Recently I watched the TV series Freaks and Geeks about high school life (awesome series, I will definitely write something on this subject later). This made me reflect my own high school years. I don’t live in America, so the whole “subculture-highschool-thing” wasn’t that big of a deal for me, but even in Belgium kids get divided into groups and image is important in high school. My first years in primary school were fun. I went to the only school our village has, and our class existed out of approximately 18 kids (some years more, some years less). It seemed as if time had stopped there, and the school was cut off society. Basically everybody was your friend, and everyone was invited to each other’s birthday parties. Boys and girls sometimes fought (battle of the sexes!), but most of the time all went well and everybody was happy. Bullying did exist, but I can’t remember it ever getting out of hand. We were all dressed by our parents, and it were the nineties, so everybody looked fugly. No need to torture anybody about their clothes because what you were wearing wasn’t that great either. Sometimes older kids would bully smaller kids (I once had to beat up a boy who was hurting my little brother, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do right?), but teachers didn’t really tolerate such things so it never went too far. Me and my best friend – and girl next door – could be considered the weirdest kids in our class, or even school: we read a lot of books, thought we were little witches, dressed up my brother as a girl (make-up and everything), invented songs and weird choreographies, put on plays, brewed perfume (which only smelled good for a couple of hours, before it started to rot), wrote stories, etc. Strangely, in our primary school, these things were considered to be quite cool, so our weirdness resulted in being rather popular. At the Girl scouts we even had a regular show in which we played worms to entertain our friends.
I loved the CD’s my parents owned and pretended I was Madame Butterfly while listening to Maria Callas and dressing up in my mother’s bathrobe. Or I memorized the lyrics of Leonard Cohen songs because I thought they were beautiful. I didn’t own, nor asked for a Spice Girls CD, but I did play Baby Spice at school whenever they needed one. I once tried to create “big hair” for a show in school, which resulted in me crying and my mother cutting out a hairbrush out of my hair.
But then, for the last three years of primary school, I moved to another school. Things were different there: it was located in the city, every year had multiple classes, the school building was ten times as big, people weren’t as nice and the teachers were more strict. The nineties were over and style was coming back, slowly. I didn’t care too much about clothes, but preferred dresses and coloured tights over the jeans most people were wearing. I was the new girl, along with some other new kids, so I still had to prove myself. Because I never had to worry about how to be popular, I didn’t try too hard either. Soon I became friends with the other new kids, but also with some of the kids in my class. We would do things like play “Dinosaurs” (the tv show), or hang out in the hallway (which wasn’t allowed). I soon began having fun, and wasn’t too unhappy about the switch of schools. While we got older, the distinction between nerds and cool kids grew bigger. I wasn’t particularly good in math, nor was I interested in science or computers, therefore I couldn’t be a nerd. But I did love reading, hated trends (like Pokémon, still don’t get it), and was still kind of “new”, so I couldn’t be one of the super cool kids either. What did this mean? This meant that I didn’t have a subculture to be part of!
At lunch I would sit with the nerdy boys, or with my girlfriends, or with the cool kids, which was fine, but also a bit confusing. One year, I was put in another class than my girlfriends were in. This class was filled with boys, so I sat next to boys in the classroom. This worried my teacher and she explained to my parents that I was weird because I hung out with boys, and girls my age were supposed to hate boys. She was basically calling me a little slut. She also added that I dressed funny and didn’t seem to care for learning French because I thought English was more interesting. Luckily my parents thought it was funny instead of disturbing and I went on being friends with everybody, including the feared species: boys (I did have to study my French though). My teacher had nothing to worry about because I never had a boyfriend in primary school. I did get requests to “be someone’s girlfriend” and boys even wrote me love letters, but I wasn’t interested in them. Some of them I liked as friends, some of them I loathed because of their arrogance and the ones I fell in love with didn’t know or didn’t like me that way. I didn’t mind though, my time of chasing down boys or being chased down would come later. My prudish teacher should have seen some of the other little whores though, who were running around the playground, kissing their alternating sweethearts! Primary school had come to an end and I survived without feeling as if I didn’t belong.
Then middle school started. I was reunited with my best friend from my first primary school and though it was scary at first, middle school would eventually turn out to be fun too. The differences between kids were a lot bigger now and gossip and bullying were a fact. The second year of middle school I was separated from my friends again. There was one big class of Latin-Greek students, but since there were already too much people in that class, me and five other kids had to join another class. There was only one girl I knew, and the rest of our mini class were again all boys. The new girls of my big class didn’t seem as much fun as my former friends so I always stood with them during break. Some kids didn’t think it was cool to study old and dead languages and we were made fun of. Being smart and getting good grades was cool amongst our classes, but the kids who took other subjects thought it was stupid. Not that I cared, but they did try to make our lives miserable. I say try, because they actually didn’t succeed. We moved on to high school and since we were separated from the students who took different subjects we weren’t being mocked anymore. Saying you didn’t study and STILL get good grades (or less good grades, but still ok) was cool though (this meant you were too cool for school, and had other interesting things to do than study). The division between popular kids and less popular kids was made on basis of looks, wealth, hobbies, and hypes. If you were the daughter of a lawyer, very beautiful, played tennis, followed all the hypes and had an older boyfriend, you’d be queen bee. So the dumb blonde ideal didn’t really exist in our school (or at least not so extreme as we saw in American high school movies). Though being pretty, blonde and stupid was still better than ugly and smart. Teenagers are shallow, even in Belgium. Luckily for me I wasn’t too ugly or poor, but the kinds of books, music, films and other cultural stuff like theatre I was interested in did make sure that I could never be the most popular girl in school. Weirdly I never ever cared and felt quite good about myself. Of course I didn’t like it when people called me weird, but that didn’t happen too often, and I had enough fellow-freakish friends to feel loved. I also took acting lessons and became friends with a lot of people of the same mind. It’s really remarkable that in high school you’d better be mediocre and an opportunist than unique. If you’re a teenage girl you have to be pretty and big-boobed, but popular boys just have to have a big mouth. I found this extremely unfair and still do of course.
Talking about looks, I remember the skaterlook trend: baggy pants, baggy shirts, a chain to hang your wallet on, really wide shoes and gelled hair. In short, the ugliest, least flattering look ever. We had just gotten rid of the ugly nineties trends and there it was: a new, if possible even uglier way to dress. And what was most striking, girls were also supposed to wear these unflattering clothes. I had just received boobs, why would I cover them up underneath a wide shirt? (maybe this was also partly the reason I wasn’t too unpopular). The hairstyle of skatergirls was also very unflattering. I kept my hair long, in a high ponytail, and wouldn’t want to be found death in those clothes. Though my fashion sense as a young teenager wasn’t always as stylish, at least I didn’t surrender to this hype. Most kids begged their parents to buy them the clothes all the other kids have, but I begged them to let me buy my own clothes, in a city far away from ours so I wouldn’t end up wearing the same as all of them were wearing (that me and my friends dressed sort of alike was ok though). This doesn’t mean that I knew who I was and which style suited me best. Of course I also suffered from a couple of identity crises, which resulted in dyeing my hair red. I still shock people from the past with my blonde hair (“I thought you were a redhead???”).
My parents are both very interested in culture, so I did have role models in my teenage years. Weirdly, they weren’t pop singers or popular kids from school, but my own parents. Not that I didn’t rebel against them (the red hair they approved of though). I thought it was stupid that I had to be home at twelve and I wasn’t afraid to use my voice to show just how stupid I thought it was (my friend was yelling the same things two houses behind ours). I also felt embarrassed by my parents when they wanted to dance at my birthday parties, or when they took pictures of everything I did, or when they told me purple nail polish was ugly in public, while I was wearing exactly that. I did have some other role models though. Mainly writers, film makers, artists and singer-song writers. I obsessed over The Virgin Suicides (both the book and the novel), novels by Giphart, Mulish and J.D. Salinger. While every girl (besides my friends of course) was going crazy about Leonardo Di Caprio, I worshipped Michael Pitt, James Franco, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and so on. I wished I had been born in other times because everything seemed more beautiful and meaningful then (Now I have, despite my obsessions with certain eras, come to peace with the times I’m living in).
At first I didn’t mind that I had to spend four years in high school, but as I grew older and saw more of the world, I wanted to leave that stupid place, filled with morons, as fast as possible. When we were given the choice to go to Greece or Berlin in our last year, me and my friends chose Berlin. Mainly because I thought Berlin was cooler than cool, but also because we didn’t want to spend ten days with those arrogant, “mainstream” people who were going to Greece. A holiday that includes stupid teenagers and travelling by bus still gives me the creeps, so I chose wisely.
Teachers tried to include me in high school life through European Youth Parliament, the student council, or the prom committee and although I loved being the know-it-all, I refused to let myself in with the other students who were involved in these things. The only club I wanted to be part of was creative writing because I knew that only my friends would be interested in joining. Our little secret club even had a secret club house in school where we could do whatever we wanted. We mostly spied on people through the window and wrote down imaginary conversations they were having. Kind of crazy if you think about it, but well, it was better than freezing to death on the playground. We also created our own magazine, called SMAK, in which we included short stories, quizzes and gave advice to people of our school.
The last two years of high school went way too slow. I hated the teachers and the lessons and couldn’t wait to leave. Especially the language courses made me miserable. I couldn’t care less about math or science, but languages I loved, and I didn’t think our teachers did a very good job. They couldn’t excite my fellow students, they didn’t let us read enough books – or good books – and they seemed to be tired of teaching teenagers. In my whole high school career I had approximately three good teachers who actually taught useful, interesting stuff. Things I was happy to know when I arrived at university. But I made sure to let the teachers I didn’t like know I thought they were stupid. I had always mouthed back to teachers, but now I was plain arrogant to some of them. For some reason they never really punished me for it. I never even had to go to detention. I guess I can thank my innocent appearance for that. Once I had to go wait in the hallway until class was done because I disagreed with my French teacher (who looked like a mix between queen Fabiola, Count Dracula and an owl and always wore a shirt with a raised collar). The principle walked by and was surprised to see me standing in the hallway with my French handbook in my hands. When she asked why the teacher threw me out I explained that she had blamed a friend of mine for doing something she didn’t do and that I had tried defending her, but instead was punished myself. This was true, but I could have done this “defending” in a more subtle manner. The principle believed me though en said I should go back in the classroom and tell the teacher that the principle wanted me to go back in. These little victories kept me going. I also interfered with the organization of the prom because we weren’t allowed to have it together with the students from the technical school which I thought was stupid. We were told that “those” people weren’t of our kind, and that we shouldn’t associate with them. Total bullshit, I thought, and besides, it’s dangerous to brainwash teenagers like that. We had a petition and were finally allowed to have the prom together with them.
The prom kind of sucked, but at least we fought prejudice and were able to celebrate our graduation together with all the students of our school. I was so happy to be done with that awful high school jungle and ready to start “real” life. I still am, and although the first weeks of university were scary, and there will always be twentysomethings who think they are still the leader of the pack in high school, this kind of life suits me a lot better. It even suits me so well that I don’t want to graduate and start working! Because everyone knows that the work field is rough and basically a professional kind of high school where the popular kids get all the fun jobs and gossiping is the main activity of your fellow co workers. And then I haven’t even mentioned getting up earlier than ten p.m. yet !
“Fitting in” in the broad sense might seem like the most important thing in high school, or even beyond, but I don’t grant it too much value. What I have always found much more important is to find a way to be exactly who you want to be, to get the chance to find out who that is, and have friends who accept you for that. We’re all different, and some people may have the same interests as you do, but they will never completely be the same as you are. And that’s a good thing! It’s also okay, though, to be what I’ll call “normal”. If you like the current trends, you should participate in them. If you really think that pretty, popular blonde is a nice person, be friends with her. If you enjoy the music that’s on the radio, buy those CD’s. Just try to find out for yourself what YOU like, what makes YOU happy instead of what enthralls other people. High school and teenage years can be rough, confusing and depressing, but they will pass and in the meantime you should just do what you like. I still think back of those years as beautiful (o the beauty of youth and innocence), hilarious (those clothes, those teachers, those funny moments with your friends) and horrid (those clothes, those teachers, those nasty bullies, finding out who you are – a werewolf? ) at the same time, and every time I watch a typical high school series, I remember my own high school years.