2005 - 2006
One time in the ’80s a first grade teacher was mean to my oldest sister. As a result all of us kids were homeschooled until we got old enough to beg our way out.
I understand that homeschooling is an essential option for some children. I don’t recommend it for anyone else.
Some parents do “homeschool groups” where their kid spends a lot of time around other kids and does field trips. My parents didn’t do that one. I begged my way out in 2005 and, based on a math assessment, ended up in ninth grade at the age of 12.
I was younger, taller, thinner, and more awkward than almost all of my classmates. It was a good thing the middle school had a library. That was the first time I had regular Internet access. When the bus dropped me off in the morning I made a beeline to the computers. I suffered through morning classes and when the lunch bell rang I ate quickly and headed back to the library, either to surf the Web again or to read. Most days I didn’t talk unless I was answering a question in class.
Two people offered to be my friend that year.
One of them sat at my table during the lunch hour, which immediately made me uncomfortable. She had a huge smile and was clearly trying her best to learn English.
“Do you have…many friends?” she asked.
“I have enough,” I lied.
“How many friends do you have?”
“I have enough.”
“Do you want to be my friend?”
And that was pretty much it. I had successfully conned myself out of having even one single friend. I think my rationale was if I brush her off I’ll be able to get out of this conversation sooner and hopefully never have another conversation ever again.
So, yeah, thirteen years or so later I got diagnosed with anxiety. As one does.
The other person who offered to be my friend was a “skater kid” (or possibly a “scene kid”) who showed up in the library before school, sat across from me, and asked “do you wanna be my friend?”
I might have been new to public education but I was already a pro at stereotyping. This guy had ripped skinny jeans, jet black hair that hung over his eyes, and a band T-shirt. I was 100% sure he was trying to either embarrass me or give me drugs.
“No,” I said.
He seemed kind of offended.
My only friends that year were my Earth Science teacher, who would joke about showing R-rated movies in class just to see my eyes widen, and my Creative Writing teacher, who liked me because I was the only kid in the class who actually did the assignments.
2006 - 2007
The high school had ten times as many computers as the middle school. I spent a lot of time with them because I had joined the debate team and needed to do research. One day I found a blog post by someone who claimed they’d discovered the cure for cancer: a drug used to treat metabolic disorders. It killed cancer cells in a petri dish while leaving healthy cells alone. I printed out the post and brought it to my Chemistry teacher to see what he thought.
He turned dismissive so fast my head spun. He wouldn’t even read it. He said it wasn’t worth his time. I was crushed.
He later apologized for shooting me down so fast. His perspective, though, was unchanged: the chances of a cancer cure coming from the Internet were immeasurably slim.
I’ve grown to appreciate that kind of skepticism.
I had friends that year, all of whom I met in 10th grade Computer Science. One of them was autistic and his special interests were computers and anime. We hung out before and after school. The rest were miscellaneous outcasts: didn’t play sports, didn’t date, didn’t fit in with any of the cliques. We hung out at lunch.
2007 - 2008
There was a girl in my 11th grade Physics class who, in every way except literal age, was 26 years old. She was smarter than all of us and very cool.
Our big end-of-term project was to build canoes using nothing but cardboard and duct tape. We were assigned to work in pairs. Guess who my partner was? That’s right, the only person in the class who had a tattoo.
We picked a day and met up. We worked on the canoe for an hour, waited two hours in awkward silence for her mom to go pick up more duct tape, then worked for another hour. By the end we’d built something that looked more like a glossy casket than a canoe. Every inch was covered in two layers of tape. I’m convinced it was not only waterproof but airtight.
Our canoes would be tested at the city pool on a Saturday, and grades would be determined by lap times across the pool and back. Our teacher told us to wear street clothes, not swim trunks. That way we’d be motivated to make boats that wouldn’t sink. I couldn’t tell if he was serious, so I decided to wear swim trunks underneath my jeans. If I showed up and everyone else was in swimwear, I reasoned, I could just pull my jeans off and I wouldn’t look like the guy who missed the memo.
My dad drove me to the pool. Everyone else was in swimwear. No problem. I yanked my jeans down, and…my swim trunks came right down with them. I was pubes-out in front of my dad, my Physics teacher, and the coolest person I knew.
I pulled my trunks up as quickly as I could and told myself no one had noticed. (They definitely did.)
Our canoe was really fast.
2008 - 2009
My senior year of high school couldn’t have been more different from the rest of it. I felt like I owned the place. I was president of the computer support team and co-president of the debate team. My grades were rock solid. I even got asked out a couple times.
I spent the year winning debate trophies, jamming with my rock band, and shamelessly hanging out with the English teachers.
I have no delusions about those being the glory days. You couldn’t pay me to go back. But compared to my whole life up to that point? It was awesome.
One wart on my record was the big school dance. Prom, or something. My friends were all going and I needed a date. So I asked the girl I was crushing on. She said no. I asked one of my friends. She already had a date. I asked the girl who was crushing on me. She said yes, shortly before moving to Minnesota (permanently). I kept going down the list until finally a friend took pity and set me up with one of her friends from another school.
The friend-of-a-friend seemed nice enough but pretty obviously decided, about two minutes into the evening, that she’d rather be dead than on a date with me.
That was the first time someone I brought to a high school dance ended up calling for a ride and leaving early, just because she was bored. There would be a second time later that year.
I don’t remember being hurt. I think I was mostly confused.
2009 - 2010
College hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been the smart kid in high school (well, one of two, and the other one was popular). I went to a “prestigious if you’re from Utah” university. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had been the smart kids in high school. Most of them didn’t have undiagnosed anxiety and ADHD like I did. I was on a scholarship that required me to keep a near-perfect GPA. I’d never used a laundromat or paid for my own groceries before.
I survived that year because moving out was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Sweet freedom!
By sheer naivete, I somehow ended up in a junior-level philosophy course as a freshman. I don’t totally understand how I got through it without ruining my GPA. The subject of the course was Soren Kiekegaard, a famously boring fellow who I suspected was just as incomprehensible in Danish as he was in English. The professor was a kindly old man with a monotonous voice. The classroom had a softly droning ventilation system and no windows. I slept through about half the classes. And if I ever cracked open Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, it was virtually guaranteed I’d be asleep by the end of the second page. I’m not exaggerating.
To compensate for missing half the lectures and most of the reading, I put forth a superheroic effort to write good essays. Imagine, if you will, a superhero who wakes up at 4 A.M. the day a 12-pager is due and writes the whole thing before his first class. I got good at flipping through the book, finding something that seemed like a good quote, and letting it guide the next stage of my argument. Throw in a few weird stories from my childhood and kazaam, a finished essay.
When I got my final essay of the term back from the professor, he’d written the following:
Your thesis flies in the face of what Kierkegaard was trying to say. However, it’s well written and well argued. B+
One, I’m just skimming the surface of how awkward I was throughout my teenage years. There are so many stories I could tell. Some of them I never tell because of how much it sucks just to remember them.
Two, I’m not telling these stories to try to generate sympathy. You don’t have to sympathize with teenager-me. I don’t even sympathize with teenager-me.
Listen, I wasn’t some misfit with a heart of gold. I wasn’t even some misfit with a heart. When you got right down to it, when it really mattered, I was a garden-variety jerk. I often look back at all the thoughtless things I said and did and wish I could erase it all. But that’s the first consequence of being a jerk: you have to live with yourself.
I told harmful jokes. I used slurs. I was seven different kinds of prejudiced and didn’t try to hide it. I judged a lot of people who were just trying to get by. During my first long-term relationship I repeatedly said cruel things to my girlfriend, even though I knew she suffered from depression, even though I knew those things prodded her insecurities, even though all of that aside I knew she didn’t deserve it.
Now, on the other side of a whole lot of growing up, those are the things that still weigh on me (and, undoubtedly, on the people I hurt). I ruminate. I wonder if my present self is really continuous with my past self. I wonder how much work is still left to do. I have a hard time forgiving.
I don’t think anyone from high school or college reads my blog. Either way, I’m sorry. If you see this, let me know if there’s anything I can say to make it better. If you’ll allow me I’ll also donate to a cause that’s meaningful to you.
I’m trying to raise my kids to be better than I was. And, with luck, maybe they’ll have a few less awkward stories than I do.