• Heather Quinn

Remembering My Strange Inner Child

Updated: Dec 4, 2018



I found this video the other day. It’s one of the many videotapes that my brother saved out of my mom’s/stepdad’s garage in San Clemente, some of which were mildewing and breaking and stuck together in their cassettes, which meant that when I got them and started digitizing them I worked in a panic, as fast as I could go. It seemed like each day that went by would bring irreparable damage, lost memories and lost moments, so I rushed. I borrowed a VHS player from a friend and kept the tapes running into my laptop for hours on end. The tapes jammed constantly, so I unscrewed the top of the VCR to more quickly hear the jam, stop the playback, and gently unwind the tape from around the machine’s innards. There were several hours of home videos, and with the exception of a few highlights that I’ve shared on social media for my family to see, they’ve mostly just sat on a hard drive, unwatched, for years.


That’s where this one was waiting. I was in sixth grade, and it was History Day at our school, which was an event where students were broken up into groups to come up with dramatic presentations illustrating something historic. I remember it was very open-ended – any era of history was fair game. We were required to do some minimum amount of research in the library, there was a time limit, and other than that anything goes. I think it was supposed to be fun, though. I didn’t understand that part at the time. Watching it now, as an adult and parent, I realize the adults in the audience were expecting cute, naive, fun little skits from cute, lighthearted children. My group clearly missed the mark there. Our opening – a time of fear, a time of hope, a time of death, a time of faith, the Holocaust – was probably not the tone they had in mind, and it was all my fault. This presentation was conceived, researched, and written almost entirely by me.


I remember working on this with these girls. These girls, they didn’t choose to have me in their group. No one did. I was probably the least popular kid in my class, and these were the most popular girls. My teacher probably forced them to include me as some well-meaning lesson to them about being cliquish, meaning having to work with me was a soft kind of punishment. These girls didn’t like me, at all. But I came to our meetings with an idea, and they didn’t, so somehow, I ended up directing this whole thing.


A little about me at this time: My father had just died six months before, a fact that everyone in the school knew because all the teachers told them while my siblings and I were away for the funeral, so when I got back to my classroom, one of the meanest popular girls told me “I know we’re supposed to be nice to you because your dad died, but we don’t like you.” In sixth grade I started going by my mom’s maiden name, Quinn, but the year before my name was Bork, and the mean kids would call me, naturally and unoriginally, Heather Dork. There was one sandy-haired boy, in particular, that would torment me – John. He was one of those boys, rich and born to privilege, who exudes such self-confidence and entitlement that you think he might actually have something to offer. Everyone liked him. I wanted to be liked by him. When I changed my name to Quinn, he would catch himself in the middle of calling me Heather Dork, and self-correct, with a sneer, “I mean Heather Quinn.” One day he was sitting behind me in class, repeating my name: Heather Quinn, Heather Quinn, Heather Quinn, and poking me with a pencil in the shoulder each time. I kept saying Quit it! Quit it! Quit it! until I finally turned around and scribbled all over his khaki shorts with the orange marker that I happened to be holding. That’s about the time I realized that the old saying that boys only pick on girls that they like was either untrue or irrelevant.


I wanted to be liked. I would fantasize that somehow I would magically transform myself into one of the popular kids, like overnight or something. Before getting on the school bus, I would silently repeat to myself a mantra: Try to be cool today. Try to be normal. But it turned out I had no idea what normal or cool looked like, and I don’t think I know to this day. All I know is that it didn’t look like me at 11 years old. At 11, I was obsessed with minerals, the solar system, ancient Rome, and Egypt. I wanted to be an archeologist or a particle physicist or an actress. I was terrible at small talk, but if I thought someone even remotely shared an interest, I could talk forever. I didn’t fit in with the girls and preferred playing with the neighborhood boys.


When I learned about the Holocaust in school, I was devastated. I thought about it a lot, pondered what could make people do such evil to other human beings. I worried about all the people who went along with it because they were just following orders, and I thought a lot, and worried, about whether I would have been one of the people standing by, allowing others to be hurt, or hurting them myself if I was placed in that situation. It kept me up at night, and when I did sleep, I had nightmares heavy with the images I saw in photographs of the victims. In college, I read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt and it brought all of those feelings back, feelings I was too young to properly process at the time.

“Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet–and this is its horror–it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think.” -Hannah Arendt

So when I was put in a group of four popular girls and told to create a performance about history, this was the idea I brought them. I spent many hours in the library and found narratives of children in the Holocaust, both letters and diaries written by children while in hiding and memoirs written by survivors after the fact. One of the books I found was I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust by Inge Auerbacher, who was sent to the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1942 when she was just seven years old. The book mixes her poetry with memories, and I was deeply moved as I read it.


I somehow convinced the four girls in my group to take on the idea of dramatizing the experiences of children in the Holocaust, through their own poems and letters. I wanted minimalism – no props or sets aside from stools or costumes aside from our matching white shirts and black pants. I was interested in mime at the time, so I came up with some very basic choreography – four of us mimed knocking in unison when a fifth recited a poem about Nazis banging on the door, we stood in a line with our backs turned to represent a wall – to dramatize the poems we recited. I remember making these girls rehearse until it was flawless, and directing them to tone down their hammy, melodramatic readings, to varying success. I have no idea how I managed to lead these girls, but it worked. It turned out pretty good. We didn’t win, for sixth grade, it was pretty good.


I still remember some of the poem I recited for my part. It’s from I Am a Star.

An acorn gives life to a thousand trees, Many tiny raindrops form the greatest seas. Nothing is impossible; if only we try, The smallest trees can reach the sky. We may differ in thoughts and ideas, Each mother cries some salty tears. If flowers can grow in desert sand, Hate can turn to love in any land. All wars must cease, There will be peace. Pick a rose with its thorn, A world of peace for each newborn. Let’s share the milk and honey today, Where there is will, there is a way. Beat each sword into a plowshare, We must search our hearts and care. Together we can survive and win, The time is now; let us begin. All wars must cease, There will be peace.

After my second daughter was born I was in therapy for a short time for severe postpartum depression. My therapist did guided meditations with me, and in one I was supposed to picture myself as a child, bring my inner child alive in my head, and then say what she was feeling. The overwhelming feeling was shame. As a child I frequently felt like I was too much all the time – too sensitive, too emotional, too intense. I cried too easily, got obsessed too easily, was scared and anxious too often. This too-muchness, I couldn’t tone it down no matter how much I tried. I was also, at the same time, not enough: not brave enough, not outgoing enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough. The list goes on and on. This hasn’t changed, by the way. But I wonder if I would have felt like I was too much and too little if it weren’t from all the other voices – from my parents, teachers, other children – telling me that I was. What could I have been if the message I got from the world was that I was just enough, instead of too much or too little?


As a parent of two very emotionally intense children, I’ve found it useful to look back at who I was as a child, so that I can better empathize with them and hopefully provide better support than I had growing up. I’ve read a lot about intensity, and I’ve found a word for this feeling of being “too much”: overexcitability (a term coined by the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski as part of his Theory of Positive Disintegration, which is worth looking at). And it’s not something wrong as much a different way of being wired and of perceiving the world that is central to a sensitive person’s experience of life. As one of my favorite bloggers and thinkers on this subject, Paula Prober, calls this a Rainforest Mind: “The rainforest. Your jungle mind. Overflowing with intense, lush, teeming life. Noisy. Dense. Diverse. Vibrant. Abundant. Sensitive. Resource-full. Majestic. Flamboyant. Rotting. Always in flux. Providing support for all beings on the planet.” I like that idea: not too much, just rich and lush.

“Rediscover who you were before you tamped yourself down. Before you had to hide your light. Before you learned that you were too much. Find ways to be that person again. You don’t have to do it all at once or to radically redesign your life. And you certainly shouldn’t let go of your healthy boundaries or your needs for quiet spaces. But decide to take back your voice, your body, your power, and your flamboyant majestic-ness. Either in your parenting, or teaching, or writing, or art forms, or speaking, or thinking, or activism, or spirituality, or loving. Or all of the above.” Paula Prober

Before I tamped myself down, I was a strange child who was obsessed with rocks, astronomy, and the Holocaust. I cried when I saw or learned about other people suffering and I wanted to make the world a better place. I didn’t know how to be “cool” or “normal” and cool normal kids didn’t like me very much. But that’s okay. I also did a pretty good job at History Day. That’s who I was. And that’s still who I am. And maybe that’s just enough.


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