It is deeply uncool to ever openly admit that you want to be cool. That’s Being Cool 101, lesson 1: never actually admit that you even think about coolness in any regard. Cool is something you are, never something you say you are and the moment you talk about being cool is the moment you, by default, become uncool. It’s a convoluted maze, but somehow it makes sense.
I’m not the first person to have been traumatized by high school. It’s almost too trite and too cliche to talk about. Everyone says high school sucked for them and I believe it. High school combines the worst of all worlds: undeveloped, yet hormonal, teenagers with absolutely no empathy or compassion for each other. This is not a good combination of things. Throw in angst and self-hatred and the mindlessness of the subject matters, you have the worst possible environment for vulnerable kids to be put into. Great job, America.
I was never going to fit in at high school. I don’t really fit in anywhere and I think most artists would feel that way, not because it’s anything to be revered or to romanticize, but artists tend to come alive in the caves of solitude, inspiration in the form of trauma and pain. I’m not idealizing the suffering artist caricature—I don’t subscribe wholly to that—but I think great art and especially great writing is born from resiliency and strength, two things that can only be truly possessed when earned. (This is also not to say I am a great writer or great artist, at least, not yet—but that’s just insecurity and years of self-doubt peeping onto the surface right now.)
High school was never going to teach me who I am insomuch as it was meant to teach me who I am not. And who I am not is a person who belongs or fits in or is readily accepted into a group mentality. I am not part of a herd nor do I ever want to be. I am not saying I’m some special millennial snowflake either—I know I am not perpetually unique by any means—but I do not adopt any group mentality or ideology fully and without gross analysis. I take bits and pieces from ideologies and somehow weave it into a belief and value system that works for me.
The thing about high school is that I never had a choice to not fit in. I think it has largely become uncool to be cool, at least the cool that was defined when I was younger, which was comprised of mostly blatant indifference and irony that was never quite funny or profound. The early 90s were not a hopeful, passionate time. They were roughly 3% below surface level, at best and, at worst, were simply a throwaway decade filled with novelty and the unfortunate birth of pop culture giving reverence to vanity over talent. The 90s were, from what I can see, the birth of kitsch and a great deal of importance put on brand, appearance, and the surface version of a person. I think we are all still undoing the 90s in some form.
There is a significant distinction between eschewing the norm and choosing to not conform versus being forced to be okay with not fitting in. The difference is in that sense of choice. When you can make a decision to deviate yourself from what is expected of you. The people who get that choice are the ones who were already fitting in, who were already accepted.
However, when you’re a bit overweight and awkward and without the confidence necessary to make these two things work in your favor—because, high school—then you have to adapt, instead of choose. I still get caught up in that distinction. Rejection from others and from yourself when you’re young and vulnerable is something that is very difficult to untangle once you’re older and can fully see how that rejection still dictates little beliefs and behaviors in your daily life. For me, there is still this open wound of rejection that I can’t seem to make mean something more than: I was less than others. That’s the kind of belief that follows you, that whispers in your ear when you’re experiencing success or happiness or love, all things that you believed you were incapable of receiving.
I still have those immature thoughts clanking around in my mind, causing me to question myself and everything I’ve earned or attracted into my life. I still feel like that teenage girl who wasn’t invited to the parties or asked on a date or really even noticed at all, not much, not really. And, maybe that’s the rub of it, that I felt largely invisible and unremarkable. I wasn’t bullied and I am grateful for that, but trauma has a way of making you rise, giving you a strength that you really, deeply needed to fight for. I was just there.
I wasn’t invited to anything, not because people were malicious toward me, but probably because no one thought to do so. I wasn’t asked on dates, perhaps because of my weight, but probably due to the fact that I just wasn’t interesting or pretty enough to stick out in someone’s mind. Maybe what I keep fighting against is that I think I was branded as so painfully average and mediocre that I wasn’t even significant enough to be loved or hated, revered or despised. There were no rumors about me, not because I was lucky, but because I was boring and uninteresting. And, that’s the kind of dull buzz that follows you. You can’t shake it, because sometimes—on lonely nights—it seems like they were so right, all of them, to ignore me.
When you do experience such a profound feeling of rejection when you’re young, the stakes of your everyday life become much higher. Every small perceived rejection feels as fresh as the first one and every success or win, every new friend, every person who finds you attractive, every time you experience your own significance, feels like a lifeline. I’m constantly looking for evidence to prove that teenager self wrong or right and it’s predictably fucking exhausting. I want to set fire to this entire post, but that probably means I need to publish it, because all personal writing should be uncomfortable. All of it should feel like it’s exposing parts of you that you never want anyone to know. Because those are the parts that bind us. We are bound more by our wounds than our triumphs.
Plus, it feels good to get this laid down in the form of words, to really see how this all looks and feels out of the dark of my mind.
Through writing this, I have learned something about myself. It is my fear of insignificance that has both motivated and unmotivated me since I was a teenager. It’s strange how that can happen, that a latent and painful belief can be both your doing and undoing, your becoming and unbecoming. On the one hand, the belief that I am insignificant propels me to prove myself wrong and gives me the energy to rise. Of course, on the other hand to finally have that precious piece of evidence that proves my own insignificance would likely sink me and it has many times before.
The same nugget of a belief that has cradled me for over a decade is both the devil and angel on my shoulder and, if it wasn’t so tiring and sad, it would be almost poetic. Because, in either direction, I am still looking for something outside of myself to tell me I am okay and worthy and important. Not important in the sense that I am unique or special or someone to be revered or admired, but important enough to give my voice, my work, my space, my love, and my friendship without the constant worry that it will be rejected or—perhaps, worse—ignored entirely.
I’m not sure if all wounds can heal entirely. I think some are lived with and accommodated, a life built around a tumor. Sometimes you have to give up the fight to rid yourself of a belief and just find a way to live with it, to use it to your favor. I may never believe in my own significance to the extent that I desire, but perhaps I’ll never need to. Maybe it’s not as important as I think, to be considered important by others. It may have been a ridiculous quest in the first place—to look to others to give my life meaning and importance.
I know, in this life, that we all come away a bit beaten. There’s a reason we romanticize our scars: we earned them, they have stories attached to them. Maybe the answer isn’t to wipe away ourselves clean from any past failures, pain, rejections, or trauma, but instead to grow around them, to do what we can to minimize the role they play in our lives and to ultimately look to them with reverence and graciousness for whatever we had to do to overcome them. Because, the real triumph isn’t in the forgetting of these past wounds, but in the afterglow of overcoming them, however messy or strange or twisted the process. This is a process that cannot be gleaned over. It must be fought. It requires strength of self you have to create on the spot, with no evidence in your past to prove you have the fortitude to do so.
Maybe that’s why we have wounds—to persevere beyond them. It’s a nice thought, but it might not be right. I may just be saying all this to minimize my own pain somehow, to make sense of that insignificance I felt for so long. Perhaps that’s what we’re all doing, just minimizing the pain each day in whatever form we can. It sounds sad and a little bitter, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s beautiful. Maybe it’s the whole point.