Thursday, March 9, 2023

The Way You Wear Your Face

This post was originally written in 2015 by Giselle Renarde

A teacher once said to my mother, "There's steel in that girl."

At the time, she was right. Still, I fought back tears when my mother told me. I couldn't decide whether I should be proud. I knew it was true, but was it really so obvious?

The neighbourhood I grew up in was and is very different from the place I live now. Earlier today I was walking down the street and asking myself, "What would be the perfect soundtrack to give this area?" 

The first song that popped into my head was Pleasant Valley Sunday.

I'm trying to think of the perfect song to accompany the area I grew up in. It would be whatever music scares you shitless, really. Or just the sound of music through apartment walls and people screaming, and then a big crash and you sweating bullets and thinking, "Should I call the police?"

But of course you shouldn't because it's none of your damn business.

I can't pinpoint any event or moment that turned young Giselle into steel. It was home life coupled with where home was. My mom still lives in that same house, and when I tell people the intersection their eyes widen and they go, "Wow" or just "Yikes." They know my old street because there's a gang named for it. 

Why would anyone choose to live in such an unsavoury area?

That's a question I can't answer. I left as soon as I could. 

I left the steel there, too.

This came to mind the other week, when I was watching So You Think You Can Dance. There was a young woman on the show who had that same steel in her. She came from a rough neighbourhood, too. She faced addiction in her family.

I saw my old self in the way she wore her face: hard, inaccessible, a brick wall of a face. A face you don't want to mess with.

That was me! That was me until I moved to a neighbourhood where I can walk around any time, day or night, and not be afraid. Sure it's weird, being poor and living in an incredibly affluent neighbourhood. I'm surrounded by ego and entitlement and it gets to me sometimes, but at the end of the day entitlement isn't going to steal your jewellery from around your neck or spray bullets from a car window.

Man, it feels good to not be afraid of the place you live. I'm practically Pollyanna when I'm out in the world. I talk to strangers! I smile at everybody! I love them all! Mwah-Mwah! Kisses all 'round!

And then I take the bus back to the neighbourhood where I grew up. Suddenly the smile in my eyes feels embarrassing. It makes me vulnerable. So I shut it down. I lock Pollyanna and her Pleasant Valley Sunday in the basement until I'm back at home base. Because I don't want to be targetted. I don't want to be picked out of the lineup. That one smiling face sticks out, on the bus to my mom's house.

But I feel odd about it. I love the compassionate me. She's my favourite kind of me! I want to share her with the people who live where I used to live. They're sort of like family, in a way.

I try, but I feel uneasy. The world I grew up in seems so predatory, so violent, so ready to take you down.

Out comes the steel, but I put it on like a mask now. It's not coming from the inside out. I'm wearing it so I'll blend in.

Sometimes I feel Pollyanna kicking and screaming, but I make her wear that mask. It's for her own good.