What Mask Are You Wearing?

Posted by on 05.15.08 | No Comments
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What we try to hide, how early it starts, and when does it stop?

It’s not easy being unique. Just ask Sam (not his real name), one of the fourth grade boys I worked with in Lake City for the last two weeks.

I didn’t ask him. He told me anyway, in a poem. First, he made a mask. The nose, bright pink, looked like a horizontal trumpet. The rest of the face was awkward—a blue unibrow and blue mouth framed the mask. Swirling lines of red and orange tears streaked from the unmatched eyes. A bright green strap hung from ear to ear as if a mockery of a wide smile.

On the back of the mask he wrote,

Do you see me?

I am a Deformo and I feel left out

so I tell jokes to get you to notice me.

My dream is to be successful in life

and I ask mankind to help me fulfill that dream.

How many of us feel the same way? As if we are somehow deformed, unable to fit in. As if we go unseen. As if beneath the great smile, the jokes, the grinning mask, we are dreamers who wish someone else would see our dreams and help us along.

And how many of us would have the guts, like Sam did, to acknowledge that to ourselves, much less to share that with our peers?

When he did share the poem and held up his mask, there was a palpable shift in the way the room felt. As if the other kids really did see him, perhaps for the first time. There had been lots of loud goofing around before his poem. Once he sat down, it felt like the kind of release the rain brings on a humid day. As if something anticipated has finally come, bringing with it clarity, a breathability.

I’ve been doing similar mask workshops with kids around the state for a few months, reading “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, then having them think of who else they might be for a day if they were not themselves, making a mask and then writing a poem to accompany it.

In his poem, the African American poet mentions the kind of mask that many of us wear, relating how “with torn and bleeding hearts, we smile.” Sound familiar? Better to say, “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?” than to give a real answer. Because really, when most people ask “How are you,” they are not expecting a real answer. And hence, “We wear the mask that grins and lies.”

The word mask has been in our lexicon since the mid-1500s, and means “a covering to hide or guard the face,” and it comes from the Middle Latin masca, meaning “mask, specter, nightmare.”

It interests me that we now consider a mask to be protective, but that it hails from a word meaning nightmare. And indeed, in some ways, the wearing of a mask is a nightmare. It prohibits our ability to be and show and accept our true selves.

But of course we wear masks. We’re afraid people will see us as we are and not accept us. Witness again the etymology: Even farther back in the word’s history, it comes from the Arabic, sakhira, meaning “to ridicule.”

It occurred to me that Sam’s poem was asking for love, compassion, and acceptance, and it reminded me of a recent interview I read from Ricardo Cervantes Cervantes Tlahuizcalpantecutli, a spiritual leader of the Toltec indigenous community of Teotihuacan.

In it he said, “If you teach a child something, they will share it with others on the road of life. Therefore, the most important thing to teach children is how to carry love, compassion and harmony in their hearts.”

Yes. Though I don’t think we need to teach them this. Most children carry these things in their hearts intuitively. Our goal is more to nurture that yearning, to create environments safe enough where they can take off the masks they already wear, even by fourth grade, and show their shining, worthy selves. And maybe teach us how to do it, too.

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