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Echo Syndrome

I was ten years old and playing in my room when I heard my sister call and tell me that the Ghost of Faffner Hall was on. Since I had no idea what she was talking about, I came out to see what this weird named show was all about. I was quickly disappointed to learn that it was a music program. In fact, I was downright angry, so angry that I refused to be in the room whenever it was on. But why did it make me so mad? There was nothing wrong with the show itself, it was what it represented in my life at the time.

Let’s rewind a little here, going all the way back to when I was four. My father and sister attended this group called Indian Princesses. (We won’t go into the political incorrectness of the group here.) This organization was designed to bring dads and daughters together, and my sister and father had been going to meetings for as long as I could remember. It was expected that I would attend someday, as if it were some sort of rite of passage to growing up.

At four years old I attended a meeting. It proved to be the first and last. The meeting itself was tedious and boring, as all they did was talk about the logistics of some upcoming event. Worse, they were really strict about the dad and daughter thing. You were supposed to sit with your dad and weren’t allowed to socialize with other kids during the meeting. Being too young to communicate my feelings, I broke out in tears and had to be removed from the room and taken home early. Dad was furious, but he never made me go back and I didn’t.

My sister (I will call her Hazel) had been taking judo lessons since I was three. I turned five and was finally old enough to go. Like Indian Princesses, this was something that I was essentially expected to do, as if it were an important milestone. The first lesson was a disaster. As with the first Hazel activity attempt, I ended up in tears and spent the rest of the session sitting on the sidelines with Mom. She was very disappointed and sternly told me so on the way home, but she didn’t make me go back, either. Hazel continued her judo without me.

She started taking horseback riding lessons when I was in elementary school. Mom decided to sign me up when I was eight, but the result was even worse than anything that happened at judo or Indian Princesses. I wasn’t particularly interested in English riding and wasn’t really into horses, either, but I was too young to think to say anything about it. The instructor stuck me on the back of the most nervous horse in the entire facility, which didn’t help when I already made horses shy away from me just by my very presence. She panicked and did the Zorro routine with me on her back. I was still shaking when I got down and was very glad to get out of the riding circle. It was my first and last time on horseback.

Mom had more luck with Campfire, another activity that Hazel was active in. Though I was not asked if I wanted to be a part of it, I enjoyed the activities we did in Sparks and looked forward to meetings. Things changed after a disastrous experience at summer camp that I won’t go into here. My parents signed me up for Bluebirds in the third grade, but the meetings were extremely tedious and the activities were boring. I began to dread meeting night because I knew I’d be bored to death. Worse, we were all expected to sell candy, something I wasn’t the least bit interested in. After a catastrophic attempt to force me to sell candy, my parents grew frustrated and yelled at me for over an hour, comparing me to my sister and wondering why I never liked the same things she did. That was the night I quit Campfire for good.

Things became much worse when Hazel started junior high and signed up for band. She had an outstanding talent for music and soon earned a lot of praise and high marks. The family sat up and took notice, and when they did, I was dragged into the crossfire. Caught up in the excitement over their prodigy child, Mom and Dad asked me what instrument I was going to play in band and made a big deal about my picking something. It was not relayed as a choice, it was portrayed as a requirement of junior high school. This was something I apparently was going to do and I had no say in the matter. I stressed over it for some time until the realization dawned on me and I grew angry.

It had been happening my whole life, it seemed. I didn’t want to take judo, I wanted to take karate. I didn’t want to do English riding, I wanted to do Western riding. As for selling candy bars or doing anything with my abusive father, I think not. I certainly wasn’t the least bit interested in playing music, as I was a writer. She was a fighter and I was a gymnast (which at least my mother recognized, if nothing else). That settled it for me. Not only did I not choose an instrument, I refused to allow myself to be dragged into my sister’s activities ever again. They were not requirements, they were not milestones of growth. I was my own person!

But the pressure from the adults continued. Relatives chastised me and called me a deadbeat because I didn’t play an instrument, none of them interested in the talents I actually had. Family members called me “uncultured” because I was turned off by classical music and instrumental jazz. I was insulted for not getting some weird music joke that apparently “all the kids know about.” Worst were the ghouls that came to my sister’s concerts, looking to me for fresh blood in the future. If my sister had such great talent then I must have it as well. They were always leering over me, giving me the creeps.

I remember feeling bad because I found myself resenting my sister. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t Hazel that I hated, I despised the expectation that I was going to walk in her footsteps and do whatever she did. My sister did nothing wrong, it was the adults who were causing the problem. Everyone knew her. No one knew me, and no one wanted to know me. I was simply her echo, a shadow that lingered behind her.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try to say something about it, either. The day of the Campfire candy incident I said that I didn’t want to do something simply because Hazel did it. My parents, particularly Dad, heard, “Hazel did it so I don’t want to.” They completely missed the point I was trying to make, and it came back to haunt me later.

By the time I was fifteen everyone had given up on forcing me into band. I started high school, where a new Hazel-related conflict emerged, and she wasn’t even living with us anymore. My sister was involved in what seemed like a million activities at her high school, while I was involved in none. It wasn’t that I was being a stick-in-the mud, it’s just that the school was small and didn’t have a lot to offer, certainly nothing I was interested in. Dad compared Hazel’s busy schedule to my own empty one and decided that I needed help in that arena.

It started with the way he took over booster club. Then came the homecoming parade, which suddenly he was in charge of. He dragged me to football games and other activities I wasn’t interested in. Then came the day I found him leading the meeting of a club I was forced into by him and the idiot school counselor. I felt backed into a corner and the result was an explosion of Pinatubo proportions. At least in the aftermath both my parents finally understood what I meant that day in the third grade, but it only came with a lot of pain and humiliation.

So why am I writing this long story of my childhood? Well, I know I’m not the only younger sibling to experience this. Adults, don’t do this to kids. I know sometimes it’s hard to see it, but your children are individuals. Just because the older one likes something does not mean the younger kids will, nor should it be expected that they do it. They are people, not echoes, and their individuality should be appreciated.

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