Live Through This

On the Outside Looking Out

Being unpopular wasn’t enough to make me cool.

Illustration by Kelly

I did my most serious studying in high school in the weeks before my freshman year had even begun. The morning after Labor Day, my bedroom floor was littered with the most recent issues of every teen magazine imaginable. I had mined them for tips on the clothes I was supposed to wear (miniskirts, Uggs) and the music I was supposed to listen to (Justin Timberlake). They promised me that all I had to do was consume the right products, and I would fit in. Hell, if I played my cards right, I could even be popular.

For middle school I went to a super academic school in Ottawa. I spent every spare minute doing a lot of homework. There was very little time left for socializing, so I didn’t. As a result, my idea of what kids my age were into reminds me now of this 30 Rock bit.

During the second period of my first day of high school, I had math class. I was ready for this—math was my subject. At my middle school, academics were held in high regard, and the classes were competitive. Surely, the best way to earn the respect of my peers at this new place would be to sit as close to the front as possible, raise my hand for every question, and build a friendly rapport with my math teacher, right? I mean, who doesn’t like an overachieving math nerd?

Everybody. Everybody dislikes an overachieving math nerd. I was not a hit with the popular kids. I was not a hit with anyone. The girls with matching blond highlights and denim miniskirts rolled their eyes at me as they passed out of the classroom. The next day, I moved to the other side of the room, near a girl with a flannel shirt and band patches on her backpack. I imagined the contempt she had for the girls with the highlights and figured I could seek refuge with her.

“Ugh, she’s the worst,” she whispered to her friend as I sat down behind them. It took me a second to realize that she meant me. This caught me off guard—I was expecting some bitchiness from the popular kids (I’d seen The Breakfast Club), but weren’t all the outcasts supposed to band together? Couldn’t we unite over our shared rejection and become best friends? The answer was clearly no. She was disliked by the popular kids because she listened to the Stooges and wore thrifted clothing. I was disliked by the popular kids and her because I was an eager student and a teacher’s pet.

After a few months of eating lunch on my own, I eventually, totally by accident, fell in with a different crowd of “misfits,” none of whom were in my math class. Some of them had gone to my elementary school. We got along really well, I finally learned to be myself, and everything ended up all right.

Ha ha ha, no, just kidding. While the “misfits”—alternative kids, outcasts, whatever you want to call them—didn’t care if you straightened your hair or wore Abercrombie & Fitch, they still had their own unspoken code of conduct. And there were no magazines to consult for insight; they seemed to thrive on obscurity. They all instinctively knew what bands to listen to: Radiohead was cool, except for their first album, which was clearly super lame; Sonic Youth was cool, except for their latest album, which was even lamer than Radiohead’s first one. They knew what clothes to wear: they all mocked the expensive Ugg boots of choice while shelling out for Chuck Taylors.

Having people to hang out with after months of lonerdom made me so excited, I didn’t care if we didn’t have much in common. My new friends were never mean or cruel, but I started to intentionally distance myself from the things I liked, just so I could better blend in with them. Hanging out in my room once, a friend spotted a copy of YM with Hilary Duff on the cover. “Ugh, I can’t believe people actually like her music,” she said. I laughed in agreement, while secretly praying that she didn’t go anywhere near my CD collection.

This became a pattern. I hid the fact that I was a Junior Achiever and made excuses for why I couldn’t hang out on nights that I had meetings. I never mentioned that I tried out for the cheerleading squad, and that despite not making it, I still had massive respect for the sport. I hid or downplayed most of my own obsessions, like math and old Simpsons episodes. I never told them that most of the music they listened to just sounded like noise to me. (How could a band with a name as cute as Pixies make music that angsty?)

Our hangouts turned into me smiling and nodding silently during the conversations they had amongst themselves. I was terrified of what would happen the second they realized I wasn’t a “badass” like them. They smoked cigarettes and got high. They hung out in parking lots at night and swore in front of adults. My dream Friday consisted of renting new releases from Blockbuster and staying up past my bedtime, eating pizza and maybe even having two sodas. I soon started faking stomachaches when I went out, finding reasons why I needed my parents to pick me up from whatever party we were at so I could just go home and watch TV.

Pop culture led me to believe there is a dichotomy between the cool kids and the outcasts. Shows like Gossip Girl treat popularity as aspirational; Daria tells us it’s something to be reviled. My freshman year I was a neurotic mess, feeling like a freak no matter whom I was with, happiest when I was alone. I was neither a Cher Horowitz nor an Enid Coleslaw—both of whom seemed to be OK blowing off homework, which I could not wrap my head around.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if all my favorite pop-culture misfits were put in the same high school. Would any of them even get along? Daria would probably moralize about Enid’s pranks, Enid would find Willow Rosenberg’s nerdiness dull, and all of them would roll their eyes at Lindsay’s friends in Freaks and Geeks.

I ended up going to several different high schools for a variety of reasons. Each one had a different idea of what was and wasn’t cool. When I started the 10th grade, I signed up for every extracurricular I could, whether they were considered dorky or not, both to meet new people and to challenge my perceptions of what I liked. I made the cheerleading squad this time around, and played rugby the following semester. (Neither were for me—turns out I hate sports.) I joined the improv team and learned there were people who thought my jokes were funny. I also tried to give the things I once dismissed another try: I ended up re-listening to the “noisy” music my ninth grade friends had liked, and now it’s most of what I listen to. (My 14-year-old self would scold me for risking hearing loss to see the Pixies when I was 19).

There’s a lot to be said for owning your interests and not trying to fit in with any one group in particular. It is fun and exciting to share obsessions with your friends, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to like all of the same things. It’s OK to not like One Direction OR Grimes, just like it’s OK to love both of them. Life is not a high school movie with clearly defined aesthetic boundaries, especially since most of the teenagers in high school movies—outcasts or otherwise—are played by conventionally beautiful, aggressively styled 20-somethings with problems that never seem to relate to your own. Really, there’s just no point in trying to force yourself into someone else’s definition of cool. It just makes high school suck more than it needs to. ♦

52 Comments

  • sequoia October 10th, 2012 11:23 PM

    aww this is great

  • koolkat October 10th, 2012 11:26 PM

    ugh this is so amazing i really needed this right now

  • enwarhola October 10th, 2012 11:29 PM

    Excellent, really!

  • Nickysperanza October 10th, 2012 11:36 PM

    I like this post. Life’s too short to validate our tastes. I’ve discovered that I’m into so many things. So I will listen to my kpop and ramones music. I will not think twice when I pull out a sailor moon manga and shoot me if you hate me bc I’m tired of hearing people talk about reading palms. This turned into a tangent,
    But Anna, this post was gr8

    http://gimmeebrains.tumblr.com

    • jedarq93 October 11th, 2012 11:18 PM

      Also my taste is random, so you like manga? kpop? manga is art and kpop is so catchy! I love Rookie had mention Grimes, cause she’s pure free style feeling =)
      This , i think is related with being rejected or accepted and recently i’ve released that’s one of my fears, i hate when people judges, live and let live, and there will be no boundaries =)
      This magazine is awesome!!

  • wishfulwanderer October 10th, 2012 11:46 PM

    This is perfect. I’m a freshman and so far, I really hate high school. I’m the new kid for the first time and it sucks not having any established friends. But this gave me a glimmer of hope. Maybe if I just say “screw everyone, I’m gonna do what I wanna do” things will work out.

  • Ms.SNL October 10th, 2012 11:50 PM

    You have no idea how much I needed this. I just moved across the country to a new high school where I don’t know anyone, and I’ve been having a hard time breaking through the ice and making new friends. I can feel myself changing in ways I don’t like, but it’s getting hard to be myself when no one is there to be weird with me.

  • jessie77 October 11th, 2012 12:00 AM

    I can completely relate to this article thank you for writing it. Its really amazing to be able to relate to everything someone has said <3

  • ThatVictoriaGirl October 11th, 2012 12:03 AM

    Anna I feel like if I had known you in high school we would have been best friends. And possibly now. Wahoo for being yourself :)

  • Sonja October 11th, 2012 12:12 AM

    Anna, this is so good (i just tried to insert a SPECIAL CHARACTER but the heart did not show itself..but know that it is there as (friendly) apparition).
    and Kelly’s drawing is great. I get stupidly excited about unlikely pairings.
    Everything here makes perfect sense to me.

  • shrlby October 11th, 2012 12:17 AM

    this is exactly what i needed rn

  • connie October 11th, 2012 12:18 AM

    ottawa high schools range dramatically
    its a funny place to grow up

  • cicconeyouth October 11th, 2012 12:49 AM

    THIS.

  • Emilie October 11th, 2012 12:58 AM

    looove it, so good

  • Adrienne October 11th, 2012 1:02 AM

    Great article! I can really understand this… I have a wide range of interests that seem to contradict each other. My friends are really kind of just a hodge podge of people- we all have different interests! For example, only two of us read Rookie in our group!

    And Kelly’s illustration is AMAZING.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • elizab October 11th, 2012 2:31 AM

    It’s really hard to force yourself to fit a stereotype, or even one group. I certainly don’t fit any group except WEIRD. And I like it that way. The people I talk to in high school don’t have to be anything like each other. I think we self-described ‘different’ teens spend too much time being counterculture to realize we’re conforming. And that’s sad. And if it’s hard to choose which box to put yourself in, why choose just one? We need to stop sterotyping ourselves before we can yell at others for doing it to us.
    And anyway, how on earth would you classify me?
    I currently have an 103% in Geo-Trig. I’m bipolar. I’m a ballet dancer. I’m a sloppy perfectionist. I drink chocolate milk out of sippy cups. I’ve been described as a “freaky genius” as “that crazy girl” as “not like THEM” as “awesome girl.” I don’t understand sarcasm or slang. I have five peircings. I have a padawan braid dangling from a dandelion mass of hair. I love writing. My favorite song is “King and Lionheart” by Of Monsters and Men. I’ve been introduced to many people as “Mycroft Holmes.” I tend to walk into things because I’m reading.

    That girl with the blue dreadlocks? She’s got a list like mine. That girl who seems only concerned with her makeup and boyfriend? She’s got a list like that too. Ignoring most of a list doesn’t make the rest of it go away.

    And how is it that I write this much for a Rookie comment and yet am idea-less for my English homework?

    • lubs October 11th, 2012 1:47 PM

      OF MONSTERS AND MEN! Sorry, I just had to. They’re amazing.

    • MichelleCarneece October 11th, 2012 2:38 PM

      OF MONSTERS & MEN.
      By the way, you sound amazing. Much love. :)

    • Maddy October 11th, 2012 3:06 PM

      Whoah, this was probably the most interesting and best comment I’ve read on anything. I’m sort of similar, but envy the things we differ on (for example, I would love to be introduced as Mycroft Holmes, but that will never happen). I had a >100% in Precalc until recently and know the whole sloppy perfectionist thing. I wish I drank more things out of sippy cups because I really like being what I describe as “high/low”. Funny how that sort of sounds like bipolar disorder. Like some people mix couture and thrift, I mix my traits of being “freaky genius” with still playing with plastic dinosaurs. It sort of gives my mind a break. Anyway, I hope you read this, elizab. :)

      I liked this article because of the whole “girl into math” thing as well as feeling a sense of dislike from a class in which you know all the answers, even if you don’t say them. Luckily I have a couple people I’m friends with who don’t hold me to a standard code or anything. But today was a little jarring because I’m sort of growing apart from/finding tensions with one girl and she talked about how she wants to do an intensive art camp and then I was like “I want to go to math camp” and she mocked that.

  • kittenmix October 11th, 2012 3:01 AM

    I can’t believe UGGs are a coveted fashion item in America

  • paige.xo October 11th, 2012 3:10 AM

    This article is perfect.

  • LittleLenikins October 11th, 2012 6:45 AM

    I wish I’d had a chance to read this article when I was still going to high school. I went to a tiny very academic school, there were 66 students in my senior class, and the atmosphere was stifling… With even fewer people to choose from in respect to ‘cliques’ and a massive stigma attached to grades and colleges I found it very hard to find an accepting group of friends. I persevered, and I did find people who, now I’ve left school, I’m certain I will be in touch with for the rest of my life, purely because defying the norm brought us closer together.

  • mymlen October 11th, 2012 7:35 AM

    This is like reading my own diary. I am now, where you were when you were in your freshman years. expect that i’m 17 and it feels like i’m never ever going to fit in.
    my problem is kindof different though. i’m that one who likes pixie wheras all my friends love justin bieber. and i’m too shy and awkward to be friends with ‘the hipsters’ at school.

    • SarahCat October 11th, 2012 11:11 PM

      We have pretty much the same situations! Happy to know there are others.. ^_^

    • all-art-is-quite-useless January 15th, 2013 11:56 AM

      are you me?…

  • sabrina October 11th, 2012 11:01 AM

    Anna this is so good! I’ve been feeling so lost recently, like I don’t know where I fit in. This article is exactly what I needed right now.

  • limegreensunset October 11th, 2012 11:44 AM

    i seriously need this. god bless rookie!!!!!!

  • taste test October 11th, 2012 12:18 PM

    super great article!

    what’s weird is that I’m only starting to run into this attitude now, in college. I went to a really small middle school and a small high school, and though there were many things that sucked about that, it meant all the weird kids had to tolerate each other whether they fit each other’s standards of cool or not because they had no choice. there weren’t many of us- we had to stick together. but here people are free to avoid you if you aren’t badass enough/don’t like the right stuff because there’s a much bigger pool of people to choose from. the attitude isn’t nearly as petty and exclusive as it would have been in high school- people just self-segregate without any “OMG YOU’RE LIKE SO LAME” bullshit- but it’s still a little depressing.

  • EmmaAmerica October 11th, 2012 12:26 PM

    I remember having to deal with this when I started secondary school, when we were like 11/12. It was AWFUL on every level. Luckily, I go to a really amazing school and after the two years or so, everyone got over themselves and realized that actually it was more fun to live like the end bit of mean girls than the beginning.
    And it turns out, five years down the line, that everyone was faking liking stuff at the beginning, and it’s just way better now that we realized that having everyone like the same things actually gets really boring.

  • Taylor WM October 11th, 2012 12:42 PM

    I feel the need to add the completely unnecessary comment that I love One Direction AND Grimes. Most of my interests and tastes are complete opposites of the spectrum, and I don’t seem to fit any of the stereotypes of the types of people who are mean’t to enjoy the things I do. But, diversity adds intrigue and it would honestly be so boring if we all lived our lives in a narrow-minded state and didn’t broaden our horizons and challenge what we liked. Hahaha
    Thanks rookie :)
    x
    http://www.whitemoth.blogspot.co.uk

  • RhiaSnape October 11th, 2012 1:12 PM

    I love articles like this, although my secondary school in england doesn’t have these kind of cliches. There are definitley groups of girls, but there are no ‘jocks’ or ‘preppy kids’ or ‘nerds’.
    There are the more popular though. I’m in the middle, but me and my friends are all different. Yet we do gravitate towards similar things. I find it hard to be my own person sometimes, I have to admit.

  • lubs October 11th, 2012 1:46 PM

    I’m from Brazil I think it’s fun and weird and surreal how these ‘cliques’ work on other places. Groups and stereotypes work differently here, or at least they used to, because we’re so bombed by pop culture (especially american) that us teenagers are starting to act it out, even when it clearly isn’t the best thing to have such stereotypical cliques. I don’t know. It’s weird to see how real those stereotypes are for some people and how real they’re getting here too.

  • dandelions October 11th, 2012 2:11 PM

    there’s just no point in trying to force yourself into someone else’s definition of cool: TRUE

    Some people try so hard to be unique and different that are just a copy of what they think is cool… and then you realized that all of them are the just same…

  • epw37 October 11th, 2012 3:10 PM

    Thank you so much. This really brightened my bad day. Some times I get tired of being invisible.

  • Chloe Elizabeth October 11th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Aww, your 14 year old self and my 14 year old self we woulda been friends! I’m in a new school now and I just wanna find somebody who will obsess over doctor who with me and who has irrational phobias… I find those incredibly endearing.

  • ♡ reba ♡ October 11th, 2012 4:10 PM

    this is such a great article <3 <3 <3

  • Josefina October 11th, 2012 6:37 PM

    I can relate to a lot of this. Thank you for writing it, even if it would seem pointless given that I have a month left of school – EVER. Turns out I still haven’t found a place to fit in, but I know I will once I go to college. I know there are places for me, maybe not in the shithole where I live but my interests are not hopeless. You don’t seem to have found a definite group of friends and neither have I, and that’s one of the things that makes me feel hopeful about this article. I know that feeling, too, of being surrounded by bad-asses and feeling “well, I’m not /exactly/ like them, but we both like… weirdness? Okay!”. I hung out with people that liked metal and J-rock outside of school, and at fourteen they had sex and smoked and I only drank juice (I still do! I have the healthiest liver in my class…).
    What I would really like you to know is that I admire how open-minded you were during a period in which most maladjusted teenagers would think “guh, I suck! I’ll wait until for some serendipitous chance I meet someone that likes x and y!” and not dare to venture out into other hobbies in case there’s someone with that best-friend connection. It’s unusual to be hopeful and optimistic, I think! But you were made to live through this. x

  • jeans kinda girl October 11th, 2012 6:40 PM

    Going into HS, I didn’t think it would be exactly like the movies, but it was way different then what I expected. My group of friends are entirely different from me, but we always find one thing or another to connect us (whether it’s the latest book-turned-into-a-movie or the best cookies ever made).

  • clairee October 11th, 2012 7:40 PM

    YES YES YES. This was the best epiphany I ever made. Just like what you like, who cares if the group doesn’t? Even the ‘not popular’ kids can be exclusive and mean in their own way. So much love for Rookie this week.

    http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/

  • BandanaNinja October 11th, 2012 8:25 PM

    OH man this is pretty much my life. I too never felt like I belonged anywhere. And it has taken me until adulthood to finally realize/accept that I don’t need to. I don’t need to live up to anyone else’s expectations but my own. I wear what I want, color my hair what I want and listen to whatever the fuck I want. The point is high school is only 4 years. College is/was way more fun. But most of all having the freedom to be yourself: priceless. So cary on my fellow “weirdo” gals. You make this world interesting.

  • clairedh October 11th, 2012 9:44 PM

    Thank you for writing this :) It must have been hard to be so honest about how much you tried to fit in. I did the same thing and did things because I thought everyone else was doing them and I didn’t want to miss out. I think about it now I’m out of high school and realise how ridiculous that is. (I can’t even talk to people about it, that’s how embarrassed I am by it, hence why I am so grateful you could admit it in your story.)
    I have now met a bunch of beautiful people who do things simply because that’s what they like and I do the same. But what I have learnt from all of this is that I have plenty of time to get things wrong and I have to make sure I stay in the present and not feel guilty about the past (the other awesome thing about this article is that you don’t feel guilty for being a bit silly (for lack of a better term) in the past)
    (I also adore and envy those people who are weirdos and do whatever you want – YOU ARE THE MOST INTERESTING OF ALL THE PEOPLE :) and there’s nothing more fun or attractive (both in a sexy way and in a normal way) than an interesting person.

  • Casey57 October 12th, 2012 12:09 AM

    WELL SAID, what is cool & uncool is so unclear in high school!
    I hated it for this reason exactly, I ended up sacrificing my grades to hang out with the “cool” crowd (because being in the dumb is totes amazeballs) and it was such a waste. I had nothing in common with them and now I don’t see any of them anymore.

    They used to say they had their period in gym class to avoid swimming. WTF right?

    I LOVED SWIMMING!

  • eliselbv October 12th, 2012 6:02 PM

    I still don’t know how does Rookie to always have the right word but gosh it’s so good!

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • losergirl October 13th, 2012 11:46 AM

    I totally get this, I was always the one that listened to alt. music and there was this group of girls that I totally idolised because they wore flannel shirts and Doc Martens and smoked rolled up cigarettes and always wore beautiful thrifted clothing but I somehow ended up falling into a group of total outcasts. The same sort of thing; lovely people but I have nothing in common with them. It seems in my situation it doesn’t matter what music I listen to or what thrifted clothes I wear, I’m stuck with these people as friends. I love them but sometimes being with people that you don’t share common interests with gets a little lonely.

  • Funky Monkey October 13th, 2012 7:54 PM

    I just wanted to say that I love that the girl in flannel liked the Stooges. I LOVE THEM, but I never hear about anyone else loving them.

    Also, does anyone else feel pressure to fit into a sort of mold based on the things that you like on social networking sites? I always feel weird when I want to put different things up on tumblr or twitter or facebook and they don’t line up with the other things I like, etc. It makes me feel like it all has to make sense together.

  • YangHaizi October 14th, 2012 4:31 AM

    soooo true..amazing article

  • stellar October 17th, 2012 2:26 PM

    i love so many things that aren’t ‘like’ each other, so i cldn’t possibly categorize myself…nor do i want to. it wldn’t make sense!!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 2nd, 2012 11:46 AM

    So much truth and awesomeness in one article…

  • trassel December 20th, 2012 6:18 AM

    I think music is so personal and it is really hard when people judges your taste in music, it feels like they are judging YOU. For the longest time I didn’t dare to tell people what kind of music I listened to, for fear that it wasn’t considered good. But it’s so subjective, you can’t really say that anything is inherently good or bad. I am realizing this more and more as I grow.

  • Mad Lucas January 8th, 2013 12:02 PM

    I really liked this! i’ve been to four different high schools and i’ve always found it difficult to find people i had anything in common with. I kind of wish that i could have read this before i’d gone to high school and i might not have felt so sorry for myself all the time.