Monday, October 22, 2007

Disguise

My college roommate was a psych major. Actually, by the time I was a senior, I had two psych majors sharing my sextet. Naturally, they'd get home from class and diagnose us all. Somehow my math major was never quite as handy as all of those psych classes. I just couldn't find a way to work "Functions of a Complex Variable" or "Set Theory" into everyday conversation. And I must say, heat differentials really don't count as everyday conversation.

So, I was a senior, up to my ears in my thesis, preparing to give the longest talk of my life about "Quadratic Reciprocity in Number Theory", and my dad (the librarian) was going to come to my talk, so I had to make at least the first fifteen minutes interesting and somewhat comprehensible (to an intelligent but non-mathematical man), so I was spending nearly every waking moment at the library. I was, in fact, that girl standing outside the library on a Saturday morning, waiting for 9:00 to roll around so the student worker would finally show up and unlock the door for me. So, I was pathetic. OK, but I was determined not to stutter though my whole hour-long talk.

On one of my study breaks from my little private room on the quietest floor in the libe, I found myself sitting around our kitchen table with the roommates. Fern and Skinny were talking about their latest psychology class, and one of them turned her gaze to me.
"You, Alex," she said with the authority of a senior psychology major, "Are a low self-monitor."
"Oh, yes," agreed the other. "The lowest."
"OK," I said, having ignored the conversation until it turned toward name-calling, "What does that mean?"
"It means you can't fake it. You don't know how to be something you're not."
"Oh, yes, I can," I said (thinking I probably couldn't).
"OK, then," said Fern. "Frown."

Well, I frown all the time. I'm one of the moodiest people I know. One of my earliest memories is of how my elementary principal used to stop me the hallway to tell me to smile - which always made me want to smack him. So, I turned the corners of my mouth down, and I looked up, triumphant, not the lowest self-monitor after all. Except. Except they were laughing.

"She can't do it," said Fern, between giggles. "She doesn't know how to frown."
"It's OK," said Skinny, ever the peace-maker. "It's a good thing, really. It means you can't wear a disguise around other people. It means that the way you act is the way you are. You don't know how to put on a face for the crowd. It's good. It means you're genuine."
"I don't get it," I said, "I'm frowning. This is a frown." I turned my lips down again, to their great amusement.
"Your lips are like a creepy, weird line, and your eyes don't match," explained Fern. "That's not a frown. And stop doing that thing with your mouth. It freaks me out."
"OK, fine," I said, "but can other people do it? Can you just frown on command?"

Instantly, their faces went grim. They looked like they'd each lost a favorite kitten. They were right. They could do it. And for a second by the light of their frowns, I caught a glimpse of how other people did it. Other people didn't have to wait outside the library for it to open. They didn't have to spend every waking moment memorizing the patter for their hour long talks, so they wouldn't have to stammer through the real thing. Other people could fake it a little bit, disguise themselves as someone who knew their shit, and put on a smile to cover up for any nervousness they felt inside. Me? I just had to be genuine. Damn.

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