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    Friday, March 03, 2006

    You've Got to Read ...

    Nice Guys and the Hipster Birthright of the High School Nerd by Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon.

    As I may have said before, I find high school, mainly the concept, fascinating. I love films and television about it, wish there were more decent novels about it. There's really nothing better than a good high school drama, like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, or, you knew I was gonna say it, The OC.

    I was watching The West Wing the other night and the episode was "The Long Goodbye", wherein C.J. Cregg goes back to her hometown in Dayton, OH for her high school reunion. It reminded me also that my good friend told me she's coming back to the US (she's working abroad) for her high school reunion this summer. And I thought: why would anyone want to go to that? Not because I'm above it, far from it. As Amanda said:

    The knowledge that it was possible to transcend the HS social barriers you’d previously considered impregnable makes you feel even more defective as a human being, and reinforces the idea that if your life is a miserable neurotic wreck, it’s your own damn fault for not being effortlessly cool and comfortable at all times.

    That feeling is a slow burn, too, that gets worse as you age and people start pretending that it wasn’t a personality-shaping experience. Which is why I write this shit, even though it would be far cooler if I pretend I don’t remember. Fuck it. It happened, it worried us, it shaped us, it’s interesting.

    I think part of it for me is that I did all kinds of asshattery myself, albeit of the alterna-hat variety, so it's kind of hard for me to imagine it'd be that satisfying to see anyone I disliked, no matter how much of an ugly failure they've become. Life is hard. I think I've actually, genuinely learned that as I got older: life is hard for EVERYONE, even the rich popular kids. I don't really want anyone I went to high school with to feel bad about themselves or sit around wishing they were seventeen again. There are a couple of blogs I've found (one of my former classmates has a blog on some of the same issues I do, surprisingly) that belong to other people with whom I went to high school and I find myself sad that they aren't happier, despite not having liked them at the time. There were people I was sure were going to be hugely successful and, while we're still pretty young, no matter how I felt about them at the time, I'm kind of disappointed that they never made it big. Because I know how it feels to be from there, even if our experiences of it were actually quite different.

    From a comment by KnifeGhost:

    Well, I think the thing is that the well-liked “outcasts” do it with such a netural cool and comfort that it just worked.

    Quote: “It’s like on the first day of high school, someone explained to them the whole ruthless, brutal social dynamic, and they decided, “You know what? That game doesn’t sound like very much fun. I choose not to play”

    This part, and yes it's probably gross of me to say, but I think this describes me to some degree in high school and I think it's because I was brutalized from 2nd grade on. By the time I was fourteen, I was like, "This isn't working," so I just did what I wanted to do. Before that point, through grade school and junior high, I'd longed to be one of the cool kids, literally prayed for the day I'd be invited to a birthday party, looked ten directions at once for the person planning to knock my lunch tray on the floor, and cried that I couldn't afford the clothes and the shoes and the backpack. I sat alone, played alone at recess, got pushed and shoved and pinched and called names ... all the while, trying so hard to fit in. The hardest part was that I went to six different school during that time, so I had to realize it was me, not a batch of particularly gross kids, but me. As a first-year high school student (and in a school that wasn't "fed into" from my junior high) I just decided to do my thing and it worked wonderfully. I was "cool and comfortable" with doing it because it was, I felt, rather freeing. I hung out with the drama kids, the student council, the pre-hipsters. And all the people I look back on and love from high school are the ones who did the same. In fact, I recently got back into touch with one of them, when I saw his byline in a magazine.

    I also learned that, by simply hanging out with kids from another school across town, I could suddenly become part of the in-crowd because they didn't already know who I was supposed to be - I was exotic.

    When I was a kid and was always so picked on, my dad would tell me the story of Janis Joplin, who was treated rather awfully (as might be expected) growing up in her hometown in Texas. She went back for her high school reunion. And everyone made fun of her still. She was fucking Janis Joplin!

    My dad also told me a story of when he was on tour with his band and someone from his junior high came up to him after a really kick-ass show and said something along the lines of, "You're cool now, but you used to be the fat kid."

    In other words, the reason why high school matters, as Amanda points out, is because there's no way to get that power back. No matter how cool, rich, successful, or sexy you become in any other place, you can never go back to high school (or, in my case, pre-high school) and recover what you feel you were robbed of. And it lays a groundwork, whether you like it or not. I think having been a geek is a big part of why I am now so political, for example. I'm always skeptical of the fresh-faced white Midwesterner, as prejudiced as it is. And, I still hold onto this arrogance because it was that arrogance ("they're just jealous") that got me through, even when I was never really convinced of it. That arrogance and that chip on my shoulder is what I wish I could lose. I wonder who I'd be without all that childhood rage. I think a lot of my anger at gender norms, at class hierarchies, at white supremacy comes from feeling at the bottom. From being made fun of for having short hair as a little girl, from having my donated clothes the butt of year-long jokes, and from spending kindergarten and 1st grade as the only white kid in my school where I was treated nicely, and moving to mostly white schools after that where I was raked over the coals daily. But what I, sadly, realize now is that I could have been rich and gender-normative, they hated me. And that's the other thing that shaped me: I felt, growing up, that there was some kind of "glitch", I called it. Some reason why, no matter what school I went to, it was always me that was the one picked on. And that "glitch" feeling is something I've mostly recovered from, but the spectre of it hangs over my childhood- I can't even really think about being a kid very much, it makes me feel sick and sad and self-hating. I envy those who can look back on being a kid for some kind of solace. And that envy shapes me too. When I see kids playing together and happy, I feel awful. I either hate them for their happiness (yes, little six-year-olds) or I feel sorry for them because I know it won't last. I am also terrified of having kids because of that "glitch" thing: I really wouldn't wish my childhood on anyone.

    What this all brings me to is the whole "problem" discussed on Pandagon about "nice guys" or "geeks" who feel entitled to dating the popular girls, while perpetrating the same "I-don't-even-see-you-as-having-genitalia" crime against the girls of their "rank". This same sort of thing happens in same-sex relations as well. The issue is that childhood shapes our sexuality and that's really hard to live with. One of the things I find most fascinating about sexuality is how often our desires simply don't match our politics or general sensibilities. (How many times have you heard a straight woman say, "I wish I could be a lesbian!") Located in this realm of desire are a great many of our worst prejudices and subconscious beliefs about ourselves and others. I think a lot of people are angry at how hard it is to excise these things. For example, that one's worth is measured by the perceived attractiveness (to the rest of the world) of one's partner; that there's something erotic about rejection, wanting what you can't have; that power so deeply influences what we find sexy. This is true for men and women, straight and queer, but I think that straight women and gay men who were once nerds have some of their psycho-sexual dramas played out more in the "real world" because the conventionally hot people are likely to hit on them at some point down the line (once they've become the sexy-cool hipsters), solving some of the hangups (or at least helping a bit). With geek straight men in particular, since hetero gender norms mean they're unlikely to receive advances, they might spend the rest of their lives longing for the cheerleader-type, with no possible end in sight. And that, of course, makes the geeky straight gals mad.

    I won't lie: I think that being flirted with and dating people who were stereotypically attractive solved some of my strange feelings about my sexuality. I feel legitimately sexy now. But I'm female and I was lucky enough to have some of this "validation" happen early enough (in my teens) that it didn't mean I spent the rest of my life chasing the hotties.

    Like I said, most of the geeky straight boys don't have this outlet. So, that's why I cut them a little slack.

    Because, after all, we former nerds have a strong feeling of entitlement, especially having been raised on the notion that, down the line, it was WE who would be successful and cool if we could just transcend the muck that is high school, "get out of this town" for the case of us red-staters, blah, blah, blah. Now, what do we do if we aren't cool now either?


    Blogger zp said...

    You are a better person than I am. I am always happy to hear when my high school classmates have succumb to spoiled brat drug addiction and/or conformist loveless childbearing. I consider it the fulfillment of a curse I unconsciously cast upon them and I revel in the power I never knew I had . . .

    9:39 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    I felt that way for the first few years out of high school, but, honestly, moving to New York made me realize how I am in this (bear with me here) state of double-consciousness. It made me a lot less hateful toward those people now. But when I think of the stuff they did to me, I hate them as they were then. Just not them today.

    10:34 AM  

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