I went to the same school, with the same people, for 10 years. I knew everyone—including the teachers, as my mother taught history there. In the middle of tenth grade my mother took a sabbatical abroad and I found myself going from Riverdale Country School, in the Bronx, to Winchester College, a 600-year-old all-male boarding school in southern England. I had never traveled alone. I had barely left the house. Also, I was quite small.
Winchester is timelessly beautiful, famously academic and a bastion of blithe cruelty. Everyone else was used to this; I was the only new kid. Older boys relentlessly bullied younger, and teachers (called “dons”) bullied everyone, often physically. All the students, even boys younger than I, knew each other and came from the same social strata. The school had its own language—literally; there was book of “notions” to be memorized and tested. And on top of it all, I was of course that most dread creation, an American. It was clear to me from the start that I must take an active role in my survival.
Rule One: DON’T BE LIKE THEM. I knew I was going to be mocked as an outsider and a weirdo, so I established my weird cred before anyone had time to get their mock on. Our study area was a great room ringed by tiny wooden cubicles (called “toys,” in both the plural and the singular—Know Your Notions!), about 50 to a room. On the first day of term I posted a notice outside my toys that was pure nonsense, a portentous abstraction that conveyed the simple message that ridiculing me would not only be weak and redundant, but might actually please me in some unseemly way. As boy after boy read the notice and either laughed or puzzled, I could feel a small patch of safe turf firm up under my feet.
Rule Two: BE LIKE THEM. My next defensive aid appeared quite unexpectedly, as we were all bunking down (12 to an ice-cold room) for the night. All the boys started doing a bit from an episode of Monty Python (which was a cool thing to do back then—no, you’re mistaken; it was). When there was a lull, I unthinkingly chimed in with the next line. I was answered with unfiltered silence, and then one of the older boys called out from the corner, “OK. He’s in.” He literally said that. Like a cheesy movie: “He’s in.” And I, in whatever limited capacity I have to be, was. Speaking their language startled them as much as making up my own had.
Rule the Most: F@#K ’EM. We all want to be accepted. If possible, liked. Loved. But nobody ever got to be popular by desperately wanting to be. (Well, maybe Madonna.) Whether you crave attention or anonymity, you’ll be thwarted if you focus on those goals. I was actually gunning for a bit of both, but I only succeeded, in the end, because I knew I had the right to be myself. The judgments of others, however painful, would always be external. I was fiercely calculating about establishing myself as someone not to be trodden on (I’d had plenty of that from my brothers, thank you), but it really only worked because I knew, as much as a tiny-15-year old can, who I was. I was a short, annoying, existential, girl-repelling mess—but I KNEW that. I honored that. I defended that. And as intimidated as I super-incredibly was in that alien environ, I never lost that.
Rule Where You Realize I’m Super-Old and Skip to the Next Article: LEARN. High school is, among other things, school. If you have teachers worth a damn, stop worrying about where you fit in and work for them. Knowledge will serve you long after you’ve forgotten the names of everyone you feared or admired. And will prove subtly invaluable the next time you find yourself in a new situation, trying to fit in. You know the old saying: Knowledge is power.
And it’s always, always about power. (Should this have been a Rule?) Everyone has it. Not everyone knows how to express it. And high school is, institutionally and hormonally, an easy place to forget you have it, particularly since so many people are focused on establishing or abusing it. But the power people take from others is nothing next to the power that comes with simple self-acceptance, with being comfortable in your (changing) skin. It’s not just Survival of the Fit-ins. There’s room for something new.
If only high school were as simple as a teen movie. I would have loved to have been as single-minded as your typical teen heroine (must get in with the popular crowd, must get floppy-haired dude to take me to prom, etc.), but as a teenager I had a lot on my mind. For instance, infinity. How was I supposed to think about prom when I spent so much time thinking about the concept of infinity? Prom was OK, but infinity was interesting and terrifying. This made it a lot harder to think about the dudes with floppy hair.
I often liken my high school experience to the opening scene in Stardust Memories, where Woody Allen is sitting on an unmoving train with a lot of really miserable-looking people, when out the window he sees an identical train, only on this train, as I remember it, everyone is happy and attractive, and there is a young Sharon Stone wearing a feather boa, and there are men in sailor suits popping bottles of pink champagne. He can no longer accept his sad train existence now that he has seen the happy train, and he tries in vain to escape. The difference between Woody Allen and me was, I kind of liked my sad train. I saw that there was another version of high school that was being peddled by the media but I could never connect with it.
Of course, I went to an artsy sort of school, so things were a little bit different. It wasn’t unusual to find a young gentleman wrapped in a piece of duvetyne theater curtain secured with safety pins into a makeshift toga. And no big deal guys, but we had Guys Wear a Dress to School Day. But even surrounded by all these unicorns, I felt like the unicorniest. I just did not fit in.
One day my history teacher asked our class, “Do you guys think about infinity?” Most of my classmates gave him the you’re totally lame blank stare, but my mind started racing. “How does he know?!” I wondered. He said, “I used to think about infinity, and then I stopped.” He chuckled to himself. For me, this moment mapped a strange intersection of emotions: whereas I now knew I wasn’t alone, the people I wanted to connect with, my peers, seemed even farther away. I guess it was then that I realized I wasn’t required to LOVE high school, like the movies demanded; I didn’t have to want to go to prom and homecoming or be the center of the social world—I just had to make high school a place where I could get better at the things I wanted to do. And that’s exactly what I did.
The first morning I walked through the doors of Quigley Preparatory Seminary North—a school for boys who were thinking about becoming Catholic priests—wasn’t just my first day of ninth grade, it was my first day in a school where I didn’t have any of my siblings to fall back on or to smooth the way for me. I was on my own, and I wanted things to be different. I didn’t want to be the geeky kid anymore, or the sissy, and I didn’t want to get picked on or bullied. But things couldn’t change if I didn’t change. So I made up my mind to be tough, one of the cool kids, fearless.
So there I was, on my first day, sitting in the library during study hall. When the librarian—one of the ancient priests who’d been parked at Quigley—stepped out, this kid started walking around, picking out freshman and punching them as hard as he could. The freshmen in the room were terrified—they looked nervous, they looked away, they looked at the door, praying for the ancient librarian to come back—so I figured that he might not think I was a freshman, and not punch me, if I didn’t look away. So I stared right at him.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
I still didn’t look away. I held his gaze. And then I said, my voice dripping with subtle contempt, “Nothing.”
I was calling him a nothing and I sorta thought the insult would fly over his head—his meaty head—and that everyone else in the room would get it, and admire me for it, but he wouldn’t realize that I’d insulted him. After a pause that filled me with false hope, the bully strode over and beat as much of the crap as he could out of me before the door opened and the librarian walked back in. He beat me up again later that day in the hall, and again in the cafeteria, and again after school.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had picked the wrong high school. It wasn’t just that I had attracted the attention of the school’s meanest and most accomplished bully on my first day. No, I hated everything about Quigley. I didn’t like my classes, or the priests, or how fake everyone was. This kid, my bully, and all these other bullies—my bully was the biggest but not the only bully—they all wanted to be priests?
And then there was my Latin teacher, also a bully, and my gym teacher, who was an actual ex-Marine and a bully.
Quigley—the high school I had picked—was hell.
And here’s how I got through ninth grade in hell: when I realized that I was going to be an outsider at Quigley, I embraced lonerhood. Quigley was near downtown Chicago and I skipped classes when I could. I went to museums, I snuck into theaters. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities, opting to spend my time exploring a city full of adults instead of a high school full of assholes. I did as little of my class work as I could get away with. And every day, when I walked through those doors, I told myself that I wasn’t going to be at Quigley forever.
My parents insisted that I return to Quigley for sophomore year. But I quickly realized—sometime around the pope’s visit to Chicago (he dropped by Quigley)—that I just couldn’t take it anymore. And that’s when I did something … um … well, that’s when I did something that no high school student in America could get away with doing today. No kid should do today what I did 30 years ago, not in our post-Columbine (Google it), zero-tolerance world.
I brought a brick of firecrackers to school. I placed them in my locker, lit the fuse and walked out the front doors, listening to the explosions echo down the halls behind me. I was expelled. (But that was then. Try something like this today and you’ll get arrested.) I wound up at St. Gregory the Great, the school two of my siblings chose, for the rest of my sophomore year, because I had nowhere else to go. (No other school would take me.) It was a teacher at Greg’s who told me about a school where I might be happier: Metro High, an alternative public school in downtown Chicago, near the same museums and movie theaters and restaurants where I hid out in ninth grade.
Metro encouraged its students to explore the city—you could actually get class credit for going to museums—and I spent my last two years there. I did my schoolwork, I made friends, I didn’t cut classes and never felt a need to bring explosives to school.
I got terrible grades at Quigley—and for a while they refused to release my transcripts that proved it—and my grades at Greg’s were a bit better, but not that much. At Metro, though, I was an academic superstar: straight A’s, glowing reports from teachers, counselors pushing me to go on to college. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or my parents.
Which just goes to show…
Sometimes the problem isn’t who you are, despite what you’re being told by everyone around you, but where you are. And sometimes the solution can be as simple as finding a new place, a better place, the kind of place where a kid like you can thrive.
Your place is out there. Go find it.
I decided to include my lyrics to the song “Keep on Livin’” by Le Tigre. I wrote these words in 2001 while trying to give advice to kids coming out of the closet, and it’s the same advice I would give today. I came out when I was 15, and high school felt nearly impossible to trudge through. But once I emerged from the bubble of my town, I realized that there was a lot more for me out there.
Look up to the sky sky sky
Take back your own tonight
You’ll find more than you see
It’s time now now get ready
So you can taste that sweet sweet cake and
Feel the warm water in a lake
What about the nice cool breeze and
Hear the buzzing of the bumblebees
Live past those neighborhood lives and
Go past that yard outside and
Push thru their greatest fears and
Live past your memories’ tears cuz
You don’t need to scratch inside just please
Hold on to your pride
So don’t let them bring you down and
Don’t let them fuck you around cuz
Those are your arms that is your heart and
No no they can’t tear you apart cuz
This is your time this is your life and
This is your time this is your life.
Recently I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since high school. Back then, I admired Bonnie—she seemed to know how to dress for and handle every situation. There was a group of guys we both hung out with, and she also seemed to know better than I how to handle them. But we weren’t really friends.
Suddenly we bump into each other, out of nowhere, at a concert, lo these many decades later, and I’m thrilled—it’s like spotting a celebrity! And it gets fascinating right away. We’re explaining to a third person how we knew a lot of the same people, but hadn’t been actual friends, when Bonnie says, “Oh, I could never talk to Winnie; she was way too cool for me.”
Stunned, I splutter, “WHAT?! What are you TALKING about?! I was NEVER cool. YOU were the cool one. I would have given ANYTHING to have been as cool as you!”
She looks at me like I’m out of my mind. Facts that we’ve both taken for granted for over 30 years vaporize before our eyes. Bonnie mentions a guy we both knew: “He was so in love with you.”
OK—whaaat?! Why is this quasi-stranger lying to me? My most fervent wish during those four terrifying years was that someone would somehow see past my uncoolness and fall in love with me. A huge part of my identity was (and still is) based on the firm belief that that never happened. In Bonnie’s parallel universe, however, it did. How can that be?
In high school, we become pretty convinced that we know what reality is: We know who looks down on us, who is above us, exactly who our friends and our enemies are. We know what’s true, and what isn’t, and there’s no room for doubt. Sadly, this condition will likely continue throughout the rest of our lives, unless we actively work to combat it. Which I recommend you do.
How do we combat it? By allowing ourselves to realize how very little we know about all the people we’re so certain about. And that what seems like unshakeable reality (he thinks I’m a fool, she hates me, they’re better than me, I’m better than them, I know what they’re thinking) is basically just a story we learned to tell ourselves. Until we know it by heart.
A few years ago I heard a rabbi explain that there’s a specific Jewish prayer meant to be recited when you find yourself in a crowd. I never learned the exact wording of this prayer—but the idea is basically this: Remember, everyone bears a hidden pain. Everyone. It may not show; it may be something you’d never guess in a million years. But every person has a secret burden.
When I remember the truth of that prayer, I feel less alone. When I write, the idea behind that prayer is my guiding principle. I want my characters to seem alive—so no matter what they appear to be, on the surface, when the audience first meets them, I know there’s got to be more to them. Something hidden—maybe even from themselves.
I almost wish someone had talked to me about all this when I was in high school. But if they had, would I have believed them? I was so sure of everything I was so sure of.
By the way, Bonnie and I are friends now. For real.
I was running with a pretty rough crowd in 1984. It was a gang of kids from the tough part of the neighborhood. We’d listen to heavy metal and watch The Exorcist. We’d wear jeans and flannel shirts. We’d BMX and skateboard around town.
Things got pretty hairy. I wanted desperately to belong to something cool, and fitting in with these guys was everything to me. I stole some money from my mom. I got caught and confessed all my badassery to my parents. I felt like I needed a fresh start, and my folks agreed. They decided to send me to a school for troubled youths. It was called Poseidon.
It was a very small school in West L.A. that featured a student psychologist named Roger. In addition to being a kick-ass therapist he was also a big bodybuilder who could defend himself and break up fights in the yard if necessary.
I was not required to have sessions with Roger. But I saw the other kids going into his office, and I was curious. I wanted to tell him my story and see if I needed counseling. So I signed up for a session and went into his office the next day. I spilled my guts about stealing from my mother and cried my eyes out. It was an intense catharsis. All the guilt and stress I’d been holding on to for years just melted away.
I continued seeing Roger, but never had that kind of mind-blowing release again.
The rest of my ninth grade was mainly focused on animation drawings and improv classes with my incredible theater teacher Deb. Deb was inspiring. She encouraged me to get involved in all aspects of theater. She insisted that writing and directing were far more interesting endeavors than simply acting.
I was also obsessed with two students named Collin and Gary. Collin loved Mick Jagger and Gary loved Michael Jackson. They would do impersonations all day and argue about who was better. One time it came to blows and I tried to jump in to defend Collin, who was getting his ass kicked. I punched Gary in the side of the head, and he just stopped and looked at me with confusion in his eyes. I had never done anything like that before. Or since.
I started reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. I drank it up like a delicious nectar. It is the story of the young Buddha’s journey. Reading that book marked the beginning of a spiritual journey that lasted for years.
But that is another story.
Good luck in high school. Being a person is hard.
Try your hardest to say what you think. Most of the time, you’ll get egg on your face—not literally—but there are a lot of fresh egos buzzing around with no direction at this stage in life, and high school kids who fit in and morph into one another are usually very dull. So speak your mind, and state your funny observations, even if there’s only one other person who understands them. High school can feel disconnected and painful, but such places are perfect for sharpening your opinions and your confidence.
The best thing to do—because, let’s face it, you have to be there—is to soak in the torture and try to remember everything. I suggest writing every day about your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your crushes. Because one day soon, you’ll see the absurdity of what you thought was important, and that perspective will teach you something.
God knows there are many films made about these precious four years of life, so you never know—living through it might be good research for the growing artist inside you. And don’t lose hope. In my experience, the worse high school is, the better your adult life seems to be. (Not that it can’t occasionally be fun.)
Be nice to the weird kid in class, who doesn’t shower or talk. They need your help and they’re usually much more interesting than you think.
Dear Kid in High School,
Not that you really give a shit what I have to say, cuz kids in high school love not giving a shit, but I also know that you actually give a huge steaming pile of shit, so shut up your face and listen.
You’re allowed to care about stuff. That’s the first thing. Even if you think it’s stupid or weird, like polka music or “being obsessed with mimes.” One day you will look back not at all the things that made you cool enough to fit in, but the things that didn’t. And you will love them.
The second thing is write everything down. Even if you don’t like writing, just write about every obsession, story, hatred, happiness—whatever. And save it. All of it. I say this because when you’re an adult, you will get drunk with your friends one night and read your diary out loud to them.
It will be the funniest night of your life.
When teachers say, “This is the best time of your life,” they are wrong. They are only saying that because they’re teachers and they have to look at your weird faces every day. There is no “best time of your life,” but rather perfect moments, like when someone’s gum falls out of their mouth while they’re telling a story, or when a jerk is walking toward you and accidentally gets hit in the head with a soccer ball. Make sure to store these moments in a safe place in your brain. They will be useful to you in the future, I promise.
But also, quit bitching about being in high school. At least your mom still makes you dinner at night, and that rules.
I’m not gonna say don’t do drugs because that’s ridiculous, just don’t take anything that is known as an “epidemic” (crystal meth, Oxycontin). When they tell you in health that they’re addictive, they’re not “just trying to scare you into being a normie,” and it’s not all “government propaganda.”
Stick with pot, acid and booze and you will have way better memories. When you do acid or shrooms and you think you might be having a bad trip, get a piece of candy and hold your friend’s hand and it will go away. Try not talking for a while, too. If it’s still bad, well, whatever, it will be over in 14 hours.
If you want to stay out all night, say you’re sleeping at a friend’s house.
If you come home super early and your mom says, “Why are you home so early?” you say, “I got homesick and I missed you.” She will then make you eggs and you can watch TV.
If you don’t want to change for gym a good trick is putting sweatpants on over your jeans. If you don’t want to go swimming say you have your period. If you want to go home early or get out of a class, give the nurse a general “my stomach hurts.” If she asks you, “How does it hurt?” you say, “It’s just pain.” There’s no cure for that.
You might feel at times that you are ugly and disgusting and unlovable. Some of you might feel as though you are beautiful and hot and cool and awesome. Know this: When you’re in your 20s you go through, like, a time machine of opposite days. What I mean is, everyone who thinks they are hot shit in high school eventually turns into cold diarrhea by their 30s. And all you ugly nerds will eventually start to sparkle like geodes. If you don’t believe me you can ask Facebook.
Hmm, what else what else? Some things I regret: not learning an instrument (I gave up playing the sax, wish I hadn’t), not learning a foreign language (got kicked out of Spanish), not taking more acid (was afraid of bad trips but regret now due to lack of funny stories).
I don’t know what else. You guys are gonna do whatever you’re gonna do, fuck that up, do it again, and so it goes.
You all probably know just what you’re doing anyway and don’t need any advice at all, isn’t that right, you little smartass?
I’ll be watching you. I am the eyes and ears of this institution.
My only advice on surviving high school is this: Superfine Sharpies CAN be used as makeup and RANCH. CAN. GO. ON. ANYTHING.
To me, ninth grade was very much about defining my personal tastes. I started to think of my favorite bands as part of my identity. That only got more intense as I got further into high school. I bought so many band pins. They meant so much to me. THIS is who I listen to! THIS is their official logo.
I remember also seeing my teachers more as people, as opposed to just classroom disciplinarians. It seemed like many of them were trying their best to connect with us. They got nicer all of a sudden. Maybe eighth graders were more rowdy or something.
Seventh and eighth grade I did not enjoy. I picture bigger kids in jean jackets throwing M80s everywhere. Parking lots, suburban street corners, everywhere. Those are the worst kind of fireworks. You don’t see anything. It’s just that loud, stupid boom. Today, when I hear super-loud motorcycles go past me, I get that same feeling.
Ninth grade was also around the time when me and my friends started becoming more of a tight group. We developed our own sense of humor, like in our own language, and our own sound effects for everything.
We did some pointless, stupid stuff too. One time along Central Avenue, I was with my best friend, Kenny Young. We saw these huge shipping pallets in an alley. Those wooden ones. We decided for some reason that they would make a good drum riser. Why we thought we needed a drum riser in that moment I’ll never know. So we took one each and just dragged them down the street. These big heavy pallets. Why? Even as an adult those things are heavy to me.
In my opinion fear starts melting away a little in ninth grade. It’s a good time for choosing friends and appreciating teachers. And for wearing band pins.
I’ll be straight with you. No matter what anyone tells you, your trek through the explosive adolescent social experiment that is high school will be inspirational, iconic, tragic, stressful, giddy, odiferous, awkward, hysterical, painstaking, romantic, and, in hindsight, an all-around blur. But, most important: it will be completely, uniquely yours. So, seeing as I don’t know you (to be fair you haven’t introduced yourself), here are a few entirely random personally gleaned nuggets of wisdom. Hopefully, at least one of them will be credited with saving your life.
Wave your freak flag. I know. It feels counterintuitive. Teenagers are generally wary of standing out, and aren’t going to take well to your refusal to go with the flow. But if you can get down with your bad self this early in the game and not look back, it will be the real-life equivalent of scoring Boardwalk on your first roll (yes, I’m talkin’ you-themed Monopoly here).
Avoid “freak dancing” at all costs. During such an important and developmental stage in your life, it is hard to fathom the long-term repercussions of some decisions. Some reckless behaviors leave eternal stains on the permanent record that is your soul. Absolutely do NOT freak dance at homecoming. Or prom. Or the Sadie Hawkins Dance. Or sporadically in the hallway. The memory flash of your knees Tootsie-Rolling with some smelly teenage boy repetitively knocking into your back with his pelvis is one that will haunt you into retirement. Just don’t do it. It’s not worth it. (Neither is the school cafeteria’s taco salad. Trust me.)
Learn stuff. I know you’re angry. That’s OK. Whether your parents are the actual worst (my condolences) or you merely can’t bear their presence unless they materialize for the sole purpose of providing you with food and/or money: I assure you that the best and only revenge you can wreak on your parents is your own success. So, hit the books. It is the only thing we high school survivors uniformly do NOT regret.
Avoid an aerial attack! Even in cases of absolute emergency, avoid standing in an open courtyard where birds are likely to congregate. Living down a fly-by bird pooping is hard to do. I hardly survived to tell the tale.
Go get ’em, tiger. We’ll be rooting for you here in adult-world.
First off, everyone else giving you advice in this article is more wise, articulate and helpful than me. Read what they’ve written and take it to heart. Follow their advice—they’ve all gone through versions of the same things you’re about to go through. They’re not trying to scold you or judge you or make you feel stupid. They want to save you time and heartache.
So here’s what I’m saying— go ahead and screw things up. You’re young— you’re supposed to do that for a while. Rebel. Write bad poetry. Listen to bad music and roll your eyes at the adults. Be concerned with things that don’t matter. Because when you get to be my age—23 years old and not 42 no matter what my stupid Wikipedia page says—you’ll realize how valuable all of your mistakes were in making you the person you’ll end up being. The mere fact that you’re reading, right now, puts you so far ahead and above the bulk of the population that I’m really not too worried about how any of you are going to turn out. If you’re reading and curious, you’ll be fine. Trust me.