Reconsidering My Seven Year Old Self
I won a statewide contest in 2nd grade. I've always thought I've known the reason for my victory. But lately, I'm beginning to reconsider what actually happened and why.
THAT TIME I WON A CONTEST IN 2nd GRADE
I don’t have a ton of memories from my childhood (feel free to psychoanalyze that. You’re probably not wrong.)
There is one memory in particular, though, that has stayed with me my whole life. And yet, in recent days I’ve been reevaluating this memory. Not as in, “I’m now remembering the event differently,” but as in, “I wonder if the meaning of the story needs altering?”
Here’s the memory.
In 2nd grade, my hometown state (Oregon) conducted a statewide writing contest where students of every grade were invited to respond to the following prompt:
“If I were Governor for a day, I would ________.”
For the contest, one winner from each grade (K-12) would be chosen, invited to the state capitol for the day, and be given the chance to meet the Governor and read their answer on a stage during a celebratory event.
Turns out, my submission was chosen as the best response for the 2nd grade category. Which meant that little ol’ me, from the podunk town of Albany, got to spend the day up in the “big city” (Salem) with the other winners and their classmates and families.
So what was my answer?
What awarded me such accolades?'
What captivating thing did I write in the spring of 1990 that led to my shining moment of standing on a raised platform on the lawn of the Capitol building, greeted by the Governor himself (who said he “liked my shoes,” which were checkered Vans or something like that), and placed in front of a microphone to read aloud my brilliance for all to hear?
Well, I, Colby Brenneman Martin, a 2nd grader from Oak Elementary, if I were Governor for just one day…
“I would give every kid a mom and a dad who didn’t have one.”
I know, right?
What a sweetheart I am.
A SEVEN YEAR OLD HEART OF GOLD…?
All my life I’ve looked back on that answer through one very specific lens. And this lens was reinforced time and time again over the ensuing years as the story of “Colby meeting the Governor with an award winning answer” was told to friends and family.
This lens isn’t hard to guess because on the surface it seems like the logical way to hear and interpret my words from more than three decades ago.
All my life I’ve assumed that the reason I chose that answer, the reason why those words in particular came to my mind the morning our teacher handed out the official state applications, was because I had a soft spot in my heart for kids who didn’t have parents.
You see, I lived at home with my two brothers and my mom and my dad, and yet I must’ve been aware that not everyone had such luck. Therefore, sweet seven year old Colby decided that he’d use his Gubernatorial powers to fix the obvious problem that is, “kids not having a mom and dad.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Clearly it pulled on the heartstrings of the judges because they chose it over other stellar entries like, “Give everyone pizza,” or, “Make school only two days a week.”
Whenever I reflect back on this story I assume the reason why I wrote what I did was because I knew firsthand the value of having a mom and a dad. Obviously I wanted all kids to have that too, right?
As I said, this has always been how I’ve framed this story.
QUESTIONING THE MEANING OF MEMORIES
Out of nowhere the other day this memory of my 2nd grade accomplishment popped in to my mind.
And all I can tell you is that for the first time it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I wrote those words not because I had a mom and dad (and wished the same good fortune for others), but because I didn’t have a mom and dad, and desperately wanted to. Even if it meant stretching the executive powers of the state’s legislative branch to make it so.
But wait, you might be thinking, you just said that you lived at home with your brothers, mom, and dad?
Yes. True. I did.
But what’s also true is that our family was just one (maybe two?) years away from total collapse. Over the next year or so my brothers and I would watch as our parent’s marriage unraveled. One day my mom would be staying at “so and so’s” house for a while… then, later on it was dad’s turn to stay at “grandma and grandpa’s.” I don’t know how long this see-saw of insecurity lasted, but I do recall it was no small duration. Eventually I can remember (another memory! look at me go!) pulling a friend aside in 5th grade and telling him (well, swearing him to secrecy, actually, because I was so ashamed) that my parents were “getting a divorce.” (BTW, Jeff Douglas, the lid of secrecy is off now. You can tell people.)
So yes, it’s true, during my 2nd grade year I did technically “have a mom and dad.” But looking back at it now—especially in light of what the next few years would hold for us, hold for me—I can’t help but wonder just how much of my parent’s stress and relational friction my sweet little body and brain were already picking up on.
THE FAR REACHING EFFECTS OF TRAUMA
Sure, maybe the traditional interpretation of my award winning answer is the correct one. I suppose it’s possible that the trauma of my parent’s separation and divorce didn’t start until after I penned those words.
But I don’t know, y’all.
I’m prone to believe otherwise.
Knowing what I know now (about things like trauma, generational trauma, how brains are developed, how parent’s pass on their trauma, and more) I have to believe things were not hunky dory for little seven year old Colby.
Now I’m not saying my parents were awful. In many ways they were great, and in every way I believe they were doing the best they could with the tools they had and in light of the trauma they each experienced (and hadn’t yet processed or dealt with or healed from).
I can (and try to) hold space for understanding (and even compassion) for my parents, while at the same time naming that I grew up in a very insecure environment. (Of which I have much more to say, but I’ll save that for another day.)
For today, though, I guess I just wanted to share this with you.
I think I just needed to process this re-framing of the story of “Colby winning a statewide contest and meeting the Governor.”
Because I’m no longer certain that, if I were Governor for a day, I desired to give other kids a mom and dad who didn't have one.
No, I think that might’ve been my own sweet brain’s way of saying, “I sure wish I had a mom and dad. Maybe the Governor can help?”
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Thank you so much for sharing this Colby. I feel like it’s pretty brave to be willing to reframe one of your favourite memories in life, under a different light. And a difficult light as well because of trauma. But you balanced it really nicely by showing understanding and forgiveness of your parents own struggles and traumas - a crucial step I think in anyones journey from a place of resentment towards anyone who may have intentionally/unintentionally hurt us.
Continuing to enjoy all the perspective shifts as always from over here in the UK! Thanks Colby ☀️
I, too, have had to reframe so much of my childhood over the years. My dad grew up during WW2 in northern England and was completely traumatized from the bombings and air raids (one bomb went off 2 blocks from his home and threw him from his bed). My mom had a verbally abusive father and had 'dealt' with it through having her friends pray over her. She wasn't kind growing up. I told my daughter (31) recently that I didn't want different parents. I wanted my parents to be different. It's hard and brave and so good to look at memories clearly. Thank God for therapy!! :0)