I went to a middle school that was notorious for its low test scores and high number of knife fights, so I was grateful to begin my high school career on academic scholarship to the most prestigious private school in my hometown. Sensing that my vaguely militaristic middle school uniform of baggy jeans, Carhartt vests and Timberlands wouldn’t translate well to my fancy new milieu, I begged my mom to buy me the August 1994 issues of Teen and Sassy magazines, and I went about studying their “Back to School” fashion spreads with all the desperate hope of a D student the night before finals. By the first day of school, I had put together an outfit I felt great in: black bodysuit, thigh-grazing red plaid kilt, over-the-knee socks, and chunky black Doc Marten knock-offs that—with their tag that prominently read “Dox”—were cute, if lacking the good taste to hide their aspirations. I walked into freshman orientation feeling confident and unassailably stylish.
As everyone stood around gossiping about their summers, I quickly picked up on the fact that my new classmates were so unlike me and the kids I’d gone to middle school with as to resemble a different species. They were confident and well spoken where I was painfully shy and withdrawn. They joked easily with teachers, whom I regarded with a mix of suspicion and mute terror. Many of them were also incredibly, cartoonishly rich in a way I thought only existed as a plot device on Beverly Hills, 90210. They were not just “fancy car” rich, they were “own a stable of racehorses” rich. When they asked me what I’d done for my summer vacation, my hours of daytime TV and cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner were no match for their families’ jaunts to Prague because the fall of Communism had made the exchange rate so favorable.
Just before morning assembly began, a group of girls came up to me, led by C., a gorgeous girl who apparently spoke for them all. C. told me that “they” all really liked my outfit. The chorus of girls nodded and smiled. Flattered, I smiled and said thank you. C. told me that “they” especially liked my miniskirt and kneesocks (chorus: nod, smile), which they thought were “trendy” and “salacious.” I had no idea what salacious meant, but thought it had something to do with being sexy, so I again smiled and said thanks, dumbfounded that the unprovoked compliments were still flowing. C. then told me that she and the other girls had agreed that I seemed really “aloof,” another word I couldn’t quite decode, but to which I replied, “Wow, thank you so much!” despite my sneaking suspicion that “aloof” meant something slightly more sinister than “cool.” C. said that it was great meeting me and then she and the nodding, smiling girls walked away, while I stood for a moment with an awkward smile frozen on my face and a queasy feeling in my gut.
As soon as the assembly was over, I took my sneaking suspicion to the school library to look up the words C. had used. I learned that salacious and aloof were just fancy SAT words for slutty and bitchy. The joke was on me, my too-short skirt, and the fact that I wasn’t even smart enough to know it. I stared up at the library’s exposed fluorescent lights and blinked tears.
I wish I could say that was the last time I was backhandedly complimented in high school, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say that was the last time I had to fight not to cry in the library, or the bathroom, or an empty classroom or the parking lot, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say I kept on wearing that skirt, because it made me feel confident and cute, but the truth is, I went home and put it deep in a drawer and I didn’t take it out again for years (thus beginning my unfortunate “old-man polyester thrift-store pants” phase). When I finally did unearth the skirt again, on a mom-mandated closet cleanout a few years later, I was surprised to see it looking so innocuous. It was just a skirt, after all. And I stepped into it, even though it’d only gotten shorter in the years since I’d worn it, even though I could still hear the chorus in my head. I wore it and I let myself feel confident and cute again, that first-day-in-a-new-school feeling, chorus free and full of hope.
The night before my first day of high school, I stayed up late praying to these worry dolls my best friend Diana and I had bought from this witchy store near her house that, at the time, I thought was the complete zenith of everything OCCULT and MYSTICAL and ESOTERIC (words I learned from reading this one trashy science fiction novel wherein a monkey implants himself inside a female scientist and complains of a “stabbing feeling” whenever the woman gets it on with her man). The lady at the store told me if I shared a worry with each doll before bed and then slept with them under my pillow, by the time I woke up the next morning all of my troubles would be gone.
I abused my dolls on a regular basis, disguising my most urgent requests as “worries,” like, on the night before the first day of ninth grade: “I’m so worried that I won’t be the best-looking girl in school,” and “I’m so worried that every single boy in school won’t fall in love with me and give me a chance to break their hearts one day when I eventually run away with a super-hot punk cowboy singer from Nebraska,” and “I’m really, really worried that Johanna* won’t accidentally disappear and never come back, and I’m even more worried that she won’t suffer physically and emotionally in the worst way imaginable before she disappears for good.”**
My mom had ordered me contact lenses over the summer and the orthodontist took off my braces the week before school started, so on the first day I was still pushing phantom glasses up the bridge of my nose and running my tongue over my newly exposed teeth. I was haunted by the memory of the day I transferred into my new middle school, which was right around the time Clueless came out, and the chatty, popular girls wanted to make me their pet project because I showed up to class dressed (by my mother) in a purple turtleneck under a purple sweater with tight purple stirrup pants, a purple Molly Ringwald hat, purple socks and a purple hooded parka, and everyone was like, Hi Barney. For my first day of high school, I told my mother I wanted to stand on my own two wobbly legs and pick my own outfit, and so there I stood in the cornflower-blue brushed-corduroy bellbottoms I had bought with my allowance money from Contempo Casuals, a polyester shirt from Wet Seal with peace signs and daisies all over it and my father’s Timberland boots that I thought would make me look tough.
In homeroom, a few of the boys told me that even though my face had changed a lot (thank you contacts, thank you braces-free teeth) I was still vice president of the itty-bitty-titty club. Second period I had computer science, and I ended up meeting Kym, this badass with dyed copper hair who had just moved into our town, and we became friends right away. She later encouraged me to throw my math textbook at this boy Leo, who had been tormenting me since seventh grade and helped spread a rumor about me eating cats the year before. Kym and I were best friends all year, but then one day she told me I smelled like rice and that my clothes never matched, and I felt the kind of weird where you know something isn’t right but you don’t have the vocabulary to articulate it. Now she’s a soldier with the military police in Hawaii, and the last time we hung out, Leo’s younger brother tried to put his hand up my skirt and she immediately grabbed him by the collar and told him that she’d killed men in Iraq and didn’t feel at all remorseful, and she wasn’t going to feel remorseful about what she was about to do to him either.
Later that first day, these two boys who had never spoken to me before except to insult me sat down next to me in math class. One of them said to the other, “Dang, Jenny Zhang got hot,” which sent me into a tailspin. Was I supposed to stick to my guns and hate on them for making my life miserable the year before, or was it OK to giggle and fantasize about them one day fighting over me?
If only I had had the ovaries back then to say, Fuck off. But this was my first day of high school and for the first time, two boys not related to me in any way actually thought I was pretty, or at least markedly improved. I was sure I’d only get two or three more chances in my life to flirt with a boy—any boy. So I laughed too long and too loudly at their bad jokes. I pretended to be impressed by their wit even though they possessed none. When I got home from school that afternoon, I put on my mom’s lipstick and made out with my dresser mirror. “I had no idea you liked me this much,” I said as I tongued the cold glass.
By dinnertime, I had wiped all traces of my mouth from the mirror, but the day had left its mark on me—I wanted to be loved more than I knew to love myself. I went to sleep that night wondering if all living things experienced transformation—would I wake up one day with breasts the way some insects wake up with wings? “I’m worried everything I want won’t happen,” I said to my dolls that night, before closing my eyes to the darkness that was already everywhere inside me.
* Johanna—not her real name—was this girl who sat next to me in my eighth-grade computer class and would always steal my pen during tests and toss it across the room and then threaten to punch me in the face if I made a move to retrieve it. But the joke was on her because you didn’t need a pen to complete a test on the computer anyway.
** The weird thing is that Johanna did disappear one day, not too long after I started praying to my worry dolls about her continued existence in my world. The rumor at school was that she had to drop out a year because she got pregnant. When she came back, she left me alone, because I guess after you have a baby “bullying Jenny Zhang” drops pretty low on your list of priorities.
A lot of people in my middle school, located in Moorestown, NJ, liked sports and High School Musical, and some kids thought you were a loser if you didn’t shop at Hollister. Although not everyone was like that, I never met anyone there that, in my opinion, was really cool. I had some great friends, but I had a hard time finding people who were in love with the same things I loved: weird art, independent music, and high fashion.
I pompously thought I was the coolest girl in middle school and that when I got to high school all the cool kids would see me for the gem I was and immediately welcome me into their circle. Maybe I would be walking down the hall, a nervous little freshwoman, and stumble upon a teen gang with New Wave haircuts who would sense my awesomeness and invite me to a pseudo-’50s drive-in to watch a gruesome horror-movie marathon. And then we would be best friends forever! Yay!
That didn’t happen.
I spent my first day in high school—a high-ranking New Jersey public school—going to class and hanging out with my middle school friends. What really struck me was how many students there were. For the first time in a long time, I saw teenagers whom I had never seen before, including some who fit my limited idea of what was cool—girls with mermaid hair, a boy in suspenders, a kid in a Sonic Youth T-shirt. But they didn’t talk to me, and that was … not the way it was supposed to be. I passed students in the halls, noting their unique appearances, but they didn’t seem to notice me.
None of these kids asked me to be friends with them, and I felt hopeless. When I got home that day I cried about my doomed social life, which seems really hilarious looking back on it now. I honestly believed my entire high school experience would be exactly like my first day. I thought that because cool people didn’t want to be friends with me it meant I definitely wasn’t cool and therefore would NEVER be cool and thus my life was TOTALLY OVER!
How in the world did I think I would make a hundred new best friends (all very alternative, of course) the first day? Second, why in the world did I assume I was so cool? Who knows—I was 14 years old and crazy. But one thing I didn’t do that I should have done was talk to people. I didn’t talk to any of these cool teenagers! Why? Because I was intimidated by them! I wanted people to be my friend but was too shy to approach them. I thought I was awesome, but my fear of rejection overshadowed that.
Moral of the story: If your first day of high school is the complete opposite of what you want it to be, don’t be surprised. And don’t assume that every day of your high school experience will follow suit! I might not have met the kooky characters I dreamed up in my brain (my middle school imagination was weird, right?), but I met cool people later that year who didn’t necessarily look super-interesting at first glance. I judged way too many people by their appearance. Not to mention that people change in high school, especially after freshman year, so your peers in middle school can transform into totally new people by senior year.
Do the exact opposite of what I did: approach people, talk to everyone you’ve never talked to before. Teachers! Students! The creepy janitor! And maybe your first day of high school will be absolutely dreamy and perfect. But if that’s true then get outta there, because that place is in the Twilight Zone or something.
A couple of days before I started the ninth grade, a friend from summer camp introduced me to a girl he knew, C., who was also going to my new school for the first time. We met on a stoop on her block, where she was surrounded by a posse of handsome boys, boys with hair long enough to tuck behind their ears and baseball hats pulled low over their eyes. C. was the granddaughter of a Really Famous Person, and the daughter of a Famous Person, though I was so ignorant of the Really Famous Person’s musical oeuvre at the time that it hardly mattered. In retrospect, this might have been my selling point: I had no reason to gawk. We gave our names, waved hello, and then C. asked me if I was “cool.” I stammered out a response, not realizing that she was asking if I smoked weed. It was a line from the movie Dazed and Confused, which had come out the year before, and which I had seen but not memorized. But I knew enough about the laws of coolness to understand that the correct answer was yes, and so I lied. We smoked weed that weekend, my first time, and wore matching bicycle helmets to the neighborhood Taco Bell, giggling continuously in the way that only teenage girls can.
When the first day of school came, I wore a string tied around my neck as a homemade choker, a tight, baby-blue T-shirt that said “Foxy Lady” across my chest and a pair of carpenter’s jeans. I took the subway down to C.’s stop, and then got out and waited for her on the sidewalk, which meant that I had to pay twice. I didn’t mind. The idea of walking into the building by myself was too frightening. We clutched each other on the train, circumstantially joined at the hip. I was taller by half a foot, and C. clung to my arm as we exited the train. She chain-smoked cigarettes; I wouldn’t start for another two weeks.
Once we were inside the school, C. was fearless. A pro at starting at new schools and making new friends, she knew everyone by the end of the day, introducing me around as though I were her oldest friend, because, as far as high school was concerned, I was. C. spoke to everyone, even junior and senior girls, the beautiful ones whom I fully expected to treat me like Joey Lauren Adams treated the freshmen in Dazed and Confused—I would not have blanched if someone told me to hit the ground and fry like bacon. I would have fried. Having C. next to me meant that I didn’t have to be afraid, that I had a human buoy in the vast, dark sea. We didn’t stay best friends for long, just long enough to make sure that we could both swim on our own.
Recently, I saw C. for the first time in over ten years, and she turned to my husband and said, “She went to my first day of high school with me. This girl is gold.” We squeezed each other’s shoulders and arms and cheeks until we parted, the hearts of the nervous girls we’d once been still beating warmly inside our chests.
I woke up on my first day of high school with a brutal stomachache. “It’s probably just jitters,” my mother said. I should note that this was a completely reasonable supposition on her part; when your daughter spends the month leading up to her freshman year of high school asking questions like “What if I trip in the hallway and accidentally eat a staple?” it is perfectly natural to think that her stomachache might be due to nerves.
So I headed to school dressed in my 1995 best: a black, rose-patterned slip dress layered over a white baby tee and topped with a cropped denim vest. I looked pretty good, if you ignored the slightly green tinge to my skin, the dazed look in my eyes and the fever sweat dripping from my hair—which no one, apparently, was able to do. While my friends were asked, “How was your summer?” and “What classes are you taking?” I got “Um, are you OK?” and “Are you going to throw up?”
“I’m fine,” I said, though by the time sixth-period study hall rolled around, I knew that I wasn’t. I was definitely going to throw up. On my first day of high school. In front of everyone. If I didn’t haul ass to the ladies’, I’d be “that girl who puked in study hall” for the next four years.
“Ineeapass,” I slurred to the study hall teacher, who gave me an annoyed glare and told me that only one student could use the pass at a time. “Gonthrowup,” I blurted, taking off toward the door. I didn’t care about the pass. I didn’t care about my study hall teacher’s shouting after me. I didn’t even care about falling down and accidentally ingesting a staple. I didn’t care about anything except getting to the bathroom before I puked.
I made it to about two inches outside of the bathroom door before the sad remnants of an ill-advised Taco Tuesday lunch went flying all over the hallway. The scene played out in front of an open classroom door, and all of the students inside responded with a collective “awww.” It was a sympathy noise, which I remember being surprised and sort of touched by. I’d expected an “ewww,” and received an “awww” instead. Awww! She was so close! She almost made it! Poor kid! On the first day!
I spent the next week or so in bed recovering from a nasty flu, but I remember feeling extremely relieved, and thinking that high school was going to be all right. I’d puked in front of my peers, and I’d survived. People were even nice about it, kind of! And I don’t think anyone saw my face, or knew my name, which was a plus. I should also mention that I ended up having a fever of 104, so I was probably delusional for most of this adventure. For all I know, someone from that classroom yelled out, “Gross! You’re the worst, Casey! Never show your puke-stained face around here again!” But whatever, I prefer to remember it this way. ♦