We were at this bar, you and I, and you talked about the “other people”. I jerked back off my stool because I didn’t know you talked about people that way. I didn’t know you saw us versus them, and I felt like a fraud because I am them. I am the others, the rejects, the misfits, the girl who didn’t get asked to prom. None of those things every bothered me until I realized that you cared. I didn’t know until now that I was sitting with the prom queen and I didn’t belong.
To be fair, I wasn’t a total reject in high school. I did have friends. I was also obsessively involved in Speech and Debate as my main activity (which saved my life and I am forever grateful for). Needless to say, I wasn’t a contender for homecoming queen. Most semesters began with an anxiety attack over where I’d sit at lunchtime, and junior and senior year, I ate in the AP Calculus teacher’s classroom. I was so lonely I literally hoped for a knock on my bedroom door or a phone call from someone who wasn’t prank-calling me to hang out. High school is hard on everyone. My traditional community seemed especially hard on women, and once we departed, I witnessed so many of my peers blossom outside of the rust belt.
But even in the rust belt, there were cool kids, and I wasn’t among them. I accepted my fate early on. I found my freaks, and together, we made the best go of it we could. We survived (and FYI—seeing you snatch degrees, get married, travel, get fit, have kids— you are giving me LIFE!). It wasn’t until I arrived at college and my social circle became really diverse that I realized that some of my friends would have never spoken to me in high school. It’s all perception and proximity, I guess. Connections boil down to the timing of one or two poignant conversations.
I am ridiculous. I am loud, garish, girly, way too obvious, and opinionated. I am exactly as I am supposed to be. I am also kind, ambitious, smart, compassionate, talented, and a boss. I can be all of these things. I have always been all of these things. I ruminated these universes of good in the years you slept on it.
The kids you made fun of in high school grew up. Chances are, they didn’t magically become cool but had been all along. I’m still protective of my younger self. I wasn’t a saint. I was gossipy and negative. My transient properties never really landed in a clique. I grieve that I never really got to be a teen, and that makes my adult self a shield to the girl who once was. Because, while I was culpable for that negative culture as much as my peers, I coped with so much I couldn’t talk about. We all were. But some kids got to go to school and not worry what rumors were in the hallways. And the kids who didn’t hide in bathroom stalls, the ones who belonged and can’t relate to what it’s like to not—it echoes in your criticism of people now. I’m not saying that you’re mean. I’m not even saying that all “cool kids” do this to begin with. Empathy hails from experience, and it’s hard for someone who has never struggled to get what it’s like to struggle—what it’s like to lack and fail and wait for you “real life” to begin because this can’t be it.
Whoever said “high school never ends” forgot to graduate. It did end. There’s an entire lifetime after those four years, and ultimately, who people thought we were then isn’t our current definition of self. After the mortarboards met the sky, I learned how many cool people I went to school with. I will like everything you post and cheer you on from afar because I’m sure we shared a class on days you felt like you couldn’t do it. There were so many days I felt like that too, and we never knew we weren’t alone in the quicksand. Thank you for surviving. Thank you for hanging on.
For the cool kids, you learned to fit in by not being other. As adults, I think my cool friends are less apt to rock the boat. There’s more social currency at stake. There’s anxiety in the loss of acceptance and approval because they don’t necessarily know what it means to not belong. In this way, the weirdos and freaks inherit the earth, because we know what it’s like to not have friends. We know hollow Friday nights and summers without a peer who wasn’t our sibling. This isn’t to bum you out, Cool Kids. Because I’m really comfortable being alone. I cope with social disapproval well, and I found my people. We all did, in the end.
I’m friends with the cool kids as a grown up. I’m friends with the jocks and the prom queens and the class presidents and dated people who wouldn’t have given me the time of day in the cafeteria. You don’t have anything to apologize for, Cool Kids. Adolescence is brutal on all of us. You felt just as shaky as everyone else. Just don’t forget it when you want to mock someone at the bar, a person doing their own thang at the gym, the outsider at work: High school ended but there are still bathroom stalls to hide, lunchrooms where someone worries where to sit, presentations people struggle to give, and rooms entered into with “please like me” in a muffled breath. We all get to show these people that this isn’t high school. This is your real life. None of this is cool kids vs weirdos— it’s just people. It’s two friends at a bar in the end.