The summer before freshman year was a difficult one as I watched friends plan for their first days at a new school, knowing I wouldn't be joining them. They had been allowed to choose their high school and decided on one that was close by and full of average kids like me. More than half our eighth-grade class would attend there. My choice, on the other hand, had been made for me, and I was not very pleased about it. The school my parents had chosen was in the richer section of town, and we were definitely not rich. I was incredibly nervous, but decided to make the best of it and prove that I could be "one of them."
My best friend and I spent the entire month of August shopping for "appropriate high-school attire." I wanted to shed my signature tomboy look and go for something a little more adult. I concentrated on buying black and khaki pants rather than sweat pants and jeans. I traded T-shirts for collared shirts and hoodies for sweaters. I gathered fashion tips from my older sister, who already went to my school, and though I couldn't afford brand names I found some great knock-offs at killer prices.
My best friend tried to make me feel better (as best friends do) by reminding me I was making a fresh start with new people who couldn't be that bad. After all, I would be spending the next four years of my life there. As the first day approached, I was ready to make a good first impression.
Waking up had never been so hard as when my alarm went off that first morning. I hopped in the shower, straightened my hair, and put on one of my new outfits. Looking in the mirror, I saw a woman. I was no longer a little middle-school girl but a high-school freshman. I emerged from my room and practiced walking in my new boots. I wanted to approach school with confidence, not fear. I looked at the clock - 6:45, time to go. I picked up my book bag and, with one last glance in the mirror, braced myself for the day.
Whatever confidence I had began slipping away as my bus struggled toward the school. Lines of BMWs, Lexuses and Mercedes glided out of the parking lot as my bus putt-putted in. I looked at the kids all in groups, hugging and giggling, so comfortable and carefree. Stepping off the bus, I searched desperately for a familiar face.
At a school where brand names will make or break you, they smelled my knock-offs as soon as my feet touched the ground. Had it been only an hour before that I had looked at myself with pride? I flushed with embarrassment as I made the long walk to the auditorium. I only wanted to be accepted, not known as the girl from the ghetto who tried to fit in, but the looks I got let me know I was now indeed that girl.
Inside the auditorium was even worse than the parking lot. Many of the girls wore dresses and some of the guys were wearing ties! I felt put in my place as I sat alone during the orientation.
I remember thinking I would never survive that year, let alone four. I made a whopping total of four friends that year, and none of us were rich. I thought of myself as a dork, and I know most of the other kids did, too. I did my work since I didn't have anyone to talk to and I didn't eat lunch because I rarely had anyone to sit with. I tried to talk with kids and join their conversations, but even when they were nice enough to let me listen, I still didn't fit. They all had a certain air, and talked to me as if I were inferior, which drove me crazy. I was pretty depressed that year, and baffled: what had I done wrong? Because my parents didn't make as much money as theirs, did that mean I wasn't good enough? It made no sense. Why should money determine how we judge one another?
It took me almost half of freshman year to realize there was nothing wrong with me. And even though I spent most of the time eating lunch alone and sitting alone during class, it didn't bother me as much. I may have had only four friends and lived in the "ghetto," but really I was one of the richest people in school. I had a strong head on my shoulders, I knew where I was going, and I knew what I had to do to get there. I had one of the highest GPAs I'd ever gotten and discovered a lot about myself.
High school is an important steppingstone, and my future will include college - not a fashion show. As for my friends? They're real. Everyone in that school talked about each other, and when they judged each other materialistically, they only cheated themselves. Money doesn't determine your worth and your self-worth isn't determined by others: it is determined by you.
I did end up changing schools, be-cause I needed a more positive environment, but I honestly feel I am a better person because of that year. It takes some people all of high school to figure out who they really are, but it only took me half a year. Now I am a senior at the high school I originally wanted to attend, and have met some really great people. But, no matter what, I know who I am and where I am going. No one can take that away.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.