Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Weird Ones

Photo from an Alice-in-Wonderland Halloween party at Katy's house. I'm the doormouse in the back.

I read a lot of memoirs where the writers talk about being the "good kids" in school, looking askance or with outright fear at those punk kids outside smoking. They talk about being afraid of the goth kids in their dark eyeliner and darker clothes clustered around someone's locker in the hallway. They were intimidated by the oddballs who never spoke in class or the other oddballs who spoke too much.

They pull their backpacks closer and hurry by, in the books and the movies, and sometimes those weird kids stop to look at them and sometimes they don't. There's always this sense that there is some deep danger inherent in eye contact, that those oddball rejects will cause some kind of trouble if one of the good kids looks them in the face.

It's kind of funny, I think, because of how jarring it is to me to read those things; they're kind of high school cliches, aren't they? This idea that the kid in nice, sensible tennis shoes and a T-shirt would be afraid of the guy with the safety-pin stuck through his nose. It's been the cliche in a thousand movies and books.

We take these things for granted; it's a shorthand way for the writer to say, I was normal in high school, so very normal that I was scared of those who were not normal like me.  I was average. I did not stand out. I was normal, when compared to those who were not.

We all know how it feels, or I should say most of us do, to stand slightly off to the side; intimidated, sure and certain that we do not stand out, and they do. That those kids with blue hair and mohawks and piercings must be supremely confident and sure of themselves, standing on their own solid ground.

If I ever wrote a memoir dealing with high school, it'd have to be a little bit different.

I'd have to start with, I was one of those punks you were all so afraid of.

Well... sort of.

 Prom. Aw, we're so cute. I'm... the one with the hair in the back.

I wore studded belts and chokers, sure; spiked when I thought I could sneak it without our Dean of Students noticing. My eyeliner was caked on so thick I had raccoon eyes, drew little swirly designs with it like Death from the Sandman series. I wore men's blue plaid pants with zippers sewn at random all over them and straps hanging down my legs, Sex Pistols T-shirts I bought in size Youth Large so they'd be fitted. I bought clothes at thrift stores and cut sleeves off the shirts so I could wear a men's button-up as a vest, wore thrift-store suitjackets like eighties armor. My favorite pair of shoes I've ever owned in the whole history of my life was a pair of black boots absolutely coated in buckles, knee-high leather, with a five-inch platform; they were a gift from my then-boyfriend's older sister after a horrible car accident made them impossible for her to wear.

I dated boys with blue hair, tall natural-blonds who wore lots of black and listened to heavy metal music (well, so did I, but still). One of my exes, still a good friend later, pierced his own ear with a safety pin while we sat in our school's theater waiting for after-school play practice to start. He "sterilized" the pin by holding it over a flame from his lighter. I was endlessly impressed when he barely flinched.

We were the lurkers in the hallway. Teachers assumed when something bad happened, someone like us had done it. When there was a trouble kid, it was never those good kids in their T-shirts they looked at first, it was someone like us. There was an endless bafflement among adults because half our group of friends was made of those kids in the T-shirts and sensible shoes, and the rest of us wore safety pin necklaces and black eyeliner and sarcasm. 

We knew we looked like trouble to the grown-ups; they never made any secret of assuming we were. Some of us even decided that if the assumption was going to be made, we might as well live up to it.

Technically, this is move-in day at college. But I'm wearing the punk pants. So there you go.

We - are at least some of us  - were those kids in the movies and the books, the ones used as backdrop scenery to show, not tell, the main character's discomfort, to put him or her on the outside of a cloistered circle. Maybe I didn't smoke, but some of my friends did, and sometimes I stood outside with them. Sometimes we watched other kids hurry past, shoulders tensed against some kind of assumption that we would mess with them.

We were those weird kids.

But we were also good kids.

We read lots of books. I spent almost all of my high school career driving a truck borrowed from my family's farm, a blue-and-white Ford with keychains of Belle and Animal from the Muppets swinging and chiming; when Dad needed to use the truck, he would take it back and have to change the station from the heavy metal rock station to the country he preferred. The cheerleaders and football teams got drunk on the weekend, while we ate popcorn and chips and drank pop and watched movies at someone's house.

My mother and father knew where I was all the time, and that was true for the vast majority of every single one of us, whenever we were together. Our parents knew where we were, knew who we were with. My parents trusted me; I was treated like someone who had already earned their trust, and in turn I made sure they had no reason to ever take it back.

I am the queen of leaving detailed notes with phone numbers, addresses, names, and timelines. I started doing that in middle school, and I've never stopped. 

I'm not saying I was a saint; trust me, high school is way more fun when you're not. I'm pretty sure saints don't swear like roughneck sailors, and I picked that up around age 12 and never quite managed to stop. I'm not saying that we were angels; some of those same friends I trusted with my life were the bane of every teacher's existence, were kicked out or suspended for one thing or another. But when it came to each other, we were good kids. 

It's just... sort of hilarious, to me, to read writers constantly using this memory of the scary kids with black clothes and punk hair and piercings, all aloof and cool and rebellious, looking down from on high at the main character's awkwardness. Confident and serene.

It's funny because we were uncomfortable, too. High school is discomfort and sometimes agony personified for so many of us; those who swan effortlessly through are the rare exception to the rule. We were uncomfortable, too. We had, mostly, been treated shabbily by peers when we were younger and had developed who we were as a response. Sometimes home wasn't great, sometimes it was; many of us had been dealing with bullying and hostility for years. We developed our own code.

Anyone who knew what to look for could look at us and know.

We are not normal, and we don't want to be. You can come be not-normal with us. We are not average; we know that because we have been told over and over and in a thousand ways by adults and other kids that we do not belong, that we are lacking, that we are not good enough for them. So here; take one good long look, and see how we don't belong. We didn't want them or their approval, anyway.

We had, for the most part, been branded as odd or different or unacceptable in some way by our peers long before the black clothes, eyeliner, the swearing, or the apparently unacceptable music came into play. I've written about my worst teachers before; I think a lot of what formed who I was in middle school and who I became in high school was my developing a personality that could stand as a defense against those upcoming teachers or the other kids before they could even get in the first blow. It was more than just me that had been targeted young. We had, as a group, been put outside the "good kids" long before there was any reason to do so, and we decided to make that who we were.

It was never a surprise to us to see the kids in the sensible shoes scurry by without making eye contact; we were wearing our armor for a reason, for exactly that reason. Because they would scurry, while we pretended to be confident and aloof. We had each other, and the cool and standoffish look was all the other kids would ever see.

I was one of those kids that you were so afraid of, memoir writers.

We were good kids, too.

I just wish that we had all stopped to talk once or twice.


  1. I loved reading this! Very insightful to the teenage experience :) It really made me reflect on my own high school experience, and now I want to write a mini memoir too, LOL.

    It's funny, because my friends and I wore a completely different type of armor, but for the exact same reason. Crazy to think how alike we high schoolers all were way back when, even though we were so divided...

    1. Yeah, I think it's something you're just functionally incapable of seeing until you're out and in the world, I think; how deeply alike everyone really was.

    2. Also, thank you so so much for reading and commenting! :) you made my night


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