“In adolescents, the need to break away from the past is as powerful as the drive to reproduce the species.” –Joyce Carol Oates, “What Sin to Me Unknown”
I’ve been itching to write about high school and friendship because the signs that say: This. Essay. Needs. To. Happen. Seem to be cropping up everywhere—Poems written by Thirteen-Year-Old-Me have surfaced. Last year, a childhood friend simultaneously complimented and insulted me. A few months ago, the guy I pined for my entire freshman year pulled my hair. This time last week, a bitch waved at me…See, I’ve been avoiding this topic because I know it’s going to get ugly—as dealings of the teenage heart often do—and I don’t want to offend anyone. I don’t want to rehash old wounds and put a damper on anyone’s newfound “maturity”. I want to be what the real housewives call the “bigger” person. I want to rationalize everyone’s shitty behavior and say: It probably wasn’t as bad as I remembered. *phony laughter* We’re so grown up now! Let’s talk like we’re 40 even though we’re actually 23! Let’s pretend like high school wasn’t five minutes ago! *rainbows, butterflies, poop emoji*
But then I came across that poem written by Thirteen-Year-Old-Me, titled, “Mom, I’m Fine. Just Leave Alone in My Room to Die.” and I had a rude awakening—it was definitely as bad as I remembered.
The poem was about being alone in my room on a Friday night while everyone else was accumulating the inside jokes that would eventually decorate their AIM profiles and leave me with that nauseating “left out” feeling. At first, Now-Me found the whole thing hilarious. Like: That title is melodramatic as fuck and those closing lines are just tragic. (I wish I was joking, but the closing lines went: “Lie on my bedroom floor / sing to the cat / yeah my life is basically kind of like that.”) However, after laughing, I got this horrible sinking feeling for Thirteen-Year-Old-Me because Now-Me realized that her memories of being left out were real—the evidence was in my hands, straight from the shitty poem writing horse’s pen, circa 2005.
I shoved the notebook back into the dusty bookshelf from whence it came and tried to forget about it.
But I couldn’t forget about it.
All I could think about was high school and friendship and that “left out” shit—imaginary social divisions and random acts of teenage cruelty. Then all these unwanted interactions with people I hoped I would never see again happened, and I thought about it all even more: Leaving dances early, switching lunch tables, faking sick four times a month, loyalty as an endangered principle, critical thinking as the greatest threat, frequency of text messages as validation, everyone deriving false confidence from the misguided certainty that they know more about you than you…I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s newfound “maturity” but I’m going to.
I’m going to write about high school and friendship. I’m going to rehash old wounds, and if that makes me the “lesser” person, so be it. I don’t care. The number one rule for writing personal essays—don’t be the hero—says I should be the lesser person anyway. So fuck it. This is my chance to be the exact opposite of the hero, the anti-hero. I’m the Walter White of this essay and I don’t care because what I’m really trying to say is: I don’t forgive you.
“You’re really pretty now.” Someone I knew from high school said that shit to my face. And. I. Just. Froze. Like: Excuse me? Now? It’s the kind of compliment that leaves you feeling mugged. One that brings back all the insecurity you felt in the years leading up to it. You ask yourself: If what she said is supposed to be nice then why do I feel like punching her in the face? Oh, because it was actually a really rude thing to say, and this person wasn’t always very nice to you—especially when it came to your appearance and clothes. That’s why.
“You’re really pretty now.”
I smile and say thank you through clenched teeth because I’m as twofaced as everyone said I was in middle school—I can’t wait to turn around and complain about this to my real friends.
Then she says something mildly surprising, “You know, I feel kind of bad whenever I see you…” I’m about to renew my faith in humanity if the next thing to come out of her mouth is an apology, but it’s not. It’s this:
“I feel kind of bad whenever I see you because everything is so different in high school. You know. There’s just this way of thinking in high school that says: This person is this way, and that person is that way…”
It’s a non-apology just like the first thing she said to me was a non-compliment. It’s saying sorry without actually saying sorry, like being nice without actually being nice. She thinks she’s leveling out the playing field. She’s saying because I was different from her in high school she was never obligated to be decent to me. She’s not saying sorry. She’s saying: That’s just the way things were. No hard feelings, right?
And. It. Makes. Me. Livid.
I resist the urge to say: No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I resist the urge to ask: Am I really pretty now? Or were you just never looking at me correctly? Have you ever considered that maybe your view of the world has always been majorly fucked up? Have you ever considered any perspective beyond your own? Maybe it’s not your place to decide what beauty is and isn’t. Maybe I don’t need to hear that you think I’m pretty now.
I resist the urge to say anything. I just smile and nod knowingly. I play dumb like I always do. We hug and she walks away with a clear conscience. I let her have that reassurance because I know something that she doesn’t know—How beautiful it is to be misunderstood. Like: Thank you for contributing to the social anxiety that has made me the steadfast, self-aware, and perceptive person that I am. I wish you well, but I don’t forgive you.
There’s an episode of HBO’s Girls where Adam takes off into the woods for an impromptu hike and in response Hannah just flops on the ground and says, “It’s really liberating to say no to shit you hate. So you go ahead. You live your truth. I’ll be here, living my truth.” I love that scene because, even though it’s just one more example of Hannah’s unwavering laziness, it emphasizes a power that everyone seems to become conscious of in their twenties: The ability to say no to shit you hate.
Want to work a double tonight? Nope. Would you like an Adderall? Not really. Want to engage in a stimulating conversation about music with hipsters? Trick question: Nah. Netflix and chill? [No response.] Are you going to wave back to that girl who was supposed to be your friend but then put your sex life on blast in her AIM profile when you were in 10th grade and, apparently, has the nerve to act like it never happened? Fuck. No.
I see you waving and all I see is, Go suck another fat kid’s dick, written in tiny black Arial font and highlighted in aqua. You’re waving at me and saying my name in a voice that’s one too many octaves above natural. Go suck another fat kid’s dick. I wasn’t a role model, and I never claimed to be one. I wasn’t some blank template for you and everyone else to project their weird ideals of virtue onto. I wasn’t even a hypocrite. Go suck another fat kid’s dick. I was a teenager, just like you—eager, impulsive, confused, human. I was a girl who didn’t deserve what happened because none of us did, or do, and you know it. Go suck another fat kid’s dick. That’s all I see when I see you.
You’re waving at me and saying my name in a voice that’s one too many octaves above natural. You’re trying to pretend like you didn’t urge anyone to ostracize me six years ago. You’re trying to pretend like we were always friends and it never made you happy to watch me fuck up—like you weren’t always rooting for me to fail.
I see you and I don’t have the energy to wave back to you, not anymore. You have to understand that there are some wounds that are too deep. Too real. A big smile and a friendly wave won’t mend them. It’s as simple as this: I’m sad because you hurt me. I’m angry because you’re trying to act like my pain and what you did to inflict it was never real. I don’t understand your sudden and aggressive acts of kindness, and I won’t respond to them.
I see you waving and I’m going to walk right past you.
It’s really liberating to say no to shit you hate.
About a week after my college graduation, I went to drink with some guy-friends from high school. The group was small and everyone there was someone that I still consider a friend—people I care about and genuinely like—with the exception of one person…
“Cat Olson?! Where the fuck have you been?”
My brain panicked as it scanned his face and gathered the details: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, 1st Asshole you ever liked, sat at your lunch table freshman year, picked apart your physical characteristics daily, once feigned affection for you just to prove you had a crush on him, constantly used you to make other girls jealous, always smelled really good; thank god his hairline’s receding…
I thought: I can do this. I can be civil. It’s okay. Just don’t smell him.
But it was not okay because twenty minutes later he pulled my hair, like full on grabbed my messy bun and tugged the shit out of it. He pulled so hard I had no choice but to lurch backward. He did it just because. Toddler’s logic, like: I see something I want to touch and not only am I going to touch it, I’m going to wreck it. And I don’t know if it was the beer, or feminism, or the infantile stupidity of his action, but like a reflex I stood up and screamed: “YOU DON’T GET TO TOUCH ME NOW!”
And the look of shock on his face somehow made me angrier, like: Doesn’t this dude understand that when you pull someone’s hair, that shit hurts? Didn’t any of us realize in high school that there are people, just as real as ourselves, on the other end of our actions—on the other end of our cell phones and computers and fingers and words? Did anyone realize this before the age of 20?! Because that look of shock on people’s faces whenever somebody gets upset has me wondering if nobody did, and some people never do.
When you pull someone’s hair, that shit hurts.
Now face it motherfucker.
I should probably say that I was severely depressed in high school—the real kind, the diagnosed kind. And I know it’s unfair to blame that on anyone, or even to say: I just wish someone had noticed. Especially when I didn’t even know I was depressed—at least not until my senior year. It’s unfair. I know it’s so unfair. And I know my anger seems so trite like: Why the fuck are you holding onto this shit? But it’s just—I really wanted and needed friends. Girlfriends. Real friends. The kind that just wanted to do dumb shit and laugh about it; the kind that said I love you and I’m sorry and were sincere.
I didn’t have that.
I didn’t have some band of girlfriends that I’d known since I was twelve validating my existence and reinforcing my every choice and opinion, or even wanting to compare schedules with me. For the most part, I took on everyday alone—my likes and dislikes, my interests, my classes, music, fashion, makeup, boys, heartbreak…I trudged and waded through all that bullshit and figured out who I was on my own.
And on some level, this is my fault: I’m a misfit who chose to be a misfit. But on another level, I also know, I was very earnest in high school—very willing to forgive and love and apologize to anyone who demonstrated some semblance of respect for me.
I have to stand my ground and say: I know I’m not perfect, but I’m a really decent person at heart.
I don’t think my memories of being mistreated are inaccurate.
I don’t think my anger is misguided.
I’m tired of rationalizing everyone else’s shitty behavior.
When I was thirteen I wrote: “There’s nothing but outdated earth behind me.” And I find it kind of hilarious, like: Who the fuck did I think I was, Thoreau? But I also find it surprising. I find it surprising that, at that age, I understood that there’s so much more to life than this—Jamestown and its weird social hierarchies, its prejudices and aversions to anything new or honest or real.
Like goddam, life isn’t high school!
Just because you’re in what everyone likes to call “dumb” classes, doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent. Just because people make snide comments about your clothes, doesn’t mean you don’t look good. Just because you’re quiet and mousey, doesn’t mean you’re not listening, that you’re not there! People can talk all they want but They. Don’t. Know. They don’t know more about you than you. If they don’t “get” you one day, that doesn’t mean they won’t absolutely want to someday. And when that day comes, don’t kill them with kindness; just totally annihilate them with the truth. You’ll be so far ahead that it won’t even matter, there’ll be nothing to lose, like: Nobody can touch me now…
Confession: I was listening to a lot of My Chemical Romance when I wrote this.
I looked up the music video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” and felt the rage. There’s just something about Gerard Way wailing I’M NOT OKAY!!!!!! in, what appears to be, a steadily increasing fever that makes you want to go back in time and walk the fuck out on every math teacher that had the nerve to publicly underestimate you. (Mr. Salvaggio, what’s good?!) I seriously think, in retrospect, that the greasy kids who shoved paper clips through their earlobes and got kicked out of class constantly were doing something right—God bless them, every single one.
But my point is: Where would all the voluntary misfit girls of the 2000’s be without My Chemical Romance’s honesty?!?! I was fourteen when Gerard Way first said, “I’m not okay,” And. It. Was. So. Vindicating. Enough of that I’m okay bullshit, I’m not okay. I’m not O-fucking-kay. You wear me ouuuuuuuuuut…He said it, and he looked it, and it was awesome. We needed that! Then MCR’s single “Sing” came out in 2010 and I realized that I’m a major sucker for artists who root for the underdog because one of the song’s lyrics are: Girl, you’ve got to be what tomorrow needs, and it’s lame, and I’m corny, but I find that shit so inspiring. Be what tomorrow needs.
The voluntary misfit girls of tomorrow don’t need our good vibes-bigger person-I’m so mature now-bullshit. They need the truth. They need what’s real, and what’s weird, and what hurts. They need all that with a little bit of hope at the end. Because when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, 17… I needed My Chemical Romance. I needed Harry Potter and Sloane Crosley and Lady Gaga and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. I needed Taylor Swift to embarrass the fuck out of John Mayer by putting his name in a song. I needed someone to be honest—I’m not okay. I’m not o-fucking-kay. These things and their creators, they were what tomorrow needed! So just:
Sing it for the boys
Sing it for the girls
Every time that you lose it sing it for the world
Sing it from the heart
Sing it til’ you’re nuts
Sing it out for the ones that’ll hate your guts
Sing it for the deaf
Sing it for the blind
Sing about everyone that you left behind…
Bottom line: If you have the guts to go above and beyond what Today expects, some people just aren’t going to understand you. Some people are even going to hate you. But that’s okay. All it means is that you’re doing something right. Like Emerson said—To be great is to be misunderstood—you’re doing what it takes to be great.
A few days ago I ran into a girl I knew from middle school and high school. This girl and I were never really friends. I mean, we just never knew each other very well. She ran with a clique that wasn’t always the nicest or most inclusive, so I could kind of feel myself approaching the conversation with a level of passive-aggression that I’m not entirely proud of. But whatever.
She was talking about how she’d studied abroad when she said something along the lines of, “You know, I was kind of nervous about going away. About being out of the loop here, for that long.”
And I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, I mean, I don’t know. I was never really in the loop, so I don’t know what it’s like to worry about that. Like, honestly, I never really felt like I fit in.”
I didn’t mean it maliciously. Of all the run-ins with people from high school that I’ve described, this was the first one where I didn’t mean for anything to be malicious. I said what I said as a matter of fact. I said it because it felt good to say.
“See,” she said, “that’s so sad.”
And in my dream-like, vodka-induced, state I could practically feel the stars aligning in my eyes as I said, “Actually, it’s not. I feel kind of lucky.” *sparkles, glitter, Britney Spears*
I just realized in that moment that this girl is nostalgic for high school in a way that I will never be, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I mean, I think I already knew this. I think I already knew I would never be nostalgic for high school because when I was in high school I was constantly nostalgic for…something more, something else:
I wish I could explain myself.
I wanted to melt into school walls
rather than shed tears on my silk dresses.
I wanted to be a part of your shiny floors
but I liked corners
and feeling nostalgic for the life of someone else.
I count on you all way too much.
I wrote that shortly after high school graduation, and it’s pretty clear that I had this dire need to get the fuck out. High school, this place, these people, it was all holding me back from something more. And weirdly, I still wanted so badly to be a part of it: I wanted to melt into school walls…I wanted to be a part of your shiny floors. But it all went completely against my nature—I liked corners, dammit! Gimme that dunce cap and I’ll rock it like a crown. This is my space now, go away. I don’t forgive you!
No. Nostalgia for high school is a nostalgia I’ll never experience because I think, in high school, I was always nostalgic for the life that I’m leading, and the person that I am, right now. I’ve got a healthy sense of humor. I dress like the bad bitch I always knew I was. I have girlfriends who I love because they like to laugh and fuck up and then laugh some more—they give no shits about what anyone thinks and they never laugh behind my back. I have a boyfriend who reads as much as I do and never makes me feel as if my eccentricities are something to be ashamed of—not even my random feminist outbursts. I might not be rich, but I’m getting by. And no matter what happens, I’m going to be fine because I’ll always have writing to come home to. I’ll always have an endless imagination to get me through dark times because, even though I know what it’s like to be hopeless and angry, even though I’m hardwired for depression, at my core there is so much joy.
HASHTAG BLESSED MOTHERBITCHES!