In Which Our Heroine Faces Her Uncomfortable Past

Last night, Jon and I were looking through some of his old photos, from when he was in high school, trade school, Pennsylvania, and then pre- and post-India trip. He was the same Jon I know now–but he was so different. Long hair, medium hair, short hair. Facial hair, clean-shaven, grungy. And young–so, so young. Still the same hands, but so lanky, with that awful 90’s haircut where his right “bangs” kept falling over his face (think Shawn from Boy Meets World, peers). It was strange to see the rugged, bearded, handsome man I know and love as an awkward young teenager, too much arm and leg and nose (but oh lord, how he grew into his nose. Seriously–so patrician it’s art.)

The man I know now is SO different than the boy I saw in those pictures. This is going to sound horrible and mean, but, the thought crossed my mind that I wouldn’t have liked Jon if I had known him in high school. He looked like a punk! Plus, he was super cute–part of me resents him being so good-looking throughout the terrifying years of pubescence, despite all the awkwardness. But he was surrounded by so many girls (yes, that’s a bit of jealousy) AND boys. Obviously he was well-liked. Or maybe that’s it–despite the grace & athleticism with which he moves now, it’s difficult to imagine him coming from such awkwardness.

And though I try to keep my jealousy at bay, and though I remind myself that of course he dated other girls before me, it was hard to see pictures of previous girlfriends. I don’t want him to have ever had feelings for anyone but me. Even if I wouldn’t have returned those feelings 12 years ago.

But it isn’t fair to hold those things against him. It isn’t fair to the man today to judge him for who he used to be. He isn’t a punk–he’s his own man and makes his own decisions. He is strong and thoughtful and witty and impressive and challenging and logical and I love him. And if we’re being fair, he probably wouldn’t have liked me much either. I was dramatic, weird, and had a horrible sense of fashion (I’m remembering my chunky-heeled slip on boots, SHUDDER). I was snobby and condescending, smug in my intellectual superiority (which, upon reflection, wasn’t really that superior) and I tried way too hard to be cool.

I had a conversation with my boss last week about what I would say to my younger self if I could (and then she sent me to this site, which is FULL of letters to our younger selves). I remembered the years I spent from 7th-11th, and it was so painful to think about. I know it’s a difficult time for everyone, and it isn’t that I had an especially difficult or dangerous experience. Nothing was seriously wrong in my life, but if I could characterize my pubescence in a few words, it would be “excruciating embarrassment”. Seriously–I can really only remember the feeling of terror when I consider the first days of school, conversing with my peers, or trying out for anything. 

Peppered throughout my past is that feeling of just wanting to fit in–of wanting to belong. I wanted to be able to show people who I was without feeling ridiculous and vulnerable. I’m sure some of this stems from being a military brat and moving constantly, but I think part of it also stems from not knowing how to assimilate and make friends. I was minutely conscious at every moment of how I looked–not out of vanity, but because I desperately wanted people to think I was normal and belonged. Maybe that’s how everyone else felt too–maybe that whole time I just underestimated everyone else’s embarrassment, but there really was such a discomfort in my own skin. I never felt beautiful, unless I was covered in makeup, and even then there was no freedom. That’s the best way to describe it–I was constantly caged in by this feeling that I was not good enough for other people to bother talking to, or being friends with, let alone have a romantic interest in. I just wanted friends, and even when I had them, I was battling feelings of inferiority–how much fatter than everyone else am I? Is that all they’re thinking about? Do I dominate a conversation? Am I boring? Are they thinking how ugly I am? Are my clothes not fashionable? Is my hair funny-looking?

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, or being a touch dramatic. Maybe I just didn’t realize it if everyone else felt the same way. But I can recall with startling accuracy how concerned I was one day in 8th grade because my cowlick decided to stick up, just as I was beginning to talk to my crush. ALL DAY I worried people were laughing at me behind my back, when in reality, they probably didn’t give it a second glance. But it tore me up. I was so sad and stressed I wanted to go home to cry.

Or the time my “best friend” pulled out my hair in the cafeteria in front of EVERYONE in retaliation for an act she deemed hateful, but came from a good place in my heart. I remember that mortification more than anything else from that year–I honestly can’t remember any good things from that school.

It seemed like every time I would finally work up the courage to put myself out there, it would end badly. What comes to mind immediately was when I played the part of Lady Macbeth in 8th grade. I was so proud because finally I could prove that I had something to offer, that i was good at something. My mother made me the most beautiful dress and it was STUNNING. And then Lord Macbeth looked down the front of it at my budding breasts in front of the whole school and everyone BUT me noticed. Instead of remarking on how great I did, or how cool my British accent was (and it was legit, lads), or even how I remembered ALL THOSE LINES in Shakespearean English, I was teased for my breasts. If that won’t shut a girl down, I can’t imagine what would.

I am so sad for that girl I used to be. I feel like she missed out on so much because she was trying desperately not to stand out, because she just wanted to fit in. I wish I could tell her that it ends up being so. good. That we become the person I did and didn’t want to be. That nobody really cared anyway, and that even if they were just there judging the only opinion that matters is my own. I’m not saying black-rimmed eyes or white eyeliner or ADIDAS visors were a good idea–I just wish I would have owned it. I know it’s a wish as old as time, but if I only knew then what I know now, I would have been so much happier. I wish I would have taken the classes I wanted to take, eaten the food that was best for me, and listened to the music I really wanted to listen to. I wish I had told some people to kiss my ass, and that I had pursued relationships with those I found interesting. I did that, later, but I just wish I had done it sooner.

I can’t totally discount that girl–she made me the woman I am today. Because of her and her crippling awkwardness, I excelled in school. Introspection is great for figuring out what you really want in life, and the best way to go about it. Being an outsider showed me who everyone else was, and what kind of person I didn’t want to be. It took me years to accept that I would always be a little bit different than everyone else. Not in the cool way everyone’s going for these days, but rather in the slightly-off-step-and-always-stumbling way.

I still find myself cringing at things coming out of my mouth, when I think “STOP TALKING. Why are you still talking?? SHUT IT”. I wonder why I wore those pants when they are so obviously wrong for me, or why I continue to eat the cookie I don’t even want. I think that’s the point of growing up, though.It’s recognizing that hindsight is 20/20, and we are NEVER going to be as cool, elegant, beautiful, skinny, hardcore or (insert noun here) as we want to be. There will always be someone better at it than us, and there will always be something we will wish we had done differently. It’s how you handle the moment you’re in, and later recognizing the worth of that moment despite its pain, that helps you to grow. 

So although I cringe at the thought of Jon seeing my old photos, I won’t be afraid to show him my goofy side now. We’ll have dance parties in the kitchen, he’ll let me beat him at wrestling, and we’ll stay up late watching Presidential returns because we want to. I will let him see me cry, and I won’t judge him when he eats his fifth slice of pie. Because we’re both grown-ups, and not those older versions of ourselves, I know it’ll be OK if he knows my tummy isn’t flat or that my feet stink after I wear my favorite flats. He’ll still be there, not judging. 

Did you like yourself in high school? What would you tell yourself if you met your younger versions?

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