Have you ever heard the old saying, “Good girls are bad girls that haven’t been caught?” It’s been commemorated on novelty coffee mugs and, as of late, in pop punk songs. Part of me knows this phrase is ridiculous because it reduces girls into a “good” or “bad” dichotomy, when every girl is a complex, multifaceted human beeiiiiing. But there’s another part of me that loves this phrase because it paints “good girls” as talented multitaskers. Like, girls with amazing time-management skills that allow them to do all their homework and read aloud to the elderly after school, but to still sneak out into the night and have wild sex inside a bank vault they’re robbing.
My high school existence proved this motto wrong. Despite my textbook good-girl status, my life had no dark, hidden underbelly. I never had wild sex while robbing a bank, or even had sex, for that matter. The only thing remotely disobedient I ever got caught doing was falling asleep in class. But I never felt like I was particularly good at being a good girl because my behavior was not the result of devotion to some strict moral obligation or a deep love of school. I liked learning, but I woke up most school-day mornings only able to think about how I couldn’t wait until the day was over so I could come home, heat up some Toaster Strudel, and watch whatever syndicated TV show was airing on ABC Family. In fact, it was my intense rerun viewing that led me to decide that I should even consider being good at school: I wanted to be like Rory Gilmore or Topanga Lawrence or Denise Huxtable. These cool, older-sister/best-friend types always did well and ended up successful—not by conforming, but by being smart on their own terms. Being studious started to appeal to me as a grasp of power; even if high school was underwhelming and mediocre, it didn’t mean I had to be, too.
Adults frequently like to remind you that going to school every day for eight hours straight disciplines you for life, but I think it’s more that having to learn to deal with nonsensical rules prepares you for an unfair world. As the Ghost of High School Past, I’m here to tell you that, no, you do not look back at high school and say, “I am grateful for the discipline that that learning environment instilled in me.” You look back and groan because high school is logistically the worst, yet it just keeps happening. You have to get up before the sun rises to make it to class before the first bell; between classes you have, like, fewer than five minutes to move from room to room (those kids who manage to make out in between classes have amazing time-management skills), where you then have to sit among dozens of your peers, most of whom you probably don’t even get along with; AND, you have to ask to go pee! One time in the cafeteria I tried to get two Dixie cups of salad with my pizza, and the lunch lady yelled at me because I was only allowed to get one, thus officially making it the Time I Got in Trouble for Trying to Eat Extra Vegetables. (OK maybe I was wrong—I have done some disobedient things in my life!)
Acting out by, like, skipping class offers instant gratification in a mostly unfair place like high school, and I’m not frowning at it. But outsmarting your teachers, or your classmates, can be its own form of rebellion, and one that has the potential to get you further ahead in the long run. When I started high school, I was feeling generally resentful of school and got lazy about my grades. I started neglecting short reading assignments, like, “Read one act of Hamlet tonight,” and then messing up on quizzes. English was the one subject that I reliably did well in, but that semester, I got my first B. That is NOT A BAD GRADE, but it still made realize that luxuriating in how bothersome school could sometimes be wasn’t helping me at all.
My future felt like it was in the hands of a power structure built on bathroom passes and arbitrary protocol, true. But I could either let it destroy me, by resenting and avoiding it and the work that came with it, or I could destroy it. Now, I don’t mean burning the building down by starting a fire with a cigarette in the girls’ bathroom, though that does sound like a glamorous way to commit arson. I mean destroying school by being as good as I could be at it, so that when the time came I could hightail it out of there to places that were better and cooler, and, ideally, that would let me take as much salad I wanted without being reprimanded.
When I look back at high school, I don’t think about how I managed to get decent grades, or how I got into college and did, in fact, get out of my not-that-bad suburban town and move to a major city. I think about how I’m relieved that I had the foresight to be able to be like, OK, I can hate this place and just do poorly, or I can try to make things a bit easier for future me.
Another problem I have with being a “good girl,” especially when it comes to school? The idea that doing well is only meant for the satisfaction of impressing parents or teachers. As frustrated as I felt when people perceived me as OBEDIENT, I knew: I wanted to do well for myself. ♦