As far back as I can remember I have felt out of place. I’ve felt like I didn’t belong. Like I was one kind of girl, living in a world where it was best to be the other kind of girl. It wasn’t until grad school, and my introduction to the term Imposter Syndrome, that I had some sense of what I had been feeling for so long. Where I come from, people don’t go to grad school. Where I come from, people don’t go to college, some don’t even earn a high school diploma. They opt instead, for their GED at 16 years old or at 40, whenever the need arises for them to get a pay raise at their hourly job. Their hourly job is at the warehouse where they load the UPS trucks at four am, or down at the Walmart, where a HS diploma can mean the difference between $9/hr and $9.50/hr. So you can imagine my surprise, when sitting in a giant auditorium at UNC Charlotte—feeling completely out of place and wondering why the English department let me into their program—when those big, bold letters came across the screen: Imposter Syndrome. My jaw dropped. Me, a small-town Kansas girl who should have just put her head down and taken a job as a receptionist at a doctor’s office or as a cashier at a grocery store, was actually realizing a dream that, to some, seemed ridiculous. Reading those words and finally understanding what I had been feeling my whole life, well it was a surprise, but it was also a new sort of freedom, albeit one that didn’t last very long.
I finished grad school, if you are wondering, and I got by okay. It became clear to other people, pretty quickly, that I should be there. Classmates, professors, my family. But it was never clear to me. I struggled with not fitting in the whole time I was there. I was too old to hang out with the other students, I was too young to feel a camaraderie with the instructors. I was too shy to get involved with organizations, I was too direct to be good at sparking conversation. I showed up to things I wasn’t expected to, and missed events they had planned for me to attend. I didn’t feel like I was in the right concentration, so I switched my major in my second year, where I felt even more out of place than before. The list goes on. And now here I am, a woman from a history of blue-collar workers, explaining why art is important to a family who doesn’t “get me,” while my back is to a world of intellectuals, fellow artists and writers, a new and economically advantaged group of friends who have no idea what government cheese tastes like, and I am feeling out of place, again. I’m stuck in-between these two worlds, and sometimes I don’t think I belong to either.
I’m not unique, then again I’m not claiming to be. There is a whole host of people like me. People who’ve left the Section 8 houses. People who looked into the mirror and decided this life is not for them. People who have scraped their way into college or trade school. People who have taken $100 and turned it into a million dollars. And there they are, feeling like they don’t belong. The weight of their own history pulling them down. I’m not complaining either, even though it might seem that way. I know I did what was right for me. And I know that my family back home is proud of me. They may not get what I do, or what I write, or how I see the world, but I know they are proud that I did what I set out to do. I’m not a cautionary tale, like some of the others, rather an example to follow. And I constantly carry that on my back, as I reach behind and pull up the next generation who are looking for a way out.
But in the moment, in the day to day, I never know how I will feel. I never know how out of place I look toting a $50 bottle of wine to an event I have been invited to because I know someone, who knows someone, who is hosting a writers group that focuses on art as a form of healing. But I feel it. I never know how people will take me when I go back home, run into an old friend at CVS, give them a hug, ask how they have been, with a stupid, genuine grin, as I listen to the happenings of my old hometown. I always wonder if they see me as an outsider. Because I feel like one.
I wish this was a teachable moment of some kind. I like teachable moments, but it isn’t. This is just me, admitting the way I feel a lot of the time. Maybe this will resonate with some of you, maybe not. But if I can, let me just say this: People worry a lot. People feel like they don’t fit in. People feel like outsiders. If you are one of the confident ones, bring those people into your fold. Ask them to participate. Give them a shot. They may never feel like they belong, but at least they won’t feel like they don’t.