You know the homeschool student stereotype, right? I’m sure a comedic image pops into your mind’s eye . It’s probably a student with a hunched posture, plaid cargo shorts (if you grew up in the early 2000s), and a shirt with some kind of Christian infographic on it. For anyone who grew up in a Christian community, this image is familiar and possibly even off-putting. How do you approach someone who seems so different from you?

Well, I was the girl with the plaid cargo shorts . . . well, more so a baggy jean skirt that went down to my ankles. I wasn’t homeschooled, but I went to the distant neighbor equivalent of homeschooling education, a private Christian school.  That school was a strange creature, essentially a reformed private school but with kids that went to Greece for Thanksgiving break and Bermuda for Christmas break. And next to them, I didn’t stand a chance.

I grew up in a strict, religious family, and please don’t confuse that admittance with disdain. I’m the firstborn of the family, the socially acceptable guinea pig; my parents had to see what worked and what didn’t with children. Let me give you some additional context. My dad grew up in a non-religious home, and he didn’t have a chance to hear the Gospel until he was in his late teen years. With no steady discipleship around him until his early twenties, he accepted Christ and gradually matured until the age of twenty-eight, when he met my mom in Romania. They had a fairytale engagement and wedding where they got engaged and then married in a spontaneous three-week window while my dad was overseas.

In 2000, my mom and dad returned to the United States and began to plan a family. One of the biggest concerns of my dad was the key distinction between biblical manhood and biblical womanhood. My dad could tell society was reaching a point where gender would be heavily debated, and he wanted to make sure my family set a strong, traditional example of being men and women. So to him this meant that if he had any girls as children he would make them wear only skirts. On top of that, he didn’t want proud or flashy women, so making a parallel between certain items and that image of a vain woman, he banned jewelry and nail polish.

Now, depending on your background, this either seems to be a respectable, comedic, possibly harsh, or an insignificant declaration to you. But to a seven-year-old girl growing up in North Carolina, starting anew at that private Christian school, this declaration was catastrophic. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being insulted by an angry seven- or eight-year-old, you know how scathing they can be. So I’d like to think there was some rationality behind my fears. For the first month or so, my friends didn’t question anything. At that age, your parents still dressed you, so for all they knew I could’ve been the victim of a middle-aged woman or man with 1980s fashion.

But then, after that first month, the questions came with urgency. Kids theorized I came from a poor family that couldn’t afford pants or that I grew up in an Amish household. Now I’d laugh if someone made that same association when I told them how I grew up, but to children their worlds fracture with every sneering comment. Some children were genuinely curious and wanted to know why I was different, but some just wanted to have fun ostracizing the odd one out.

I still remember so clearly, in the fourth grade, when I got up from my desk in the middle of class to use hand sanitizer. When I came back to sit down, the girl next to me whispered, “Damaris, I thought you were Amish? I thought hand sanitizer wasn’t allowed.”

And in as Southern of an accent as I could muster, I said, “Bless your heart.” She was serious, and I couldn’t tell if that was worse than if it was a joke.

Elementary and middle school passed slowly. I had a hard time making friends, and I tried to do so by looking like everybody else. I wanted to master the art of being a chameleon so badly. There were days I ran to the bathroom before school started just so I could put on stickers to imitate nail polish and paperclips with beads on them to mimic earrings. I’d look in the mirror and think I looked just like a Disney Channel kids show celebrity, a kid after Selena Gomez’s making. And I’d be brutally corrected when I reached class. Turns out the children didn’t enjoy the Great Value version of a Disney star.  

I watched all the girls and boys go through their typical middle school crushes, some reciprocated and some not. I, once again, tried to mimic. My, that one time I was obsessed with the kid named Finn. If you’re out there and reading this, Finn, I’m sorry. I was off my rocker crazy. I “broke up” with him on Easter weekend, and we both were so sad we couldn’t fully enjoy our Easter-themed craft in class. A true disappointment. But every time a guy would learn of my interest, they’d always state something along the lines of “Well, the skirt thing is a little too weird for my taste.”

High school flew by.  Cognitive functions start to kick in around sixteen or seventeen, so people cared less about what I looked like and more about what I talked about and acted like. People even grew to respect the skirts. I had friends that would dress up more often in skirts and dresses to support me. I even reached the age where I felt as if I had the right to ask some questions of my dad and to debate why I grew up as I did. Granted, did I win any of those debates? Not really, at that age. I don’t think I could hold my ground in an argument without tears coming to my eyes after precisely two minutes of discussion. I’d like to think that after four years of studying English in college I can formulate my thoughts a little more cohesively. I found community that would listen to what I felt like was a frivolous explanation of why my childhood left me with so many fears.

Eventually, I graduated and applied to college, and life took a 180-degree turn. My dad essentially stated I was old enough to decide whether or not I’d take his recommendations to heart and that I could dress how I’d like in college. Oh, that first week in college when I did my toenails in my college bed and bought seven pairs of pants in one run in a thrift store. It felt silly that I still got so giddy at the thought of normalcy. Now, I didn’t steamroll my dad’s beliefs or let excitement overshadow some of the valuable thinking instilled into how he raised me. I wrestled with God and my upbringing for years, fervently trying to discern the best way to present myself to the world through my clothing. However, God led my heart and illuminated that the true center of masculinity and femininity is the hearts of the individuals and how the individuals choose to live out their God-given personality. Skirts and dresses could only dictate the things about my personality that my heart let them dictate. So the real work freshman year began in my heart, but I was still so relieved about the freedom I had than about my appearance. Even now, when I walk down the halls of my university, blending in with my peers, I still thank God that I feel as if I can be judged a little more fairly, a little more non-partially by the people I interact with daily. When I wear skirts now, it’s a statement made joyfully. It’s even empowering most days to pick out a skirt or dress to wear, which will always impress me despite the jaded history I had with those items of clothing.

This all may seem a little morbid, and I don’t share to gain sympathy or pity. I’m thankful for how I grew up. Every day was an exercise in resilience, and I learned how to find friends that valued the heart rather than externals. I discovered why I believe what I believe and managed to clasp onto my faith in God while formulating a concrete opinion on why I disagreed with my father. I can sympathize with people in my religious circles that grew up in a similar way and help raise awareness for others that grew up differently. I can even laugh now at the comments I received that used to stick with me like a barb on an animal’s fur. Like when people questioned how I could possibly win a game of kickball while running in a skirt. People can’t be athletic in skirts. I felt fragile for so long, but not anymore. I’m not quite at that point of maturity where older people say, “I wouldn’t change anything about the way things happened.” But I’d like to be thankful enough for my story one day to be there myself. Hallelujah, my delicate, tissue-paper heart found strength in the loving, understanding arms of a Savior and security in time and change.