when you can dream in broad daylight as well. When you can, make potential aggressors into protectors, because there will be people who'll still want to be jerks towards you for reasons you don't understand, and they can hurt you pretty bad if you're not focused on keeping your defenses up. (It's still important not to fight back against them, though; once in high school, when I really couldn't let that steam out non-destructively, I ripped apart a couch with my bare hands instead, and had cramps and bruises from that for a couple days - but it let me keep a cool head and hold back some buddies who wanted to go fighting on my behalf.)
Protection. Protection in place of potential aggression or courtship. Learning things. People who like you. It is a strategy for dealing with the world which makes defaulting to kid-sister mode completely optimal.
Except that's not the world I live in now. Or is it? The stakes are getting higher and I'm getting more reluctant to test them, to my chagrin. I could handle getting soaked by water pistols. I'm not sure if I can handle something that would hurt my ability to do the work I love. I'm shy when I talk - until I get excited and forget. The last time I defused a fight, someone complimented me on my patience. I don't have patience; I have a survival mechanism. I can get people not to fight because I've learned how to get people not to fight me.
Is being excited and nonthreatening really what I want to be? Obviously, I'm not actively going to try to become bored and wantonly aggressive, but... are there any things that would take priority over that? What am I willing to give up to stay this way? What's worth giving up this comfort for?
It's not that I'm unhappy in the kid-sister role. Far from it; I love it. It's that... I don't think it can last much longer as a default use-case. And I'm not sure what comes up in its stead. So now's the time to think about that and explore it in advance.
I'm glad I write these things down for my future self.