A story of encouragement for people who think for themselves and thrive on being different.

 In the first grade, our class was tasked with an assignment to create Jack-O-Lanterns out of construction paper (it was close to Halloween), and like with any elementary school art project, I was determined to produce a masterpiece with my Elmer’s Glue and stencils. Each student was given all the supplies needed to craft the perfect pumpkin — one sheet each of orange, green, brown and black construction paper. We were all in pumpkin-making mode, and the excitement for the upcoming holiday was definitely building.

When we finished our Jack-O-Lanterns, our teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked us to share our new snaggle-toothed friends with the class. The time had come to show off my masterpiece and rather than receiving the oohs and ahhs I was so sure would be the response, I was met with laughter and pointing fingers. “Pumpkins aren’t black.” “That’s not a Jack-O-Lantern.” “That’s ugly,” others heckled. I immediately looked down at my smiling, black pumpkin and ran to my desk in tears. This is the first time I remember feeling humiliation.

Needless to say, my afternoon was ruined and as a 6-year-old, I didn’t understand why everyone made fun of my Jack-O-Lantern. Mrs. Johnson pulled me aside and asked why I chose to make a black pumpkin instead of an orange one. To be honest, I had not given it a whole lot of thought; I simply wanted to create it that way. Yes, I knew pumpkins were orange, but why did my project have to imitate real life?

At the end of the day, Mrs. Johnson addressed the class. She wanted to talk about the black pumpkin. She told the class my Jack-O-Lantern was her favorite because it was unique. It was different.

That day, that moment, and that black pumpkin have stuck with me my entire life. Something happened in the months and years that followed. I began to fear being different. Yes, Mrs. Johnson did an excellent job in her attempt to protect my individuality, but the damage was done. My peers did not accept my black pumpkin and in turn, didn’t accept me.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “relax, it was only a silly class project.” However, it set a tone for me. Whenever I found my 6-year-old mind wandering into la-la land where pumpkins were black and cats and dogs could speak, I was reminded of being laughed at by 20 of my classmates. I turned my imagination off and began to conform to the “norm.” Thanksgiving rolled around and my construction paper turkey looked like all the others. Christmas came, too, and my Santa Claus wore a red suit, just like he is supposed to.

Eventually, I found myself again. But it took growing up and learning to not care what others think for me to embrace the fact that I’m “weird.” I never quite fit in in school and still as an adult often don’t fit in, whatever that means. Being different isn’t a bad quality, but when you’re young the last thing you want is to stand out. Blending in with your peers is the safest bet against being teased or bullied.

When I watch my young nephews and see them color outside of the lines, I encourage it. I want them to be comfortable in expressing themselves and to never feel shame over looking at the world in a different light. Besides, if everyone was the same, can you imagine how boring this planet would be?

A few years back while shopping, I found a Styrofoam, black pumpkin and each Halloween since, I pull it out — not so much for the spooky factor — instead, it serves as a reminder that it’s OK to march to the beat of your own drum.

Now, I surround myself with others who are “weird.” My circle is small but comprised of people who think for themselves and thrive on being different. They’re my favorite people, much like the black Jack-O-Lantern was Mrs. Johnson’s favorite.