I particularly remember second grade’s chocolate drive because mom and dad had wised up and said that we couldn’t keep any sales’ leftovers. With that motivation, Noah and I trudged off down the street to knock on our neighbors’ doors and hopefully tempt them with the candy we weren’t going to be allowed to eat.
One house looked empty and we might have taken advantage of that by knocking too loudly or trying cool Morse code combinations with the doorbell. All I remember is the sudden whoosh of the door opening and an angry mother scolding us for waking up her children. I was so frightened by the sudden appearance and subsequent reprimand that I never went to that house again. In my child head I titled it “House of the Angry Woman,” and thus, important to avoid.
My childhood was full of monsters and angels. Man who spit tobacco juice on my shoe. Monster. Cheek kisser-woman. Object to avoid. Principal with candy jar. Pure opportunity.
Maybe it was because I was physically smaller, but everything loomed large with importance and I didn’t like it when people turned out to be more complicated than I imagined them.
“The tobacco spitter can’t have nice grandkids my age because he spit on my shoe.” Illogical? Yes. But fervently believed.
But growing up changes a few things. I realized that I could be Naphtali, jumper of big puddles (and thus an exiting person) or Naphtali, vegetable hider at dinner (thus deceitful and worse than the much-maligned tobacco-spitter).
And if I could be more than one thing, then so could everyone else. I was forced to see that angry mothers are mostly just tired, that cheek-kissers might not have any children of their own, and that men who spit tobacco sometimes miss their target. So why, now that I know one-dimensional caricatures are unfair and childish, have I labeled the secretary at the immigration law office “The Ogress”?
The name sums up her appearance and attitude pretty well.
After months of trying to get past her phone holds and evasions and general unhelpfulness, my process towards staying legally in El Salvador as a volunteer still hasn’t gotten anywhere. I find myself muttering as I climb the stairs to her office, “Alright, Ogress, who’s going to win this round?”
Ridiculous? Yes, but her venom feels so real.
Do we all do this? Cloak ordinary people in mythic proportions so they awe us, inspire us, make us tremble? I once read that we categorize things because the myriad complexity of the natural world is too much for us. We have to simplify so we can function and perhaps relating things to their function, or their relationship to us, is the easiest way to do that.
Thus, a woman who is overworked in an office job becomes my ogress because she’s guarding a gate I desperately want to enter. Perhaps I am a locked princess for my neighbors when I sing plaintive songs at night.
More probably, I’m a screaming peace-killing banshee. I’ve never asked them how they feel about night-singing in close quarters. But that’s the moment when everything could transform.
This morning I successfully got past the Ogress and into the office of the Uncaring Lawyer, another great obstacle in the long journey toward some kind of legal in-country status. But today, instead of asking the lawyer why she was two months behind on everything, I asked her how she met her husband. She talked for half an hour and in that time, her title changed. She is now Busy, Friendly Lawyer.
It seems too simple to say that one question could change a label, but I think it’s true. It’s risky maybe to let the gas station man become Jorge, father of four or fat, frowning policeman become policeman with a sick wife, but it makes the world so much more interesting.
My child self threw labels at people because I wanted to understand who they were and how they fit into my world. As an adult, a two-word modifier shouldn’t satisfy. Be brave. Ask your ogress a question and I guarantee you’ll find a whole new story.