At first, it wasn’t like that. In kindergarten (both years, for me), nobody really understands the concept of “cool”, so nobody really tries. The biggest priority is to form your first bonds with people your own age, probably for the first time. And I even managed to screw that up (lol).
In those early years, everyone else was baby-stepping out of their limited spheres and broadening their horizons, even if on wobbly legs.
I remained in my own limited sphere. It was safer there. It was more comfortable. It was familiar. It’s what I could manage. It’s what I could control. Not that I’m a control freak–I try to keep All Things Ego in check–for me, control was essential to security, lest the anxiety run away with my spoons.
Once in Grade 2 or 3, however, kids became conscious of the “coolness” concept. That added depth to the plot, complicating matters in ways I felt were unnecessary. After all, weren’t we in school to learn? What did the almighty pursuit of being considered “cool” by still-budding, undeveloped brains have to do with the learning process, anyway?
Seeing very little value in any would-be attempt to be cool, I declined to get on the train. That train left the station without me, and at first, I was OK with that. I figured that I had already inadvertently burned my bridges with those kids anyway. I had learned, only through interaction with them and the negative feedback that ensued, that somehow, I was doing it wrong. The Raw Me wasn’t personable. I wasn’t likable. I wasn’t friend-worthy. I tried–really hard–but the few words I spoke and the few attempts I made just came out wrong. I learned early on that my social career was a flop, and once people, even little people, form their impressions of you, it’s done; it’s over. It is what it is, and it is what it will be, and that’s that.
The train had left the station, all right. And before I knew better, mine had crashed.
I started Grade 5 (age 11) at a different school, one situated far away from my previous one, one with an entirely new set of kids, who didn’t know my previous classmates. Finally, I could leave my former train wreck behind. It didn’t have to follow me. Moving is like a Witness Protection Program for Nerds. What I faced now was a fresh start. I knew better now. I knew that being “cool” was essential to the psychological survival of school. And by god(dess), I was going to get it right this time.
I paid close attention to the Coolness Factor. During the first few days, I sat back and watched the other kids. I figured out what was cool and what wasn’t. I had sized everybody up in my head, rating them (non-judgmentally) on how cool they came across to the other kids. I didn’t inherently know who was cool and who wasn’t; I simply gauged the response from the other kids. I watched how the rest of the class responded to each person and went from there.
And I tried to emulate the cooler kids. That meant acting in ways that were completely foreign to me.
Such as actually initiating conversation.
Such as coming up with cool things to say, and doing it quickly. (Can’t miss a beat.)
Such as laughing at behavior, finding funny that which disrupted the learning process.
Such as, I’m ashamed to admit, heaping judgment and criticism on people for superficial attributes. Attributes that weren’t Bad Things. Attributes that shouldn’t have been judged, that should have been left alone.
Despite my efforts to be cool, I flopped a lot in my Look Cool Project this time around (at my new school), too. But I was older and “wiser”, at least in terms of street-wisdom. I knew enough to watch first, and make my moves, open my mouth, later.
I was confused. Everybody made it look so easy. Just talk to that person there, just perfectly time the perfect comeback for the perfect moment, and poof!–you get respect, eventually. You can do no wrong, right? If I watch and copy other people enough, I should be able to get this.
But it was a charade, a fragile house of cards, barely holding up on borrowed time. Everything I had learned I should be, everything that I had learned was preferred, ran completely counter to who I was. The copy-paste maneuver, of their mannerisms into mine, was unexpectedly clunky. It was like I was trying to lift Windows-based software code into my stubbornly Mac-based system (sorry to beat the analogy to death in practically every post, but it’s just that applicable 🙂 ). When I tried to execute those mannerisms myself, it wasn’t a clean copy; it came out awkward and jumbled. I felt phony and unreal.
I felt like such a fraud. I teetered between profound shame and just-as-profound shamelessness.
And if you’re honest with yourself, you can only keep that shit up for so long.
I lasted a little less than a year. FunFact: it took me three times as long to elbow my way into the A-list clique than I spent as a member of it.
During the time I had been “in” and accepted by the in-crowd, I was elated. I was pleased with myself. I had done it.
But you know what?
It was also unbelievably stressful. An 11-year-old might not be aware of the full effects of stress very often, but I couldn’t ignore mine. My stomach was a butterfly net that was constantly filled to capacity. My palms were sweatier than normal. My sleep suffered. I felt the adrenaline rush at random times in the evening, usually as I was practicing, picking out what I was going to wear the next day, trying to strike that magical balance between hip/trendy and desperate.
Because in the A-crowd, the vigilant eyes and fashion police are always watching. Critiquing your every move. Looking for the slightest misstep, which, if taken, would be loudly, voraciously ridiculed. Smile!–you’re always on candid camera…or at least, you might as well be. I felt just that naked, just that exposed.
Did being popular and keeping cool under the peer pressure affect all the popular kids, or was it just me? Were everyone else’s guts full of butterflies, too? Did everyone else know what adrenaline tasted like?
Of course, I didn’t quite realize the full brunt of the anxiety and pressure until, as gracefully as I could, I bowed out. Think of it like a once-hot, has-been music group that has started to get old and tired, and the quality of their once-rock-solid material has started to soften and wane; you still really like them, so you’re hoping that, for the sake of their dignity, they voluntarily step down and retire before they make a really wrong move that they get lambasted for.
That was me. I had accomplished my goal; my work here was done. And I’d had enough. I figured I would escape with dignity now, before I did something “stupid”, before I made a mistake I would never live down.
Looking back, the big secret that everyone but myself had already known became painfully obvious: I never actually was that cool kid that I had tried so hard to pretend to be. I lied and conveniently hid my truths in order to be included as one of them. I wore clothes that I would never wear on my own. I said things I would never otherwise have said. I did things that I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing. I acted completely unnatural, overriding every inborn instinct I had.
I had gone through all the right motions, but if you saw me and you were really paying attention, you’d see right through them. Those motions rang hollow and unspirited. They were holograms, illusions built solely for the purpose of getting on their side before they had a chance to become agents of pain, a repeat of my earlier school nightmare. Because Witness Protection, even for Nerds, would only happen once for me; my family wasn’t going to move again.
The stress I had felt as a part of that group was drawn to scale with the relief I felt when I left. The spotlight disappeared. The candid camera that had never relented was no longer there. Nobody watched me anymore. While I mildly missed the large set of friends and their fun, trendy activities, it felt good to back off, back down, back away, and be me again. It took a while for me to realize that I really could indeed be myself again, with the usual Out In Public filter applied, of course.
But that’s a filter that was universally necessary, meaning that no matter where I went or what I did or who I saw, if I wasn’t hanging out with myself in my own bedroom, I would need to don the filter. That was a simple fact of life that I just had to get used to.
Which means… I hang out with myself in my own space a lot more these days.
It’s a relief to (finally) know who and what I am. It took long enough, but the pot of neurodivergent gold at the end of the rainbow (oooh! Rainbow!) was worth the wait.
It would be nice if the top priority in public school (at least, those I went to) was actually the learning process. That’s where the focus should be. Everything else is extraneous uselessness. Details that distract and detract from the learning process. Details that derail one’s attention span, education quality, and even potentially one’s self-esteem or their very identity. Too much was taken from me during my early years. Too much in terms of milestones, opportunities, development. And then, I inadvertently voluntarily gave up even more. I let go of myself. I crammed her in a box and shoved her high up on an out-of-the-way shelf to mingle with the cobwebs and languish in some sea of conveniently forgotten shadows.
I’m not going to do that anymore. Last spring, I went into the dank, neglected closet, reached up, and found that box. I dusted it off and opened it up.
I set that forgotten girl free.
Although the story remains unfinished (I’m only middle-aged, after all), how’s that for a happy ending to a really long life-chapter? I rather like it 😉