The photo above shows the goslings that come to our backyard bird feeder every day. They’re not ducklings, per se, but they are rather “ugly” as birds go. They’re still in their coating of down feathers. Soon they’ll be pushing out “real” feathers and taking on the general pattern of their parents with the black necks and distinctive white cheek patch of grown Canada geese.
We all go through awkward phases in life. Middle school is the worst stage for most people. That gawky era with bad glasses and seemingly malformed bodies is the worst. I adore the show Big Mouth for its honesty about the horrific transition through pubescence and its ensuing sexual curiosity and embarrassment.
My middle school years were split between a 7th grade in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and eighth grade in Elburn, Illinois. When our family moved I left behind close friendships built through elementary school and had to start all over again in the cornfields of Illinois. I was relatively popular and one of the top athletes back East, invited to the Kiss the Bottle parties and middle school betrothed to a girlfriend named Lisa who worse short skirts and made out with me in the dark with stacks of 45 rpm records playing in the background.
For the most part we were competing to look as hip and sophisticated as possible in late 1960s parlance with our longer hair and bellbottom jeans. When I moved my girlfriend gave me a photo of her and handwritten lyrics to the Carpenters song Close to You. Given my burgeoning interest in ornithology at that age, the lyrics turned out to be prescient in my lifetime:
Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you
Even as partly fledged human beings we were fully aware of tits and asses even in 7th grade. The girls back east wore miniskirts with fishnet stockings. We felt like we knew so much and yet we knew so little. At least I did. Once I moved away, I heard through a letter from a friend back home that one of our classmates got pregnant in eighth grade and had an abortion.
The summer before my eighth grade year I met all new friends and started forming a new life because that’s all you can do when you’re thirteen years old and trying to make sense of the mysteries of the world. I played basketball all winter and ran track that spring, and was pretty sure I’d go out for football in the fall because I’d won the Punt, Pass and Kick contest and advanced to districts because I was so competitive I refused to lose.
My father over ruled those instincts and sent me out for the cross country team as a freshman. Running cross country didn’t seem to impress the girls as much as playing football might have done. But running did provide a temporary release for all my anxieties. It also assuaged my teenage angst and anger and provided a healthy release of teenage hormones. For the most part anyway.
I was still an ugly ducking with a pile of thick hair on top of my head and a close-mouthed smirk in every photo because my teeth were crooked. There were times when I felt like I was truly flying out there on the cross country course, and I made the Varsity as a freshman. Yet there were also times when I felt like a flailing ugly duckling making it up as I went along.
Once in a while I go cycling past Kaneland High School out in the cornfields west of Elburn, Illinois. By my sophomore year we moved again and I was forced to leave behind the friends and status I’d worked so hard to earn through those ugly duckling years. The lessons learned from all that change still run through me to this day. No matter how successful people become, it often takes a daily dose of wing flapping to keep those ugly duckling beliefs about yourself at bay.
That fishy character named Dory originally depicted in the movie Finding Nemo always advises “Just keep swimming…” as the means to get through life’s challenges and absent-minded mistakes. I prefer to think of myself as a bird, an ugly duckling with full feathers and the need to molt now and then.
“Just keeping flapping…” is more my mantra when I feel like flying.