I'm not one of those people whose favorite time of life was high school.
Yes, there are those people. I've met them. At forty, they are still able to make me feel fundamentally certain that I am not part of the Popular Crowd.
Early in high school, I was the bespectacled, quiet, geeky kid who did better than most people on most tests and didn't get into any trouble. Later in high school, I was the contact-wearing, quiet, geeky kid who did better than most people on most tests and didn't get into any trouble.
I had friends, but they were a small circle.
Okay, "they" were one person. "They" were my best and dearest friend, who has gotten me through every heartbreak and triumph of the last thirty years. She was the kind of bubbly, out-going, hilarious, hip, and small-enough-to-be-carried-around-by-joking-boys girl that I wanted to be. She had a million friends. By extension, because she and I were dubbed Siamee I and Siamee II since we were never apart, I had a million friends-ish. "Ish" because while I was went to most of the parties, I knew that had it not been for her, I would have been welcome at none.
High school wasn't awful. I wasn't tortured or a loner or a screw-up. I was captain of this and editor of that and had big parts in all the school plays. (Perhaps I can act; perhaps it's just that my mother is a professional seamstress who will donate untold hours of sewing to her daughter's high school drama club if they are putting on Pride and Prejudice--which contains five daughters, a friend, and two mothers, all of whom appear in five acts and need different dresses in each--and they have a $100 budget for costumes.) I had great days--days when my brush curling iron produced perfect wings in my hair, and I rocked two layered pairs of different colored socks and three giant mis-matched hoop earrings (obviously only my left ear was double-pierced). And I had terrible days--days when I described my favorite animal in two words in creative writing class ("huge and graceful," as whales are) and everyone laughed at me when we had to read the words aloud after being told that they described how we secretly saw ourselves.
High school wasn't awful. But it wasn't the best time of my life either.
There were long afternoons lying drowsily on the bottle-green carpet in my attic bedroom, chin resting on my fists, listening to Madonna's "Crazy for You" over and over and thinking despairingly of The Boy in art class who never showed interest in me.
There were countless moments that seemed to me to prove that I lived on the fringes of the high school world. The Ecology Club camp-out where I had to sleep in an Army Surplus sleeping bag instead of a North Face one, and I was the only camper in our squirrel's nest platform not to sneak out--or even to be invited to sneak out--to drink rum and cokes in the woods...the Junior Prom for which I had no date...the less tangible but no less certain sense that I was not "in," discernible in all those subtle-but-powerful ways that fifteen-year-olds have of constantly, inexorably reinforcing the pecking order.
The ache and the longing of teenage-hood surrounded me. I wanted to be more, to feel different. To feel beloved. Witty. Pretty. Confident.
In short, I was as insecure as everyone else, only without the mask of real Izod shirts and orange base makeup precisely following my jawline to suggest smug confidence.
Of course, there were suggestions that life promised more. Such as the day in the middle of sixth period when I ran into Kirk in the otherwise silent hall, and this macho, velvet-voiced star of the gospel choir stopped me dead in my tracks by unabashedly looking me up and down and then asking, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No," I managed to whisper back, heart pounding, half dreading whatever was coming next.
He gave his head a short, sorrowful shake. "Man," he breathed, turning the word into a swear, "the white boys at Decatur sure are stupid."
And then he kept walking, surely unaware how completely stunned I was by the sentence that had burst out of him. Unaware that no one, ever, had given me a compliment so raw and genuine as that. Both of us ignorant of the fact that twenty-five years later, I would remember that moment as if it had happened yesterday, and that his appraisal was somehow profound in its ability to begin a shift in my sense of self.
Moments such as that--moments when we can pinpoint a sea-change--are rare, indeed. It is stunning thus to see ourselves through another's eyes and suddenly feel the power of honesty, instead of all the uncertainty and cliques and media-induced self-deprecation and the rest of the baggage that we learn to carry around with us from a very early age. With a flash of clarity, we see that being Being Popular is not as satisfying as knowing ourselves for whom we truly are. And even if we do not manage to embrace this as a permanent truth, even if we drop into the self-doubt and longing and angst of being sixteen again (which we will, probably at 16 and 26 and 36 and beyond), those moments are etched indelibly within us and gently help to propel us forward through dark days.
It must be said, however, that these moments are not the sum total of high school. In fact, they are in many ways the antithesis of high school. Their unexpected flash may glow fleetingly, occasionally, during those years, but hardly in a sufficient sum to make high school the best of one's days.
I don't care how Popular you were. There is far too much worry...about zits and brand names and who saw you talking to whom during the halftime show and who would give you a ride home and whether your mom was the only one uncool enough to insist you get home at midnight from the seniors' graduation party when you were a junior and a thousand other things...to make high school the best of life.
And yet, despite the lack of confidence and the longing and the feeling of being not-quite-whole without knowing why, high school--even high school boys, who have a notoriously bad rap for lack of emotional maturity--can provide moments that are breath-taking in their ability to show you the future, if only you are wise enough to see it.
I looked into my old yearbooks recently, and I found an upside-down note from Joe. It contained the lines, "You are a very attractive, intelligent, good girl. You'll see." At the time, I have no idea what I thought that meant. I don't even remember reading it. But now, with the wisdom of retrospect, I know that Joe saw what I did not: that my lack of confidence was hampering me, that if I could only give myself a few years, and grow into college where the boys were a little less emotionally stupid, I might find that my brand of quiet was attractive to some. That all it would take was time for me to become the person I wanted to be. And that, for the moment, I desperately needed someone to notice me for who I already was. I was awestruck a few weeks ago when I read those sentences. Who knew a high school boy could be so perceptive?
I am still fundamentally certain that I am not part of the Popular Crowd. I know women whose glances and mannerisms remind me of that pecking-order fact every time I run into them at elementary school functions with our children. Though I did not know them in high school, I know they were the Popular Crowd back then.
And they know I was not.
But the thing I am happy to have realized is that, unlike them, I have no desire to relive high school--its great moments or its angst. I no longer wish I were the sort of bubbly, petite girl that joking boys could pick up and carry around on the grassy hillside at lunch. I am not her (though she is wonderful). I am instead someone who was--like most of us in high school--unable to see what I might become.
Now that I am forty, and I find myself actually becoming some of that, I am deeply grateful. Grateful that high school is over. And grateful that there are Kirks and Joes in the world, boys who are wiser than their years, who will help prop up the quiet, insecure girls in ways the girls themselves do not even clearly understand at the time.
I wish I knew where either one of them were today. I would like to tell them thank you. And that I finally see.
And that I hope my son offers up a sentence or two to a high school girl one day to let her know that someone truly sees her.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
I'm not one of those people whose favorite time of life was high school.