My kid keeps picking out library books that make me cry. This week it was The Ugly Duckling. I’d never read the original Andersen version before. Of course I’d heard of the story since I was a kid myself and the way I always understood it was: Once upon a time there was this bird, and when he was little, he was ugly but once he grew out of his ugliness, then he was beautiful. And the moral of the story is: Swans are ugly when they're babies. The end.
No. That’s not actually what story’s about at all.
The bird was never ugly! That’s just how all the birds around him treated him because he wasn’t like them and they didn’t know what he was. They were simple minded poultry birds with no concept of the grace and sophistication of a swan.
I was so born in the wrong place. I grew up in this horrible, God-forsaken, smudge-on-the-map of a town on the Arizona Strip. I think I can best sum up what it was like living there by relating one experience. I was 16 years old and had taken my younger siblings to the pool. My little sister was playing in the baby pool and I was sitting on the bench watching her and reading To Kill a Mockingbird, when a boy I knew from school came up to me, gave me a dirty look and said, “Why are you reading a book? It’s summer.” It’s a place where 40-year-old men still wear their letterman’s jackets and all civic life revolves around the high school athletic teams.
I hated it there, to put it mildly. I had no friends and there were no opportunities for the things I liked and was good at, like music or academics. I was the kid everyone picked on in elementary school. By the time I got to high school, no one was outright mean to me anymore, but I still didn’t really have friends.
It was a predominantly Mormon town and I didn’t fit in at church either, probably because I was a closeted liberal and feminist. I hated Young Women’s, all the pointless goal-setting programs, being forced to make crappy, tacky, knick-knacky “crafts” at the activities, being told we mustn’t date till we were 16, but it’s never too early to start preparing for motherhood. I was the unruly granola girl who wore hiking boots with her dress to church and couldn’t understand why we had to hate gays. (Before I get angry comments, yes, I realize that a requirement to hate gays is not an official Mormon doctrine and many individual Mormons are open-minded and accepting of gays, but this was not the mentality of the specific Mormons I grew up around.)
We moved shortly before my senior year of high school. I’ve driven through a few times since then, but really have no desire to have anything to do with the place.
That degree of unbelonging during one’s formative years shapes a person. I internalized the belief, “People don’t like me,” and so even when I moved away from there, because I expected people not to like me, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My former husband was my first real friend. Then excommunication severely damaged my sense of self. “Mormon” had been such a strong part of my identity, and now it had been taken away. I was in the awkward position of still believing in it but not being allowed to be a part of it. We lived in the East Valley of the Phoenix area during the first four years of our marriage, a significant Mormon population there. I was ashamed of being excommunicated and terrified of anyone finding out. I didn’t want it to come up that we’d moved from Utah, or that I had ten siblings, because the inevitable next question was, “Are you Mormon?” and I didn’t know how to answer. I avoided talking to people and didn’t go out.
It was about two and a half years after I was exed that I was re-baptized and about a year after that that I decided that I didn’t really want to be Mormon after all. Then I was able to start rebuilding an identity and in recent years, I’ve finally been able to make a few friends, but it’s still a struggle. I’m still not completely comfortable with myself and still feel awkward and self-conscious interacting with other people.
There were a couple of parts of The Ugly Duckling that made me cry. One was when the duckling first sees other swans as they’re flying south in the fall, after he’s been mistreated and misunderstood by everyone he’s ever met. He watches them go and feels very strange and sad. “He didn’t know what birds they were, he didn’t know where they were flying, but he loved them as he had never loved anyone before.” I’ve felt that same sad recognition when I come across people whom I admire, and who are similar to what I think I would have been had I grown up in different circumstances. Educated, capable, confident. Happy. I don’t yet quite dare to believe that that’s also what I am.
The other part was when the swans return in the summer and the duckling sees them and doesn’t feel worthy to approach them but goes to them anyway because he decides he’d rather be killed by them than suffer any more at the hands (beaks?) of the birds he’s been around. He bends his head and waits for them to peck his neck, and that’s when he sees his reflection in the water and discovers that he is a swan himself. “Being born in a poultry yard doesn’t matter if you hatch out of a swan’s egg!”
I’m still working on not letting my past determine my future, on not being afraid to be myself, on finding places to belong. I think I’m getting closer. Maybe someday in hopefully the not-too-distant future, I’ll really believe that I’m a swan.
I loved the story. It made my heart happy. I think I’m going to buy myself the book for Christmas.