In middle school, I never was. On my firstday of sixth grade, walking the narrow halls, I was quiet. I walked downthe center, never moving out of anyone’s way because I figuredthey would. I had goals, objectives I marched toward, and as I marched,my thighs rubbed together. On some days it bothered me so much I’dtry to walk like a cowboy, but I’d never seen a real cowboy, sofor all I knew they didn’t exist. Even if they did, their purposeseemed as frivolous as the pre-pre algebra class I must have beenapproaching. In this moment I recall being focused on getting to mathclass and at the same time, finding ways to poke holes in my sweater.
Math was as pointless then as it is now, the main differencebeing that back then I could get away without doing homework, studying,caring and still get an A. I tended to go unnoticed by both theteacher and other kids, so I turned my attention to the girls gossipingbehind me and discovered the school’s social hierarchy (I’djust moved to Santa Monica).
Now, social hierarchy in middleschool can be quite complex, because, in high school it is determined bylooks, while in middle school, this is not the case since everyone looks12. Popularity in middle school, I soon realized, was much meaner, andthe people who strove for it were meaner. You could argue that they wereinnocent because anything indecent one does in youth can be reconciledlater with claims of immaturity, but the truth is that people are thesame, just merely uninhibited when they know they’ll have an alibilater on.
Of course I was a target. I was 5'5" and 160 pounds ofunbridled love for “Rent.” I wore gym shorts to school as ifthey were were real clothing since I was too shy to change in front ofthe other boys and had a voice as high and pure as helium. I’dbeen called a f-g but didn’t know what it meant. Well, I guess Idid, but not really. I just knew to keep yelling “F--- you”because if I yelled loud enough a teacher would hear me and I would besent to the principal and then I could be in the office, alone.Profanity was sacred, it was more useful than all those pre-pre algebraformulas, and its influence left bad habits that are still hard to shrugoff.
At times profanity wasn’t enough. Once when I waswalking home from school - only three blocks - I passed by two kids andthey stopped. I told myself not to turn around, but one yelled,“Hey you f---ing fat f----t, I bet you’d like a ...”and I knew not to say anything. I tried to walk faster, and my thighsrubbed together frantically, and so I hobbled. I hated my body then -160 pounds and out of breath - and didn’t look back to see if theywere chasing me. I ran while every breath I took burned and turned sharpinside of my throat until my lungs couldn’t take in any more airand I threw up.
Ironically, as a result of all my profanity Iwas viewed as the meanest kid on campus and who knows, maybe they wereright. But, I take that with both a grain of salt and pride, since backthen I didn’t know anyone at school. If I didn’t know them Ididn’t have to care about their feelings, which appeared to bemuch more resilient than mine. I know what it’s like to hurt sodeep that you want to cut everyone deeper and make them feel your painand know you more than as just that fat kid with the high voice. When Ithrew up half a block away from my house, I wanted them, everyone, tobleed a little.
Time passed and it was the end of eighth gradeand I knew that if I wanted to get back at those who’d hurt me, Ineeded to play their game, learn their language and attitudes that wouldgive me the popularity and power so I could call the shots. I could bethe one who chose the target that everyone else used to push themselveshigher, and I thought that I would be a far better judge.
In highschool, I could have been popular and maybe for a second I was. I lost50 pounds and was much taller, attractive and skinny. I laughed at myfriends’ shocked looks when I told them about my “fatdays.” They’d respond, “I could never imagine youlooking any different.” I couldn’t either, and so after awhile I stopped bringing up that fat kid, and he seemed to disappeareven from my memories. My quirkiness, however, led me to some of myclosest friends, but it also allowed me to become a tool of amusementfor kids I never really fit in with. I’d go to a party and be thebig personality while everyone else was apathetic. Entertaining peoplemade me feel confident in a way that only having a trust fund could do.I made them laugh with my stories of real frustrations that were funnybecause they had life in them and reminded them that some people stillcared about such pointless things as school, family and art.
Inmaking the transition from public to private school, I had tore-evaluate what it took to be popular: instead of putting others down,you had to show them up. Everyone found their personality in clothing.No one liked each other, and everyone was quite content to do drugs andpretend their nights had meaning even when they were always the same.But going to party after party became monotonous and for me, the show Iwas obligated to put on became tiresome. If you judge popularity basedon friends, then you could say I dabbled in popularity. However, thepersonality and energy I had that amused this crowd also alienated themand prevented/protected any of them from getting close to me. I thinkthey knew as much as I did that none of what I did or said was natural,and the apathy I began to wear as a mask didn’t fit either.That’s when they started getting into trouble; I was worried andupset while everyone else kept their faces still. I cared for thosepeople who cared nothing for me.
My plans for revenge died whenI realized that being popular no longer really appealed to me; hedonismand nihilism are fine words to drop if you want to sound intellectual,but ultimately this was an unfulfilling lifestyle. Had I gone down thesame path as some my friends, I could be dead or in rehab, too. Quitefrankly, I didn’t give a damn anymore about anyone from middleschool, and it seemed no one who was popular ever gave a damn aboutanything.
Apathy and popularity are fine in high school ifyou’re rich and self-important, but they don’t add up toanything in the real world; these people live in the pretenses of labelsand price tags and use their whole lives to be beautiful. And they arebeautiful, they sell their beauty, their image of poise, as a commodityto those who have none. And people buy into it: they invest their timein the popular crowd based on the confidence that what they have iseternal. But what happens when these people turn 30? What happens whentheir flirtation with drugs, the money they gamble away on nights ofseemingly endless possibility, becomes an addiction?
Popularitymeant I was giving up the expression that is present in everything I didthat made me unique and gave me the hope that I could have some impacton this world in writing or art or music. I don’t really careanymore if people roll their eyes when they see me running through thehalls singing songs from “Rent.” When I have yoga, I wearsweatpants to school as if they were real pants and still compulsivelytear holes in my sweaters. I still zone out in math class and curse waytoo much, and thank God, I’m still a bit of that socially awkwardsixth grader, marching ahead with my goals in mind.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.