“How are you doing?” I asked a teenager this week.
In a moment of unhesitating honesty, she responded, “Well, everyone at school thinks I’m a freak.” And then she paused. “But I guess I’m okay.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment—thinking about how many times a day we casually ask about each other’s well-being. When we ask that question, “How are you doing?” we expect to be answered in a sound bite response: “Fine. How are you?” The niceties are out of the way, and we can get on with our busy days. Sometimes we get the opposite extreme of the sound bite—the lengthy complaint—the one that stops us in our busy tracks and requires us to listen and pretend empathy for a litany of maladies that makes us wish we hadn’t asked.
Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about this teenager and about myself and my friends at her age. With the blessing of years, I’ve understood that I was by no means the only teenager in my junior high or high school who thought others viewed me as a freak. I was a definite late bloomer—still flat-chested and a size 12—a girls’ size 12—in ninth grade. Extremely nearsighted, I wore thick brown eyeglasses and styled my hair in a flipped up version of my college freshman sister—only hers was longer and in the style of the time.
I was smart. And I knew that was an advantage to a girl living in a family with an income just above the poverty level, so I worked hard to earn the monies that paid for college. But I didn’t think my classmates considered it an advantage. Some of the more popular boys in my class called me the Brain Trust and proclaimed proudly that they were, in contrast, the Brain Rust. And it didn’t help that my English teacher announced to the class in the middle of the first quarter that he was going to make every test harder until he made one I’d fail. For an entire quarter, my classmates begged me to fail intentionally before the teacher gave up. But the stakes were too high for a girl whose only way to avoid going into debt for college was a package of scholarships and grants.
It wasn’t until the ten-year reunion of my graduating class that I started to realize that some of my classmates who I thought led charmed lives in high school had insecurities of their own. And while there were a few who looked back at high school as the glory days, many shared stories of both the joy and the pain of being labeled in one way or another. But still unable to look beyond my own lack of confidence, I walked away from that reunion feeling gleeful that one of the guys on the football team asked which of his classmates I was married to because he didn’t recognize me. And another, whom I’d frequently let copy my homework in hopes that he’d ask me out, had lost all his hair and gained a lot of weight.
Twenty years after I graduated, when I returned for another reunion, I finally understood that every single one of my classmates harbored insecurities, too. One of my classmates told a story of his own struggles and said to me that he admired my intelligence, that he thought I could have been anything I wanted to be, and that he was impressed that I’d chosen to become a teacher.
We are all complex people. Even the people we dislike are complex people. But we like to caricature and label them—stuff them into neat little boxes that will allow us to go on believing in our own place in the world.
Now I have the safety and distance from who I was in high school to recognize that my classmates were actually pretty amazing people in a lot of ways. Not one of them ever harassed or tormented me outside of class when that bully English teacher abused his power. And I’m grateful to them now in a way that I couldn’t be back then.
Almost every time I post a piece, I extend an invitation to respond in the Comment Box at the end of the blog. Only a few of you have commented, though I know from the statistics I get from my host site that many of you are reading. Don’t get me wrong—I’m elated to have a growing audience of readers!
But I want this site to become a place where we lift each other up by sharing our stories—where we use this growing and shrinking world of the Web to find what’s best in each of us. I’m pretty sure that those of you who survived high school have your own stories to tell—stories that could benefit that young person out there whose circumstances are more like yours than like mine. Please tell me a story. Not for me but for this young teenager who took the risk of being honest—and for those who, like her, need more kindness and empathy in their world.