Does anyone make it out of adolescence unscathed? Forty years later, I still get an echo of that inner hollowness when two friends chuckle over a shared adventure from which I was absent. Or find myself swallowing an opinion for fear that someone will look at me cross-eyed. Am I hobbled by those long-ago days when insecurities were fanned by my equally self-conscious peers? No. As with most people, I have coping mechanisms that have allowed me not only to compartmentalize emotional upsets from those impressionable years but to view them in context. We were typical teenagers, with varying levels of self-doubt, teetering on the brink of adulthood and jockeying for a place on the social hierarchy.
I was a “popular” girl in high school. I had come up through the adjacent middle school with my social circle intact so by the time I hit the ninth grade, I appeared certain of my status. My outward confidence which allowed me to move through the hallways with ease was shaken if I did not have a trusted buddy by my side. Alone, the insecurities crept back in. Was I smart/cute/vivacious/cool/etc./etc. enough?
“Egocentrism” may be the most universally defining characteristic of this age group. I can still recall setting my alarm for an hour before needing to leave for school to give me enough time to shower, dress, style my hair, and apply my makeup to perfection because, of course, The World would think less of me if I dared walk out the door without each detail masterfully in place. Would Adrianne be on the bus with my seat saved, or would I look foolish having to scavenge for any remaining space? Did I have a friend in each class to whisper with and share a joke, or would I look like a pariah as I sat alone? What about in the lunchroom? Or, in the after-school sports activities? Did my home phone ring several times each evening, or were my friends too busy talking to each other to remember to call me? Were my Friday and Saturday nights booked, or would I sit home alone while everyone else was hanging out in Lee’s basement? If I wasn’t the life of the party would I be dropped from the next gathering’s guest list?
Our burgeoning identities at fourteen are shaped by how our peers treat us and fueled by raging hormones. Does he like me? If he doesn’t, it must mean I’m not smart/cute/vivacious/cool/etc./etc. enough. Who would ask me to the Homecoming dance? Should I go alone if no one did?
While my latent teenage anxieties are mostly forgotten, I was recently reminded of just how destructive that time in our lives can be. As with most kids that age, my feelings were central to The World. My own internal ecosystem was the core around which the bigger ecosystem, aka high school, revolved. So, I was interested to hear Lynn’s thoughts over lunch.
Lynn and I were in high school together a million years ago. It was a small college prep school where we all knew each other. I can’t recall the first time I saw her when she entered ninth grade. I remember her as being part of the “mini Mafia,” the group of cute boys reminiscent of Grease’s T-Birds, who swaggered through the hallways with their feathered hair and Italian horns dangling from gold chains around their necks. Lynn was one of three girls who hung out with them, and I think I assumed she had always known them.
I mentioned that I had told a mutual friend I was excited to see her. “While we were part of different groups back then,” I told our friend, “we all knew each other. I feel like Lynn and I can be good friends now, as adults.” That’s when Lynn’s eyes filled.
Our salads of arugula, mango, with a fruity vinaigrette sat untouched as I considered her reaction. I pinched pieces of Italian bread from the loaf in the basket between us and swiped them in the olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. I fought my lifelong urge to “say the right thing” – to gloss over an uncomfortable moment with platitudes and niceties. Common sense told me to be silent and to understand the pain reflected in her tears.
“When I started at that school,” she told me, “I just wanted to be friends with everyone. I never wanted to be part of a clique. The kids in the ‘mini Mafia’ were the only ones who would talk to me. None of the other girls would.”
By this stage of my life, high school self-absorption is so far in the past that my heart genuinely ached for her. This beautiful woman, inside and out, could still remember the loneliness that surrounded her when she started a new school.
Our conversation made me think about Anne who had been so tormented by the classmates who called her “fat” that she transferred after her freshman year. About Jeff who was so stigmatized for the color of his skin that he compensated by turning to beer and hard liquor, resulting in a struggle with alcoholism. About my own son who was targeted by a bully for being a vegetarian. About the “uncool” kids in my daughter’s class who did not receive an invitation to Julie’s party. It’s the age when anything “other” is scrutinized, picked apart, and ridiculed by the group in an effort to cement their own footing in the social hierarchy.
Once out of that environment – the artificially created ecosystem where we think how we do or don’t fit in is the most important thing in The World – we begin to develop a broader concept of self and deeper compassion for those around us. In other words, we grow up. Anne now sees herself as the beauty she is. Jeff has been sober for years and, now a pastor, runs a rescue mission to help men of color who have spent their lives being stigmatized. My son’s high school bully sought him out at their 5-year reunion to apologize for his behavior and ask for forgiveness. My daughter sees how hurtful excluding a handful of kids was from an otherwise class-wide celebration, whereas including them would have been a model of kindness for them all.
But what about Lynn? What was her “otherness” that left her scanning the lunchroom that first day for someone to sit with? Why giggling groups of girls didn’t widen their circle to include her?
A few years back, my lifelong friend and pen pal, Sue, provided me with incredible insight. Growing up, we saw each other during the summers but kept in touch by letter through the remainder of the year. And, ‘by letter’ I mean weekly accountings of every thought and action my juvenile brain could recount in twenty or more pages of detailed actions, dialogue, and thoughts. My youth, from childhood into my twenties, was chronicled on lined notebook paper the way some people keep journals or diaries. Eight years ago, Sue handed me a box filled with every letter I had written to her over the course of our friendship before email made communication instantaneous.
“You should have this,” she said. “This is your history.”
With a mix of excitement and apprehension, not to mention a hearty pour of Chianti, I sat down to revisit my past as told by an adolescent me. A rash of reactions hit me. I was simultaneously impressed with my love of storytelling, even at that young age, amused by my acerbic wit, and appalled by my judgmental attitude.
Buried halfway down the box was a letter that was particularly telling. In it, my young voice talked about the new girl at school. While there had been an influx of students at the high school level, it was clear that Lynn stood out. I described her in detail – her beauty, with the blond hair that effortlessly held the popular Farrah Fawcett style through the entire school day; her brilliant smile that made it impossible not to smile in return; her bubbly personality that added sparkle to every conversation. I grudgingly talked about how the head of every boy in that school, plus those of half the male staff, would whip around to watch her as she passed. It was evident in every long-ago written word that her presence had made an impression on me.
When I looked at Lynn over those exotic salads, I told her what it was that had caused the rest of the girls to snub her when she had started at the school. “We were all jealous,” I said. “It doesn’t excuse our behavior, but we were insecure teenagers and saw you as a threat.”
The elusive rationale as kids was simple from a middle-age perspective. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her at fourteen and that was her “otherness.” But, with her own adolescent insecurities, she questioned herself.
I hope that my explanation as to our behavior all those years ago provided some resolution for Lynn’s questions. Maybe there needs to be a built-in mechanism for repairing the damage left in the wake of the high school madness which, today, is amplified by social media. Like Step 9 in the AA 12-Step Program, it is healing for both the instigator and the victim to dust off past grievances, acknowledge them, and look for forgiveness.