A Fish Out of Water

In mid-April I heard a morning radio spot about Toastmasters. I knew of the organization, but not enough to feel like it might be for me until I heard the two gentlemen describing its mission. Conditions were right. I could make one of the two weekly meetings regularly and it was only a twenty-minute drive to the meeting site. No excuses. Time to stretch my wings and fly a bit.

The first presentation for a new member is an ice breaker. Here is a version of what I said. I did write it out, by hand, while sitting in the backseat of my car in a nearby parking lot the hour before the meeting began. That does not mean I procrastinated. In my waking and dreaming minds I had made the presentation scores of times, each time with a different intro and variations in the way I used the props. My presentation was not recorded, so, though I altered it somewhat, I do not know exactly what the words were that differ from the version that follows. The props were a fishbowl in the shape of a fish, and a fishing pole made from a shishkabob stick, a ribbon, and a fish cut from a brightly colored index card. At appropriate times in my talk I would either drop the fish into the bowl, or yank it out.

This fishbowl represents the various families I am part of. Sometimes I am happily swimming with the others in one, but much of my life I have felt like a fish out of water. If I can explain that, then maybe you will have an idea who I really am.

I will tell you I am NOT the one whose profile you might read on a popular singles site. I am NOT the one my best friends say I am, nor am I the one my colleagues might describe. I am not the one my son calls Mom and tells that he loves. I am an amalgamation of all those personalities, and that conglomeration of individuals wonders why she is so nervous at the prospect of speaking on the one subject she should know better than anyone else – HERSELF!

The first fishbowl I was a part of was my family fishbowl belonging to Cal and Evelyn Pearson. I was the first-born of first-born parents which created a unique sort of fishbowl for my first. It was different from the one my siblings would join later. There I was safe, free to be exactly who I was and loved unconditionally.

I joined that fishbowl on June 29, 19…the year is not really important…in St. Louis, Missouri. My parents had moved their fishbowl back and forth between Doniphan, Missouri, and St. Louis, several times, but it was decided the fishbowl would be in St. Louis when it was time for me to start school. Mom said she named me Teresa Gale after two celebrities of the fifties – Teresa Brewer, a popular singer, and Gale Storm, a blonde actress of My Little Margie fame, a sit-com on television. She had hopes that I would be peppy and vivacious as they were. Guess I’ve lived up to that most of the time.

Elementary school was the second fishbowl I joined. In kindergarten I was in trouble a lot. Mrs. Engelbritzen didn’t like it that I couldn’t keep my head down for all of the rest period, and she didn’t like it that I interrupted her often. I just wanted to be helpful, but she never seemed to want my help. In grade one, Mrs. Shoemaker did let me help, so I stayed busy. Mrs. Shaw in grade two let me help a bunch. She let me help my classmates who had trouble reading, and she let me write spelling words on the board. She kept me so busy that I finished grade 3 that same year. Mrs. Whitmore in grade four didn’t need my help much, so she put an extra desk for me in the principal’s office so I could help in there. I stayed busy running errands, delivering messages and once in a while I was allowed to answer the phone. When I finished my classwork sitting at my own little office desk, I had a buzzer to push. That meant a classmate would bring me new lessons and take my completed ones back to the teacher.

School was such fun, all of it – the lessons, the square dances, lunch time in the gym, visiting the classroom that would be mine in the fifth grade and seeing all the books Mr. Sullivan had that I would get to read.

I may not have been so helpful and happy had I known what was ahead. A strange lady came to visit my teacher after Christmas during my fourth grade year. There was another table set up just for me, this time in the middle of the gym. The strange lady kept me busy there, too, with all sorts of games and puzzles and conversations. It was later that my parents told me that because I did so well playing the games and solving the puzzles, I would be sent to a different school. This new fishbowl was full of unfamiliar faces, and new places, and lots and lots of hard work.

In this new fishbowl it was not okay to be me. Mrs. Morris, the teacher in grade 5, began calling me the absent-minded professor. I didn’t think it was absent-minded of me to want to make sure I had the page numbers of my assignments, and the right due dates. Everyone was telling me I was smart, so that had to mean I wasn’t supposed to make mistakes. Peppy and vivacious went out the window.

What if a mistake had been made, and I just got lucky, and I really wasn’t all that smart? So, at the age of nine, I had my first fish-out-of-water feelings. Somehow I still managed to connect with my passions, get back in the fishbowl and swim with the other fish in the fishbowl of high school, EVEN when my folks moved the family’s fishbowl to Doniphan from St. Louis right at the end of my junior year. During my senior year, I was out of that high school fish bowl way more than I was ever in.

I managed to go with the flow through college, and afterward, married and began teaching in Doniphan. In that district I taught eighth grade language arts, third grade, and high school French and English. The classroom was my fishbowl. I was in charge. All except two years were in that district. One of those two years I taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade English in an elite private school in Memphis, and the second I worked as payroll clerk at Orscheln Brake Lever Factory in Moberly, Missouri. Those two years corresponded to changes in my personal family fishbowl that I shared with my husband and son.

I married that same man THREE times, which is comical NOW. Remember that young girl who had to make sure she got everything right, who couldn’t make a mistake because she was supposed to be so smart? She was still at it, trying to fix things. I finally realized that some things CAN’T be fixed, and moved on.

My brother-in-law had an uncanny ability to see right into my personal fishbowl and come up with some right-on insights. At his urging I took the MENSA test. When the results arrived in the mail, I panicked at the thought of opening that envelope. I was reliving that same old fear. What if I am not really all that smart, and all this time I have been a fraud? Or what if I am, how could I have made such a mess of things and never found solutions?

We know so much more about the brain now than we did when I was growing up. I don’t have to apologize for being smart AND not being perfect. After all, we know now that there is a variety of ways to measure intelligence, that there are all kinds of intelligences. IQ is not the only determiner. We all have our different strengths and weaknesses.

Now I have found a fishbowl that will be as exciting and as challenging as my first school experience, one that will allow me to be who I am. I am so glad I have jumped right into the Toastmasters’ fishbowl.

About Teresa Pearson Lee

Retired after 33 years of teaching English and French (one year in private school in Memphis, TN and the rest in public school in Doniphan, MO. Enjoying new adventures - all those things I put off for lack of time, energy, now I can try them! Pottery, writing, traveling, camping, kayaking, dancing, listening to some of the best live music ever, and making lively new friendships. All christened with an appreciation for great red wine! Created and operated KC's on the Current, then sold it and managed it for new owners. You might still find me at the reservation desk when spring rolls around. Born and raised in St. Louis, MO near The Hill. Though a transplant to Southeast Missouri, still a city gal at the core with a deep love of the natural resources in these Ozark foothills. Currently I am a content coordinator for Poplar Bluff Living Magazine and a columnist/stringer for the local weekly The Prospect News. My rescue Siamese helps with most of the proofreading; he has a great ear. I relish the solitude easily had in the Mark Twain Forest but thoroughly enjoy lively outings for music, wine, conversation close to home or in my beloved hometown. Technology is my greatest challenge but so worth the shared connections. There may be a need for solitude but there is little loneliness. The material in this blog written by Teresa Lee is her property and cannot be used without express written consent to do so.
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