I remember kindergarten as a blurry collection of dotted lines. They sat between two solid ones on the soft, beige paper of handwriting worksheets, the kind that would disintegrate under too much pressure from an eraser. In class, we spent afternoons hanging letters on them as if on a clothesline. We wrote our names over and over, my papers reading “E-L-E-N-A” down the length of a page, shaky in dull graphite.
By age five, the letters flowed through my pencil with ease. My classmates and I had it down. After all that practice, we’d learned who we were, a lesson more urgent than arithmetic, reading or the differences between triangles and squares. It sat right there on the page. By age ten, I’d perfected my signature in pen — a fourth grader, ready to sign a check. Which, of course, quickly leads to having a job, living alone and owning a dog, right? To being the full, complete person I always wanted to be, without delay. When practicing turns into doing.
Now, I rarely use pencils, and I certainly write those five letters less often. I add them to the bottom of an email or the top of a test. But the dotted lines have stuck around, I think, especially for us Americans. We’ve been taught to be individuals since kindergarten, taught that learning to be ourselves is part of growing up. As we outgrow the handwriting worksheets, though, we outgrow their simplicity, too. The search for an identity can become rabid and consuming, more a practice of collecting activities and accolades than building a relationship with the world.
The dotted lines showed up in FroCo meetings at the beginning of the year. The question “What’s your spirit animal?” made its rounds, and we giddied up to claim our own, choosing rabbits, barn owls or emperor penguins. *That’s me!* The animals became our new handwriting worksheets, our names scrawled in steadier graphite than before. The dotted lines edged the campus walkways at the beginning of the semester, as some ran to auditions and others to interviews. *That’s me!* We dug our pencils into classes and clubs, jokes and subcultures, friends and acquaintances. *That’s me!*
In college, we have the time, space and privilege to worry about our “me.” And, you know what? It’s exhausting. Useless, most of the time. We collage together preferences and accomplishments, hoping we’ll end up with a presentable picture. While eating dinner one night, my friend leaned back in a Berkeley rolling chair and sighed. “I don’t know what makes me happy,” she said. She furrowed her eyebrows, more annoyed than upset.
I looked at her and wondered if I had my own answer.
Later that week, I went to Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and sat in the balcony. My eyes latched onto the actors and their red tailcoats, and my ears heard the words so fully I could feel the spaces between them. It was me and the lit stage, the rest of the theater a cloud of negative space. When it broke for intermission, though — when every light in the house went black and the white noise of applause expanded to fill the space — I felt small and suddenly not myself. The moment reduced the entire audience into one pair of ears and eyes. Every person at the play heard the same roar and saw the same darkness. It erased whatever lingered of “me.”
I would tell my friend in Berkeley that I call that feeling, the understanding of my own anonymity, happiness. It’s a kind we often don’t allow ourselves to know among the dotted lines, and it’s one I found only by accident. We rarely hear that being part of the crowd is something to practice as frequently as being an individual. We expect a clear, tangible solution to the question of happiness, one that will come with auditions and interviews. When we get the chance to blend in, though, it’s a release from the whirlpool in which we get stuck — our own obsession with who we are. Instead of worrying about creating the best picture, the perfect collage, we’re content to be a part of the one that surrounds us.
I think we missed out on that feeling while tracing our names over and over. So, while I won’t stop writing “E-L-E-N-A,” I’ll write other things, too.