It’s a sunny Michigan summer day. I’m a pre-teen, sitting on top of a picnic table, feet resting on the bench seat. The side yard of the farm house where the table sits is muddy from a recent rain. Sunlight filters through a thick canopy of hardwoods and the smell of cows emanates from the barn behind me. Sitting with me are half a dozen kids around my same age, most of whom I just met that day. One is Shelby, who lives on the farm. She’s my step-cousin, the daughter of the sister of my then step-mother, now my ex-step-mother (gotta love the convoluted family trees of divorced families).
We are having a “who can hold their breath longest” contest. One of the kids counts to three, then we all inhale loudly, filling our lungs to capacity. Cheeks puffed, eyes wide, we look at each other, none of us wanting to be the first to lose. One of the youngest gives in with a dramatic gasp for air. Another soon joins her. I look at my competitors as I strain against the urge to breathe.
Then, I notice what should have been obvious: none of us were holding our noses. Were these country kids so honest that they wouldn’t even consider cheating by breathing through their nose? Or, were they so ignorant that the idea just never occurred to them? I hoped it was honesty, but I knew it was ignorance. Either way, I had this contest locked. I ventured a small inhale through my nose, and when it was clear they didn’t notice, I breathed a bit deeper.
As, one by one, the rest of the kids succumbed to their burning desire to breathe, they marveled at my endurance. Finally, long after the last kid had dropped out, I made a mock gasping sound and pretended to fill my lungs will much needed air. I humbly accepted their praise, already feeling twinges of guilt for having duped these trusting souls.
I knew I should have told them the truth, but I didn’t want them to feel I was making fun of them. I didn’t want them to feel stupid. They were nice kids and I wanted to be accepted so I kept quiet. I did that a lot as a kid, and actually, I still do. I’ll pretend I don’t know something just to make the person with me not feel dumb for not knowing it. It’s not that I think I’m some kind of genius and I have to dumb myself down to talk to people. Quite the contrary. All my friends are very smart people. I wouldn’t be friends with them if they weren’t. I just don’t ever want them to assume that I think I’m smarter. You can spout your vast knowledge to me all day and I’ll be totally impressed and probably ask you to continue. However, when I realize that I’m talking on a subject that no one else knows much about, I feel embarrassed because I only want to talk about things that people can contribute their thoughts to. I just want the conversation to flow and everyone to feel comfortable.
If that means holding my breath, then so be it.