Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: Regaining my sense of childlike confidence

Joanna Buoniconti

Joanna Buoniconti

By JOANNA BUONICONTI

Published: 06-03-2024 4:11 PM

Modified: 06-04-2024 1:39 PM


Those who know me, personally, know that I have a very good memory. I always have. I can recall what I wore and what the weather was on this exact day any number of years ago, like a forlorn party trick that people find kind of cool, yet slightly unnerving. Because having a good memory can be both a blessing and a curse; because on one hand you remember everything, on the other hand you can’t forget things no matter how much you may want to.

Even though I have a good memory, I will be the first to acknowledge the innate fickleness of it. Because I think it’s our mind’s way of protecting us.

For instance, I do not remember one of the most pivotal moments of my childhood, when I would come to the realization that I was different from my peers. I’m sure it was in middle school, because that’s the age where self-consciousness usually kicks in, but I can’t recall the exact year or moment. Looking back on those years now, as an adult, it feels like one day a switch was flipped and my peers started treating me differently; or more likely, ignoring me altogether.

To give you some background on why this was so startling for me, we need to first backtrack to my elementary school experience. Because I went to school through essentially a TV broadcast that connected a camera in my home to a camera in the classroom, I was only physically around my classmates for a few weeks of the year. And while I was by no means ever popular in school, I vividly remember my classmates being blatantly excited to see me in the moment where I drove my wheelchair into the classroom after being present only on a screen for months.

Everyone wanted to talk to me. I remember that I felt slightly overwhelmed as the other children clamored around my desk to talk to me. My voice was stronger then, and my peers didn’t shy away from talking to me, which they would avoid doing — at all cost — in later years. They were fascinated by my wheelchair and all the other elements that made me “different” from them, at the time.

In those moments, I was akin to a shiny new toy. I was picked up, oohed and aahed over for the novelties that made me different, and eventually cast aside when the conventional became more desirable.

I wasn’t completely ostracized. Throughout the remainder of my middle and high school experience, I was acknowledged by the majority of my peers. But I was no longer regarded with the same interest that I had been when I was younger. And while I was too young at the time to recognize the indelible mark that this would leave on me, the realization hurt. But the drastic nature of what followed hurt more: Because I internalized it, and took it to mean that my peers withdrawing from me en masse meant that there was something wrong with me that only they could see.

And the one aspect of myself that this realization really did a number on was my self-confidence. Before I became extremely aware of my differences, and how they would be perceived by my peers, I was extremely confident. I absolutely reveled in being the center of attention.

In fact, for much of my early childhood, that was my happy place. I used to put on performances for friends, family, basically anyone who would pay attention to me. I remember, when I think I was in first grade, during music class I sat in front of my entire class and belted out my favorite song at the time, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — just because I wanted to.

I cannot emphasize enough how the little girl I just described feels so far removed from the young woman I am today, that she may as well be a different person. I can’t remember the last time I did something just because I wanted to, without fear of any repercussions.

Ever since I became highly self-aware, that boisterous and outgoing part of my personality was quieted. When I entered into a public setting, I would become extremely introverted and hesitant to speak, because it was much of my goal for much of middle and high school to draw as little attention to myself as possible.

Around people I was comfortable with, I would talk nonstop; but that self-conscious feeling persisted throughout my first couple of years in college, but then the COVID-19 pandemic, as with most things, changed it.

For the first time in years, because of school now taking place for everyone over Zoom, I was able to communicate with my peers on my own terms and without the effects of my condition serving as a barrier. It allowed me to be myself. This gave me a newfound sense of empowerment, and was one that I carried with me into doing grad school entirely virtually, which allowed me to make friends with some of my peers.

It’s been a long journey to get here, and I still have a long way to go, but as I enter into my mid-20s this month I’m slowly regaining my childlike confidence,once again.

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s at Emerson College. She can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.