I’m almost 40 years old, and I’ve finally come to accept a basic fact about my life. I’ll never be cool in high school.
I’m never going to be on homecoming court. I’ll never be voted prom queen. I won’t give the valedictorian speech at the commencement ceremony. More to the point, no one will even tell me about the party at Dave’s house when his parents are out of town. It simply wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind to invite the awkward, brainy, prudish girl who dances all the time and doesn’t drink or smoke.
Now, it’s only fair for me to acknowledge the fact that I had a very close group of friends in high school – smart, beautiful, athletic, talented, hilarious friends that were always up for a round of Euchre, a cruise down Westnedge or an evening at the bowling alley. My girlfriends and I would giggle and call in to radio stations to request “Loser,” by Beck, in honor of the latest guy that broke one of our hearts. We all attended prom (and obviously hit the bowling alley afterward) and we held hands in solidarity during our walk to get our diplomas. I had several friends that were very cool, indeed. I just wasn’t cool. I tried very hard to fit in with my friends, but I always felt like a tiny part of me was holding back; like I had to pretend, sometimes, a little bit. Maybe that part was built for self-preservation. Maybe I felt like I had to put on a show, because something about me wasn’t “cool enough.”
I can even pinpoint exactly when I started thinking I wasn’t cool enough.
“I’ve decided who I want to be friends with now.” My best friend (who I will call Tinkerbell) stated this during a sleepover at her house shortly after our freshman year began. “Bambi and Barbie and Candy and Kroll and Captain. OhmyGodheissocute! And they are so cool. So I’m going to have to change who I sit with in the cafeteria. And I can’t go to your house.”
I was confused, and more than a little taken aback. “You can’t go to my house … to hang out? Do you mean, this weekend? Did we make plans?”
Tinkerbell sighed dramatically and looked at the ceiling. “No, we didn’t make plans. I don’t know when we can hang out again – I’m going to be pretty busy. High school is just different, you know?”
Tinkerbell went on to talk about the new clothes and lipstick she had to go buy, like, tomorrow, so she could look cool and fit in with the popular kids and all I could do was sit dumbfounded in the dark and wonder, “Did my best friend just tell me she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore because I’m not cool enough?”
I had been pretty oblivious up until that moment that I wasn’t cool. I thought I was on my way there, if I wasn’t there already. Now, my best (?) friend was telling me she didn’t want to hang out anymore because I was holding her back from being a popular girl and hanging with the cool kids.
I was a different girl walking out of Tinkerbell’s front door the next morning. I was more guarded, and more aware of what the world thought of me. I was a deflated balloon. In the course of one sleepover, I realized that I wasn’t cool, and that I’d have to do a lot of work – and a lot of pretending – to be accepted. Tinkerbell just needed new clothes and lipstick. I needed a whole new personality.
Time went on, as time does. Tinkerbell went on to don a tiara and ride on the Homecoming float, and I helped decorate the float she rode on. I let Tinkerbell go. I tried on various groups of friends until I found one that fit me. Together, we danced on sawdust-covered gym floors and made tie-dyed t-shirts and drove by our crushes’ houses a few dozen times. Somewhere along the line I forgot to pretend to be cool and learned instead to be me – but I never forgot Tinkerbell’s words.
I could have let those thoughtless words from an equally insecure and still-developing teenaged peer change me in a different way. I could have decided to try with all my might to win back Tinkerbell’s affection and friendship. I could have dressed the part with more Guess jeans, or acted the part by ridiculing the geeky kids and drinking beer behind the bleachers on Friday nights.
I could have pretended harder. But I didn’t. Pretending to be cool wouldn’t have even mattered. I found my people, and they liked the real me.
There was always a part of me who wanted to be cool in high school. I wanted to be popular and admired. Instead, I was accepted and appreciated for the quirky, slightly geeky, quiet but sweet girl that I actually was.
We can all pretend that high school is over, but I’ve found that real life looks an awfully lot like high school. Today, I face very similar choices. Do I want to be cool, or do I want to be warm-hearted and compassionate? Do I want others’ envy and jealousy, or their love? Do I want to be admired by my peers, or accepted by them?
I know my answer. I’ll take acceptance over admiration any day. If it means being open and vulnerable, that’s fine. I don’t have to pretend for my people. They’ll like me just as I am, because I am one of them. That’s as true today as it was in 1995.
I’ll never be cool in high school. And oh boy, am I glad for that.