A Jigsaw Piece in Search of a Puzzle

Posted on December 8, 2012


Anybody else ever get the feeling that they don’t quite belong?

I do. And I think I’ve always had it. Other people always seem so at ease with the world, seem so adept with other people and seem so unthwarted by everyday interactions. But as Hamlet says “Seems Madam. Nay it is. I know not seems.” I know full well that any of you who know me, in real life or here in the virtuality of twitter, will think that I seem at ease, adept and unthwarted. Perhaps I even cultivate that impression deliberately. I try not to think about that.

But I’m not so comfortable in my dealings with others as I seem to be. With students I’m fine. The real joy of teaching for me is when I am with young people in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds. I had no idea when I entered the profession of how much I would gain from my daily work with children and of how young in spirit and optimistic in mindset it would keep me, and I thank all the stars that I can see that I stumbled and fumbled my way into this profession.

I am also incredibly comfortable and confident in the company of strangers of all stripes: professionally, in my role as a customer and consumer, and in the countless everyday interactions I have.

But when it comes to acquaintances, colleagues, friends and even family I become riddled with doubt and wracked with anxiety. I care so much what people thing that I literally tie myself in knots at the thought of what they think about me. And for those grammar fascists amongst you (a term I have had applied to me many a time) I do mean literally, as the knottedness of my stomach, the twistedness of my thinking and tangledness of my tongue can testify.

As I said earlier, I think I’ve always been this way. I have precious few memories of primary school and most are disconnected, but I distinctly remember being desperate to please my teacher Miss Bell and utterly despondent when I perceived that I had failed to do so. I also remember vividly the averageness of the school reports I used to get, so out of proportion to the efforts I had put into pleasing.

At secondary school I was bullied by every boy but one in my first year class simply because I was desperate to answer question. Picture that boy who seems prepared to wrench his own arm out of his socket to hold it higher in the air than his peers. Picture that boy whose seat appears to be both heavily electrified and heavily magnetic as his bottom bounces up and down from it when wishing to contribute. Hear that boy whose grunts and gasps and half-uttered utterances are utterly hilarious to his classmates. That was me that was.

As a first year university student I was so eager to serve my fellow students that I stood for the Joint Representative Committee to give feedback to the college, was co-opted onto the Student Union as Campaigns Officer and even stood against Stephen Twigg (I really must tell that story, which involves me calling him corrupt and incompetent) for the post of NUS President. The end result was my failing the first year of my studies before I had even sat any of the end of year examinations.

As a first year teacher I was so keen to do the right thing for a student who confided that she had been raped (see The Despicable Violence of Silence) that I ended up convincing colleagues (whose own motives I have now come to understand were far from being as pure as mine) that I was somehow too close to the girl. I ended up leaving that school after just one year.

I then stupidly got married to someone I knew I didn’t love because it seemed the right thing to do and because, once we had announced it, the desire to not let people down was stronger than the desire to do the right thing. That marriage lasted 11 months (there’s something deeply pathetic about a marriage that doesn’t actually have an anniversary) and the resulting fallout very nearly cost me everything.

Following my move down south I worked at a school where I cared so much about doing the right thing for my department that I waged war on what I considered to be an incompetent Headteacher. Eventually he won, as I guess all Heads have to do when faced with upstarts like me, but I gave him one hell of a bloody nose in my leaving speech. I had to meet with him recently and I knew that I had overstepped the mark because of how guilty I felt.

And then at my last school, a place where I finally thought I’d found the jigsaw puzzle I was meant to be a part of, things changed suddenly and I realised that I cared too much about the place to stay there. I left almost immediately, and spent a year as a lost jigsaw piece that didn’t match any of the spaces I was supposed to be fitting at my new school.

Sometimes I wonder if the problem is me. I look at the number of people who have friends from their childhood, from their university days, from previous jobs and I note the distinct lack of almost any in my life. Maybe the ‘tabs’ (correct name for the outie bit of a jigsaw piece) are not sufficiently well rounded enough to hold onto the ‘blanks’ (the innies of a jigsaw piece) of other jigsaw pieces.

At other times I think the location of the problem might be others. Maybe I’m a ‘whimsy’ (a non-typical jigsaw piece shape) piece when they are all ‘fully interlocking’ (a typical piece) in nature and maybe in the world of human relationships I’m just not designed to fit in easily.

In all likelihood though the problem (if it is indeed a problem) is likely to have been mutual and maybe our pictures just didn’t match, leaving me standing out like a sore nose (I always felt that thumbs never really stood out, but a nose is virtually uncoverable). I do, after all, often find myself in disagreement with those I am closest to and at times I wonder if the obtuse contrarian in me is deliberate rather than accidental.

But recently I do seem to find myself slotting in better than I ever have done. In fatherhood and my 40s I seem to have found my happiest self. At work I seem to have found my mission. In Twitter I seem to have found my muse. At least three of my four facets seem to have interlocked in a meaningful way and perhaps I am just one more connection from no longer being a piece in search of a puzzle. Or so it seems. And given that the word ‘seems’ has an etymological origin in the concept of ‘fitting’ then maybe I am heading into a phase of my life where I finally feel like I fully and fulfillingly fit in.

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