On Adolescence

Dear Annie,

An offhanded comment I made about the teenage me a few posts back got me thinking. What were YOU like in high school, Annie? I’ll tell you what I was like, or at least what I remember myself being like.

I was not the kind of teenage daughter you worried about. I got good grades and, essentially, I was too scared to do anything bad. I never had detention. Like, EVER, in my life. My mom used to sometimes say, “God gotcha,” when something bad happened when I was a child, and it really stuck with me. (Incidentally, our good friend Ryan’s mom used to say, “That’s God punishing you,” same sentiment, however, he heard it, “That’s God punching you,” which I love most of all.)

That said, I was not the kind of teenage daughter who was pleasant to be around, either. I was quiet and moody most of the time, especially when I was at home. I was endlessly embarrassed by my parents and by myself. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t a pariah either — one of those kids who’s just sort of “there.” I imagine I went unnoticed at school most of the time, but that didn’t stop me from being hyper-critical of myself. I know it’s a “teenager thing,” but I felt like there was an invisible audience of people watching me and judging me, especially when I did something stupid (like trying out fake tanning lotion in May and forgetting to wash my hands afterward, thereby prompting me to wear long sleeves pulled over my hands for a week, yes, even while playing softball in gym class). I probably didn’t ACTUALLY do that many stupid things, but I felt like I did.

I think the biggest problem I had in high school was being largely untalented and relentlessly mediocre. I took dance classes, but I wasn’t particularly graceful. I got good grades, but I never got the BEST grade or won any academic contests. I tried to run track and gave up. I tried out for the tennis team and didn’t make it. I was moderately interested in sports, but terrified to join any “team” I might let down. I wanted to be popular (Does EVERY not popular kid want this, or are there really kids who don’t care?), but I had no idea how to do it, and even if I had, I was too shy to try. My main tactic seemed to be not to date anyone who was not popular, which essentially ended up with me dating NO ONE until I got a boyfriend who went to another school my senior year.

One thing I excelled at was reading. I was a voracious reader — I had read a LOT of books about the glamorous world of teenagers. I had been a promising elementary schooler, and I knew that adolescence in America was supposed to come with…MORE.

And yeah, I had friends. I laughed. I considered myself quite fashionable, pairing dresses with long johns and fake Doc Martens (it was the NINETIES!) and listening to a lot of alternative music. Hey! I was the co-music director of our high-school radio station! I knew bands no one had heard of! At the end of my senior year, I lost my virginity to a Pearl Jam album TWO WEEKS BEFORE IT CAME OUT. I had SOME stuff going for me…

…what did you have going for you?

Love,
Amy

Dear Amy,

I have a feeling that there’s a gap between what I remember myself being like and what I was actually like.  This gap may also differ in scope depending on who you talk to: my parents, my girl friends, my dude friends, teachers I liked, teachers I didn’t like, classmates who didn’t know me, kids I knew from church, etc.  I do recall that perception was then, as now, very important to me.  I was always concerned or at least curious about what everyone thought of me and always very, very AWARE of my surroundings.  Because of this I think that by the end of my adolescence I had strengthened an inherent but dormant adaptability into a personality.  The intermittent time, however, was full of growing pains.

I believe that I was very awkward and internal for a time, and gradually grew out of it as I got older and more comfortable with myself and my place in the weird social flow of my high school.  I remained internal, but I learned also how to be social and pull out of myself the interesting and funny parts.

By the time I got to my senior year, people who I never spoke to would ask me if I knew where they could get drugs.  This baffled and delighted me, as I had almost zero experience with drugs of any kind.  I like to think that it was because I projected an aura of rebellion and awesomeness, and also, like you, listened to TONS of Pearl Jam.

 

THESE GUYS.

I suppose I was and have always been rebellious, though as a kid and teenager I would classify it much more as an intellectual rebellion than your more dramatic James Dean/Holden Caulfield kind of stuff.  I was a pretty good kid, I mostly followed the rules as long as they made sense to me.  When they didn’t, I questioned them.  This had a polarizing effect on the adult figures in my life: either they found it to be a sign of intelligence and something to be nurtured OR they got upset and told me I had an “attitude problem”.  “Attitude problem” was a phrase that followed me around a lot.  It annoyed the shit out of me. I never understood it.  I mean, I guess I understood that it was considered rather bratty to talk back, but I never understood why this should be so.  I thought it was idiotic to expect children to blindly follow adult’s dictums while simultaneously being told to think for ourselves.  Eventually this got me kicked out of Sunday School, which was fine by me as I had been looking for an excuse to stop going.

Perhaps because of my odd seriousness about myself and habit of back-sassing I ended up forming these half-mentorship/half- friendships with several adults, mostly men.  It seems like a very charged thing to say now in this age of suspicion and protection and highly sexualized teenagers, but back then it seemed totally reasonable to me.  I would get bored during a free period, or waiting around in between rehearsals for whatever play I was in at the time, and I would go hang out with a teacher I liked.  It was not uncommon to find me down by the cafeteria playing cards with my photography teacher or in the music room talking about guitars with our glee club director.  They were chill as hell and they challenged me and never made me feel like I was anything other than a peer.  I’m still Facebook friends with my high school math tutor, who at the time I found unassailably cool because he was IN A BAND and because he admitted to me that he wasn’t actually all that great at math either.

This is not to say I didn’t have friends my own age.  I did.  We were a bunch of creative nerds.  We would write self-indulgent musicals and fan fiction about ourselves.  We would play D&D until we couldn’t stay awake.  We would conceive and produce theatrical undertakings on a shoestring.  We wrote and filmed comedy skits.  We dated, broke up and paired off again in different formations.  We talked about a future time when we would all live in a giant house together, and made sketches of where our rooms would be.  My friend Jordan and I used to pass notes to each other using the Greek Alphabet.

When all is laid out and examined,  it’s hard for me to think of myself as “like” anything when I was a teenager.  I was such a strange morphing creature that I barely knew who I was from day to day.  I can only imagine what other people must have seen, this self-involved frowning kid reading in the hallway with her hair in her face who also could be found loudly singing show tunes with her friends outside of the cafeteria, or this quiz bowl team nerd who volunteered as a lab assistant and aced every English class but almost failed Geometry and had to meet with a tutor twice a week, or this frumpy girl who didn’t care to use makeup and never brushed her hair but got invited to prom three years in a row.  

Hmm.  I think I actually may have been a lot cooler than I gave myself credit for.

love,
Annie

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7 thoughts on “On Adolescence

  1. Kathy says:

    “I tried to run track and gave it up” is EXACTLY what I did in 10th grade. Add the moodiness and love of reading (and my long-johns-and-doc-martens phase was after college on account of I’m older than you) and we both had red hair… I am starting to think we are the same person.

  2. Kate says:

    Annie, you were sardonic in high school…that half heard comment with the slight smirk that let people know that you found something funny. I am just glad I didn’t peak in high school. How sad would that be?

  3. Maria says:

    Fuck, Annie. Were we separated at birth?

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