Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Courage to be Different

It is so easy to poke fun at the odd, the eccentric, and the unpopular. I’ve been wondering lately why human beings do it. Teenage kids, picking on the boy who is passionate about chess. Mummies, taking against the one amongst them who serves organic wheatgerm loaf for morning tea.

Asserting strength over other people is all about power and control. Moreover, turning someone else into an object of scorn deflects attention from our own shortcomings.

Ironically, it’s often the bullied eccentrics of this world who have the very thing that others crave – a kind of inner power born of deep-seated self-confidence. They might struggle to fit in socially, but it doesn’t stop them from pursuing favourite hobbies and behaviours that others find quaint, weird, or incomprehensible. They have the sense to realise that the judgment of others is irrelevant, and that the key to happiness and satisfaction in life is doing what you love, and doing it as well as you possibly can.

When I think of eccentricity, I can’t help but remember my years in Girl Guides, and the lady who was our leader.

For 5 years of my life (until age 15) I was a Girl Guide (or “Girl Scout”). I kept this fact very quiet indeed. It was supremely uncool to be in Guides. However, even those among my Guide friends who were Cool Girls at school quietly kept coming every week. Naff and anachronistic and cringe-making it certainly was at times (what 14 year old would admit to gathering with a bunch of other girls in uniforms to sing The World Song, execute three-finger salutes, and build stuff out of wood and rope?) It was, nevertheless, fun and challenging, and we learned things there that I wouldn’t otherwise know how to do – I learned to build a fire and cook edible food on it, I learned (after hours of service at a disabled children’s home) how to take care of kids with various physical and mental disabilities, and I even learned how to make quite useful things out of wood and rope. We were often challenged beyond the four corners of our life experience, and it was pretty great when we found we could deal with those challenges.

It was also, frequently, a lot of fun.

We did hair-raising outdoor night-stalking. We played a fantastic (and borderline blood-sport) game known as “duster hockey”, where two girls at a time, each armed with a long wooden stick, would battle it out, trying to push a piece of cloth to the end of the wooden-floored room and flick it up onto a chair to score a goal. One year we entered a talent contest known as Encore. One of the mums was a professional dance coach, and somehow she transformed our group of ungainly teens and pre-teens into a slick, vibrant act, resplendent in 80s dance fashion and with hair back-combed to within an inch of its life, strutting our stuff to “Funky Town”. We were actually chosen to represent our state at a national concert in Sydney (a city many of us had never visited before that). We met other girls from all over Australia. It was incredible.

I would never ever have admitted it back then, but something else I secretly liked about Guides was the part that was completely uncool - the part you were supposed to scoff at with disdain – the ritual of it all. I liked the uniforms and the ceremonies and the fact that there was a masterable “right” way to do things. I liked the idea of being part of a worldwide network and a long history. On Guide camps I felt a certain mysterious joy as we sat around the campfire at night, wrapped in blankets, singing songs. I certainly didn't let on to anyone how much I enjoyed all this.

Our leader was the only person I knew who had zero disdain (real or feigned) for any part of Guiding. She loved it all with a passion, and she wasn’t afraid to admit it. She was known to us by her Guiding name, Dixie. Some of the younger girls didn’t realise that it wasn’t her real name. Even our parents called her “Dixie”. Somehow, it was fitting. Dixie was who she intrinsically was.

She was a true eccentric.

Dixie was a stickler for accuracy and perfection in all the rituals – everyone marching into position at the start of meetings; flag-bearers carefully placing the world flag in position; National Anthems and Taps and salutes in all the right places. The sight of a perfectly-executed knot or an immaculately-polished brass Promise Badge would bring a happy smile to her face. At big events – gatherings of Guides from all over Queensland or further – it was always Dixie who was asked to get up and lead everyone in the various songs, because she knew every single one of them word-for-word. She would smile with unselfconscious joy as she led the singing, completely unembarrassed.

She was literally an expert in Guiding, and she took a quiet, happy pride in her ability to do it all.

As our leader, Dixie was unbelievably active. I remember overnight camps multiple times per year, trainings, sports days, swimming carnivals, and fund-raising drives. Remember, she was not paid a cent to be a Guide Leader. Her work was 100% voluntary, and she organized most events almost single-handedly.

She was constantly cheerful and even-tempered; she was endlessly energetic. There was something almost unreal about how happy and selfless and capable and unflappable she always was. She never said a bad word about anyone and she rarely showed anger or frustration. She was the epitome of everything a Girl Guide was supposed to be.

Little idiots that we were, of course we couldn’t help but mock Dixie sometimes behind her back – her loud-and-proud singing of Guiding’s Greatest Hits, the fact that she could quote the Guide Handbook practically verbatim, and her almost cringe-making enthusiasm about it all.

Now, I wish I could find within myself what she has. She has found her life's calling. She leads expertly and from the heart, and clearly gets immense fulfilment and satisfaction from it all. She attracts admiration and gratitude, and even awards, from people who can’t believe the extent of her community service, but I doubt she does it for the thanks or the kudos.

And I doubt she will ever look back on her life and think, I wish I’d been more mainstream.

I found this photo of her online, taken three years ago. There she is, still in her element. She looks a tiny bit older these days, but her smile is exactly as I remember. The smile of a truly happy person.


  1. I LOVEEEEEEEEEEEE this story. It makes me smile. I was always considered a "bookworm" by people, but it didn't bother me 'coz half of my closest friends were also in the same group ha ha...We all have different personalities, of course. And thankfully I was never bullied - none of us was. That probably helped us a lot!

    I LOVE reading about the many memories you have during those 5 years. When I was in Junior High School, we had to do a year of Girl Scout, though we never went camping or anything like that, but we did have our uniform (brown) and we learnt morse codes with flags and stuff like that. Ahhh...memoriesssss he he he...

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post, Amel! I do have some great memories from those years, even though at the time I always felt I had to hide my experiences, even from close friends at school. It takes a brave person to stand up and admit to enjoying something that's unpopular, and at the time I wasn't really very brave.

  2. Wow, it was incredibly interesting to read this, particularly because my experience in what we always call "The Girl Scouts" was so utterly different!

    Firstly, to be in Girl Scouts was an intensely cool thing, and something one did to fit in (that is, before the age of 15 or 16). Secondly, our leader was the beautiful and hyper-feminine mother of a classmate of mine. What we did absolutely never involved outdoor skills, except for a few "sleepovers" during which we camped outside. Nope, we mostly spent our time making collages and learning to sew. Oh, and, of course, selling cookies door-to-door. I hated it and ditched it for choir.
    I rather wish that someone like Dixie had been in charge!

    It sure sounds like what you did was far more valuable. I think it's a rare person who's really brave at that age, and you were brave enough to keep doing what made you happy. For that, I think you should be proud. :)

    1. How bizarre to read that being a Girl Scout was an intensely cool thing to do where you grew up! I have heard stories of how delicious and how sought-after your Girl Scout cookies are. I have to tell you, the Australian equivalent ("Girl Guide Biscuits") were, when I was selling them, literally the most awful, bland, memorable-for-how-bad-they-were cookies ever made - no one ever wanted to buy them and we all ended up selling most of them to family members or People At Mum/Dad's Work who took pity on us. Obviously tastier cookies are Australian Girl Scouts' key to greater popularity!
      And thanks for your kind words. You're right that it's hard to be brave as a teenager. I guess I did try in my own way :)

  3. great post Katriina. I was also a Girl Guide, but only for a short while. I preferred brownies, and thought that Girl Guides was boring, but that was the days before Girl Guides became Girl Scouts and got to hang out with the boys :)

    You are right though. It is wonderful to reflect upon people who are actually passionate about something that they do in their life. It does not have to be the income earning "thing". For my mum it is sewing and to a lesser extent gardening. She enters a whole parallel universe when doing those activities..... I think the thing to remember is these people have such passion because they have been doing it for such a long time. It started out as an interest, probably got a little difficult along the way as they had to upgrade their skills, they probably nearly gave up but then, somewhere along the way it just clicked and passion evolved.

    1. I think you, too, are discovering your passion in life - namely, your writing and photography.

      For anyone who is interested, The Lake House Writer's blog is here:

      Check out her gorgeous photographs and inspirational quotes.

  4. This is a fantastic post, and It really makes me what to put my everything into something. I agree that happiness is self fulfilling rather than driven by the people around you, and I wish more teenagers had the stregth that you did. x

    1. Bex, thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm really glad you enjoyed this post. Looking back, I do wish I had the strength to be honest about what I enjoyed as a teenager, but I tell myself that at least NOW I can be honest. If only I could find my own "life's passion" (rather than dipping into various things and never gaining complete mastery over any one pursuit). Ah well. There is still time!!

  5. Those that dare to be different and true to themselves are the ones who end up having the most fulfilling lives. Conforming is what cripples many a soul.

    1. Steve, you are so right. I have spent most of my life half-crippled. I think I've finally found my own voice. Or have I just officially become Middle Aged...?

  6. wow what a women (and well written write-up). I aspire to be like that too but 'constantly cheerful and even tempered' is never going to be on my gravestone! Your second paragraph reminded me of the quote "imagine what we can achieve if we don't care who gets the credit" - It sits deep in the world of Guiding, not said out loud but there is no fight for supremecy just a genuine desire to be our best and help others to do the same "Faith, Courage, Joy" - why not send a letter to Dixie and thank her, I bet she'd really appreciate it xx

  7. Kelloggs Ville, thank you so much for stopping by for a read! My guess is that you're a fantastic Guider. You're right - I should send Dixie a letter. I'm sure she doesn't get thanked anywhere near as often as she deserves.