Since I was 5 or maybe 6 and realized not everyone liked me, a steely ride began to poke out of my back. Its dull weight prodded me to focus on each mean word said to me, to gather them and hold them close.
I remember the first time I was called fat. I was in kindergarten on the playground and Amber said she wanted to play with Rachel and not me because I was fat. I told my mom who called Amber’s mom who made her daughter apologize over the phone. That night for dinner my mom fed me applesauce.
I don’t know what parties are like in small towns across America; I’ve never been. To me, hanging out with the same kids I see every day at school, only in a slobbery dark while wearing tight dresses, feels gross. So I rarely do it, even when invited. But I forced myself to attend this year’s homecoming. Wishing it would give me some of the fresh excitement, or at least a sense of relief that I had missed the rest.
Though I got neither of those things, homecoming inevitably felt like a culmination of sorts. It was a shivering sensation to enter a room of my peers and to realize that no matter how much I may have grown as a person, it will never matter more than the flesh surrounding my being to these people at this party.
At school here, and surely at many other schools or various institutions, we talk about culture a lot. It’s sort of an annoying word, like “society” or “vibe.” That is, it annoyed me until one day I was startled when I began to palpably notice it. School life is of course multifaceted, but something throbbing at its core is a culture that glorifies appearances above little else. We praise ourselves, especially our girls, for making our ideas, opinions, and bodies smaller. We shove down our bodies or our minds or both until they fit into something we deem presentable, and then we shrink them a little further, just to be safe.
I’m trying to be ok with the fact that I can work as hard as I have but I can’t force anyone to see me as smart or pretty or fun. Not the kids I spend every day with and not even the one thing is supposed to make all this worth it, academic success. This realization produces a peculiar emotion–something like that queasy, numb wall I used to crave.
I went to a friend’s house to get ready for homecoming, i.e. to hang out in a fancy apartment with a bunch of kids I’ve spent 2 years with but barely know. G came up to me when I was putting on mascara in an expansive bathroom. Her tongue was loose and we talked more than we ever have. She soon told me: “When I was a freshman, my dad handed me two 5lb weights and told me to run. ‘That’s the extra fat you’re towing around everywhere,’ he explained. I wanted to throw a weight at my dad and then at my belly. Maybe they both would disappear.” She laughed a bit. I didn’t know what to do so I just smiled and waited for her quick mouth to change the topic, which it did. A few minutes later I found myself saying, “I’d rather be at home crying in bed right about now.” “Just joking,” I followed up with after a brief silence. “All my jokes are partially true,” G said. “Mine too.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in California, Los Angeles specifically, and I read some on the internet, but otherwise I don’t know what America is like. I don’t know what New York is like either, really. I live in the Upper West and rarely venture to downtown Manhattan, let alone other boroughs. And I spend most of my time with the same people, people who sound and think like me.
I do know what high school is like, for me at my high school that is. But even that is so claustrophobically unique to what I was going to bring to this school since long before I arrived. I’ve often felt that I’ve been cheated out of having a good or normal high school experience. But the only swindler I can ever really incriminate is myself.
There are so many TV shows about high school. Much more than about middle school or university or graduate programs. From these shows I have a warped sense of what high school elsewhere could be like. Rowdy football games every Friday night. Working at a frozen yogurt shop at the mall. Round tables in the cafeteria for each distinct clique. An acapella group for all the misfits.
In my opinion, these shows evidence a public fascination with high school specifically along the American bildungsroman. My favorite was always Gossip Girl. From when I started watching it in 6th grade, I craved a dramatic and mysterious life like the characters in it had. To be gossiped about would mean having a life that merited discussion, envy, and respect. I guess I realized too late that dramatic doesn’t mean glamorous parties and torrid affairs. Not for me at least. Dramatic in reality brings me back to that metal scrapping my back. It’s the pungent desperation to escape plus the throbbing knowledge that there is nowhere to go and so many things I must do here, now. It’s the violent but diminishing urge to make myself so small that people beg me to stop. And the mysteries are just things that are embarrassing to find, so I shove them down knowing they will pop back up later, hoping future Sarah will be better equipped to deal.
So I guess I don’t think high school is so different in New York than in the rest of America, or in its TV depiction. We don’t have football games or mean-girl cheerleaders or clubs that define the social-standing of the people in them. But I think we are both searching to shove ourselves into a recipe for our future–one that we co-create with our expectations, our performances, our parents, and our reality.
Like the millions of viewers who watch these tantalizing teenage TV dramas, we both seek to understand the bizarre, liminal microcosm we spend 4 years in. To beat a game no one else is aware we are playing, and also all the games everyone knows about and is watching.