POV: Permission.

Friday, May 30, 2014

POV ("point of view") is a series that addresses many of the same themes covered in my Equals Record column: growing up, saying yes to adventure, learning to embrace a quarter-life crisis. Each POV entry will include a photograph and a short reflection based on what’s pictured. While my previous column focused largely on ideas, POV focuses on moments - glimpses, glances, tiny stories. 
“Shoko seems to have a hard time listening,” my fourth-grade teacher told my mother at a parent-teacher conference. “After I give instructions for an assignment in class, she asks me afterward to repeat them.”

Hearing this later that day through my mom’s retelling, I felt a pang of despair. At nine-years-old, I still looked up to my teacher as if she were an older sister. I wanted to sit next to her on field trips, help her take roll, be chosen to monitor the class if she needed to leave the room. My friends and I were still at an age when staying in at recess and helping prepare for the afternoon lessons was all we wanted from the day. We hadn’t yet discovered boys, the lure of leaving campus, the thrill of breaking rules.

So this criticism, however minor, stung. The worst part: I knew I wasn’t a bad listener. I’d been asking my teacher to repeat herself because I was terrified of disappointing her by doing the assignment wrong. If we were writing poems, I wanted to be sure I’d counted syllables correctly. If baking soda volcanoes was the project of the day, I’d hold my breath for fear mine might not erupt. If we were building trees out of toilet paper rolls, I wanted mine to be the tallest, and the prettiest.

Whatever it was, I wanted her to smile, to pat my head, to look over my work and find I’d made no mistakes.

When I first moved to New York, I lived on a street in Bushwick that, today, is home to a shoe store, an organic market, and a café with tables on the sidewalk, each with an umbrella in the center and four dainty white chairs.

Five years ago, it may as well have been a ghost town, with streets covered in dust and littered with newspaper and shards of glass. My building - one of the few residential structures on an otherwise industrial stretch of road - seemed on the verge of collapse. When my parents came to visit one chilly October, they instructed their cab driver, who’d picked them up outside their hotel in lower Manhattan, to take them to my address. “Why?” he’d asked.

It was here, and around this time, that I began to realize that the world I’d left behind in LA – along with my parents and old friends and everyone who knew me as a child – was vastly different from the one I was entering.  

I’m startled sometimes, even at twenty-eight, to remember that I’m at a place in life where I don’t need to ask for validation about whether I’m doing the right thing, or whether my life looks the way it should.  That I don’t need to ask for permission to speak, or to do my work any certain way, or to stay out all night if I feel like it. That I don’t need to run my choices by others before making them.

It’s taken most of my twenties for this to sink in. It’s been hard, sometimes, to find a balance between reminding myself where I’ve come from and adopting new ideas as I go - it’s a dance between borrowing and remembering.

Maya Angelou wrote once in a letter to her younger self: When you walk out that door, don’t let anybody raise you – you’ve been raised.

I have. I have a strong foundation to build on, but I’m still building. On top of it all, I think, there’s room to rise further.


Two months ago, while traveling through Sri Lanka, I spent an afternoon walking along train tracks that wound along the side of a mountain. This struck me at the time as a dangerous thing to do. I had a flashback of visiting the Grand Canyon when I was four or five years old, and watching my dad create a row of rocks a few feet from the edge, which I was told not to cross.

I love that memory. He did that to keep me safe, and I didn’t cross the line.

Back in Sri Lanka, I considered what would happen if a train rounded the bend. There was room on either side of the tracks to escape. There would be time to dart away.

Ahead of me was a cluster of trees, thin as pencils. A tiny cloud of neon butterflies hovered at my feet

All was quiet. I trusted that if a train approached, I’d hear it.

You can find my previous POV entries, here, and the archive for my personal essay column on the Equals Record, here. Thank you so much for reading. Photo via my Instagram.


Nicole said...

This is beautiful, Shoko, and it really resonates with me because I felt the same way about my teachers. Mostly in elementary school, like you, but I remember distinctly in high school when I had a difficult chemistry teacher that I admired because he was very smart and studious. I aimed to do everything right in class, despite chemistry not coming naturally to me. I can't remember what I said to elicit the response, but he said I could dial down the teacher's pet act and it felt like getting punched in the stomach. I hadn't meant to do that at all, I just really admired him.

Sarah Noel said...

I am in tears. Thanks for the validation I needed today!

auste said...


stateandoccupation.com said...

Someone the other week commented "every week you write my new favourite" and I couldn't agree more. I love this blog and your writing.


Kayla Poole said...

so lovely. I am the same.

burntfeather said...

Oh gosh, definitely something I've struggle with, always wanting to do the right thing and please others but needing to realise I'm in a place now to just be able to please myself. Thanks for putting your thoughts into such poetic words, even if what I got from your writing wasn't exactly what you intended - it's nice for words to resonate with others :)

Cary said...

Wow! How old are you? 28? Wow! You are way ahead.

smallworldthisis said...

As a fellow 28-year-old, your words perfectly capture the utterly confusing, yet liberating period of your life that is your late twenties. Thank you for sharing.

tara said...

Oh Shoko, I love this so much. I totally remember that period in grade school: Wanting to stay in and color or help instead of trying to get someone's attention.

I can totally imagine how crushing that minor criticism must've been!

I'm 28, too -- and it's totally taking a long time to sink in that I've been raised. I can make my own decisions without justifying/asking permission.

PS: I laughed out loud that the cabbie asked "why?"

Raquel R. said...

This is one of my favourites.

girlseeksplace said...

Not needing permission has been one of my biggest struggles since moving out. I worry that I'm going to get caught doing something I'm not supposed to be doing, which wouldn't happen because I work and go home, but there is always a little voice nagging at me not to do something.

P.S. Fabulous writing, as always.

Emily said...

I so vividly remember in fifth grade (a bit older than 9...) on Field Day, eating my lunch outside (alone) between the groups of students and our two teachers. I was surreptitiously listening to the teachers, because I so desperately wanted to be wise and put together and grownup (and accepted).
One of them turned my direction and said, "Emily, can you hear us?" In the same volume she'd been talking to her friend--I was caught, and I shook my head :)

Rachel said...

I used to cry when I disappointed my teachers, or was told I had to redo assignments or stay after to correct something. I still feel that way a little bit whenever I mess anything up.

Now, I am constantly having to remind myself that I don't need anyone's permission...and yet I still secretly ask for it all the time, usually by omitting words (whether spoken or written) about the way I really feel about something, just for the sake of not upsetting someone (who is usually just a voice in my head, telling me that I'm wrong/vulgar/weird). Sometimes the most important and challenging person to get permission from is your(my)self. =]

max said...

you continue to amaze me with your words -- you have a beautiful gift.

Anonymous said...


Shoko said...

Thank you all so much. It can be tough sharing things that feel so personal, but reading your thoughts makes it more than worth it every time.

Maryn said...

You captured it perfectly! It is hard growing up, although I don't think it ever really stops at any point because we are continually faced with new challenges as the years pass. Maybe life is really just the process of growing up :)


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