My husband, who’s brilliant, broke the gender divide down for me. “The difference between guys and girls is: guys fight by punching each other. Somebody wins; the problem’s over. Girls fight by talking to other girls. Nobody ever wins; the problem never ends.”
I know this smacks of gender stereotyping. Apologies. But some traits came down to us from the cavepeople. And is he wrong, my husband? He’s not, is he. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but us chicks, we’re like, too gentle to tell another chick we’re pissed off. Instead, we tell all of our friends we’re pissed, and win the fight that way: by making everybody else hate her, too.
One of my teens was the center dot in that bulls-eye for a minute. Let me tell you about her. She was the definition of cool. Great hair, a half smile, and AE clothes, but not too tight or short, you know? She even had a girl name that doubled as a boy name. And here’s the rub: she didn’t know how effing cool she was. Actually, she thought she was a semi-loser, lucky to be orbiting in her mean-girl friend’s circle. Oh, Jordan*. (*Jordan wasn’t her real name. Her real name was way more badass.)
This awesome humility was exactly what made Jordan a target. The sub-par human is forever trying to boost itself by squelching its superior (see: Adolf Hitler. Mitt Romney. All of Taylor Swift’s boyfriends). And the superior, who is naturally humble and innocent, is easily squelched. At least, the first few times.
Jordan came to me with the half-smile gone. None of her three best friends were talking to her, and she didn’t know why. All she knew was that the one friend (who, it turned out, was the most popular amongst the girls, because she was so skinny, and the least popular amongst the boys, because she was too skinny) was mad at her. Nobody would tell Jordan WHY Slim was mad, but they were happy to send texts like, “Slim is SO mad at you.” Ping! Ping! went her cell phone, each new text the same message with new words. And poor Jordan thumbed out, “Why?”–SEND–each time, helpless and confused. I worked real hard to not pull a Mama Bear on those tweeny bitches.
After a struggle, I managed to pry the phone from Jordan’s shaking hand. And I even got her to listen to me.
Me: “Jordan. Me. Over here. We got this.” If she’d been the kind of girl who needed eyeliner, it would’ve been smudged all down her face. “Check this out. You know that guy that the girls all looooove?”
Jordan: (sniff) “Yeah.”
Me: “Does he act like he loves them back?”
Jordan: “Um. No.”
Me: “And how does his ignoring them make them act?”
Jordan: “Like they love him even more.”
Me: “Exactly! Sad fact of human nature: we want most what doesn’t want us. Which is why you’re all OVER texting back the ‘friends’ who are dissing you. You want them to want you back?”
Jordan: (sob) “Yes!”
Me: “Then be that guy who all the girls love. Act like you don’t give a poop. Now. In case this takes a minute, do you have other friends you can hang out with at school tomorrow?”
Jordan: (gulp) “Um, yeah…my friend Tyler and his lacrosse friends….”
Me: “Bingo. Guys. Better. Safety net. Ready? Here we go….”
Cell phone: PING!
Text Message: “Slim said find another lunch table.”
My Thumbs on Jordan’s Phone: “Alrite”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “And don’t come to her party fri”
My Thumbs: “Got other plans”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “JK”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “Jord, it’s Slim”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “Want to match outfits tomorrow?”
Jordan: Smile. A full one, that time.
Oh, and by the way? I am in no way JK. It was that fast. Lightening. Shit works.
Let’s just go ahead and rip the bandaid off, k? This is gonna hurt, but only for a second. Ready? Here’s the suck: no matter how hard you try to make people like you, you might not end up liked. I mean, there is a possibility people won’t want to be your friend.
Face that possibility, and it can’t get any worse. So all it can do is get better. See how that works? Either way, now, you’re gonna be fine.
The first lesson of Buddhism is this: life is hard. Don’t expect easy. Digest that notion, and boom! Life’s a lot easier. You stop expecting something good, and you’re fine when it doesn’t come.
But then, guess what happens? Once you don’t care if the good doesn’t come, the good starts coming. It’s magic.
So let’s apply this concept to high school popularity. You’ve faced the fact that people might never like you (harsh). So you stop trying to make people like you (sad). Now you’re putting out that, “Meh, whatever to you all” vibe (cool). And since you don’t care if they like you, they start…liking you (sweet).
This is boring and philosophical. We need some color. So here ya go. Meet Tim.
Tim had flat black hair and a Cabbage Patch Kid body. He wasn’t an athlete. He wasn’t a Popular Kid. He wasn’t an anything, officially.
And yet…Tim’s girlfriend was Heather, the human Barbie doll. Tim was on auto-invite for every kegger. Tim made the teacher laugh at the shit that got everyone else detention. Because Tim had popularity Zen. He didn’t give a fkuc what we thought of him.
Here’s what Tim did, instead of giving a fkuc: he left the party to dance, alone, in the middle of the street. He wore a hazmat suit to school one random Thursday. He pinched my boob through my old lady costume on Halloween and said, “Nice falsies.” Then he cutely blushed when I said, “They’re not false.” Tim didn’t drink, but he was neither righteous nor ashamed about it. Actually, he wasn’t righteous or ashamed about anything. He just…was, and we could take it or leave it. And because of that, we all loved him. A lot.
So here’s a review of today’s lesson.
A) They might never like you. Face it.
B) Find other stuff to think about. Anything but Them, and whether they like you.
C) Watch as They fall at your feet.
I don’t make a secret of the fact that I like all you guys, and un-like adults. But I thought I’d break it down a little, give you my reasoning. It’s because adults are full of shit. And you’re not.
Sorry to my legions of adult readers out there, but you can kind of fug off.
Okay, back to you guys. Do you know an adult who’ll admit when they’re wrong? How about one who will listen to what you say? Or–this one’s, like, the Loch Ness Monster–one who can “self-reflect” and “claim responsibility”? Yeah, that thing. The one you’re always getting in trouble for not doing. You don’t, do you. Know an adult like that. It’s okay. I don’t, either.
Next question: do you know any teens who’ll do those things? I really want an answer to that one. I want to know how you guys see each other. But first, I’m gonna tell you what I see.
I see teens being bald-face honest about their faults. I see teens calling each other out on bullshit (yes, r/teenagers, I’m talking to you)…and I see the bullshitter coming back with, “Yeah, I see your point.” I see teens not trying to hide it when they’re psyched, or bored, or madly in love. (Oy, with the high school hallways on Valentine’s Day.)
Today I saw some teens who’re taking it to a new level. A friend of mine is a teacher at a juvenile detention facility. I imagine life might suck a little, for her students. I imagine if I were them, I’d be pissed at the world. But then, I’m an adult.
So my friend set up a blog to post her students’ writing. Here’s some of the mind-bogglingly honest, self-reflective stuff they have to say.
From “Lock Up”: “If I had a choice, I would choose to be at C—- (name of facility withheld) because you are safe here and you can still talk to your parents through mail and talk on the phone and you get food three times a day…It’s like home, except you have to stay in a cell and do what they want you to do. You still get to go to school and get to find other ways to get out of your cell.”
Get to. This kid is locked up, and he’s finding stuff to be grateful for.
In “The Boy Who Survived in the Wilderness,” we’ve got the anti-bragger: the kid who, even in fiction, makes the hero not-quite-perfect: “They went outside and hung an old tarp target on a old bale of hay. Daddy showed him how to knock the arrow onto the string and how to aim for the big dot in the middle of the tarp. The first couple of times he didn’t do so well, he missed the target all together. But finally he got the hang of it and before dark Braxton was hitting bull’s eye almost every shot.”
Almost every shot. Not every shot, but almost.
From “Mistakes”: “I have lived with my grandmother for fifteen years and I treated her like crap. I always blamed her for my mother’s mistakes. Now, since I am getting older, I am starting to realize it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault…Now I am sitting in detention because I started blaming my grandmother again for my mother’s mistakes.”
Now just for contrast, here’s what adults have to say about why they’re locked up. This quote, from a nurse at an adult prison, is a Q and A from the Ask Me Anything forum. Yeah, I’m reddit-happy today. So what.
Q: Do you get told what they’re incarcerated for? Is it in their chart in some way, or do you just learn from guards, or their own disclosure?
A: It’s not in their chart, but we can ask the officers or look them up on the DOC website. It’s an if-you-wanna-know kind of thing. If you ask them, they’ll likely lie to you, in my experience.
You see what I’m saying?
Now here’s my no-bullshit: I appreciate all you teens who tolerate my adult-assed presence in the classroom and online. My life might suck without you.
Oh, and PS: if you want to read that blog yourself, it’s here: http://writersontheinside.com/ If you go, leave ‘em a comment. I’m sure they’ll be grateful for that, too.
I’m subbing for the librarian, so you know the kids in this class are the good guys. If you choose “library science” as your elective, you’re a poindexter. Truth.
So I ask these scrub-faced seniors to confirm or deny my suspicion. “Does it seem,” I say, “that most adults are mad at you before you’ve done anything wrong?”
They’re such goodies, they think about it a sec before nodding.
“Yeah,” lacrosse-star-guy says. “Soon as you walk into CVS they’re tailing you, like you’re going to pocket a travel toothpaste.”
A girl with Heidi braids chimes in. “All but, like, one of my teachers hates me.” She has a cello case next to her. How do you hate the kid who plays cello?
I’m on a mission to prove the teen-haters wrong. This blog is how I’m going to do it. Here’s exhibit A.
I am stupid. I walk my dogs without leashes. One of my dogs is a master hunter. He was the homeless guy; he’s had to hunt for food. So we’re walking on this path that follows a stream. Next to the stream is a set of woods. Next to the woods is a major road.
A deer screeches across our path and into the woods. My dogs—my precious, everything dogs—screech after it. They’re gone. All that’s left is the woosh of nearby traffic.
Understand me, I am flipping the eff out. My babies will get killed by cars, and I’m helpless. If I go into the woods and head left, what if they went right? Or vice versa? If I’m screaming their names and moving, how will they find me, the moving target? And if military logic says a lost soldier stays in his last known location, shouldn’t I stand still and scream their names? Okay, flipping. The eff. Out. And screaming.
A human figure comes limping toward me from a quarter mile away. Through the woods. In a leg cast.
“I was out feeding the cows and heard you. You okay?” this Superman of a teen says.
“My dogs!” I gack out.
“Oh, they won’t get to the road,” says Super. “That road’s a way off.”
Then he limps his broken ass off through the prickers. The poison ivy. The ticks. In a leg cast. Two minutes later I hear, “They’re coming!” And there’s my babies, barreling at me with slathery grins.
I force this kid to tell me where he lives, practically at gunpoint. I will be giving him that 20 in my wallet.
Pull up to his house, knock on the rattly screen door, and a big guy with a beer answers. I compliment him on the job he’s done raising his son; he goes, “My son? Bah.”
So broken-legged kid rescues two dogs, puts hysteria-lady on ice, and tries to wave off a free $20. In exchange, from the adults, he gets “Bah” and a gun to the head. And it’s teens that are sucky? To that, I say this: bah.
Well, that was kind of rude. I tell you to go feel good about your thing and then I ditch, without a word on how to do it. SOR-ry (to the tune of the doorbell, DING-dong). Well, chopchop. Let’s get on that.
First, some background info on feeling good about yourself. If you’re lucky, you grew up in this, like, recycling symbol of affirmation, above. Go. Read. Now.
Not so lucky? Me either. My recycling symbol was more like this:
1) You’re (choose as many as apply) ignored/resented/abused/belittled at home
2) Your day-1 self-perception: “I’m unlikable”
3) Because you’ve never known “being liked,” you put off a “Please like me, but I know you won’t” vibe
4) Your belief that people can’t like you tells the world, “This kid’s a weird one”
5) You have no friends, which reinforces…
6) Your self-perception: “I’m unlikable”
The problem with recycling symbols? They have no end. Each step in the cycle makes the next one happen, every time. So unless you got Brady Bunch lovin’ as a tiny tot, you’re socially screwed, right? Forever alone. SOR-wait! Stop right there!
There are ways to break the recycling symbol. Jerkoffs toss their 98%-post-consumer-waste water bottles out car windows every day, don’t they? They do. And if jerkoffs can break the chain, so can you. All you’ve got to do is reset your spin cycle.
The start of the loop was “We don’t like you,” and that thing kept on spinning. But jam a wrench in there–a message that contradicts the spin–and it snaps to a halt. It might not be easy; it might not be cute. But you can turn that machinery around.
Okay loudmouth, you’re thinking. It’s impossible to make people like me, and to solve that problem, I’ve gotta…make people like me?
Yeah, I guess I am saying that. And yeah, I know it sounds like psychobabble. But–and here’s where I don my top hat and tails, and jump up on my box–I know it can be done. Because–wait for it–I did it myself! And you can too, for the low, low price of…$0.
Just stick with me. Come back next time, with your mind open and your cynicism in check. We’ll get ya there, you and me. We’ll get ya to the top of the social heap in no time. Just you wait.
Those kids who have nobody to sit with at lunch. They still exist, right? Psyche. I know they do, ‘cuz I see their posts on Reddit. I always give them the same 3 lines of advice, but there’s a motherload where that came from. So here ya go. Part I in a series on how to shake your status as a high school loser.
So, this one kid? Frankenstein in Coke bottle glasses. Complete with the shuffle. And every other kid in the room has a cool haircut, if you know what I mean. Before class even starts I’m cringing for the Frankenstein, knowing that he’s the puck, and the cool guys are the sticks.
The computers are in a horseshoe around the room. All the other guys get on them and start their projects, but not weird Frank. Frank wanders around, talking to himself as the rest of the guys talk to each other. Every once in a while Frank stops, leaning in and watching over someone’s shoulder.
I encourage him to find his own computer, because some verbal sniper is about to lay him flat. How long are they going to tolerate the eyeballs on their work, the mumble in their ears? But Frank comes back with an ironclad excuse: “The program’s still loading.” And because I’m the anti-control freak, I can’t command him, “SIT DOWN.” He’s not doing anything wrong. Plus, the worst thing I could do to the kid would be to call more attention to him. So I sit. And I watch. And I learn.
I’m shocked to see that the cool guys don’t mind Frank. I’m extra-shocked that Frank doesn’t mind himself. And that’s his golden ticket.
It dawns on me like this. When I ask Frank to find a computer, he doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t look down. He doesn’t do any of the terrified-kid-in-the-spotlight moves. Instead, he keeps his eyes on some kid’s computer. As in, “I’m fine with what I’m doing. Got nothing to hide.”
Then, when that kid turns to the guy next to him, Frank doesn’t move along, knowing he’s about to get ragged on. And therefore, he’s right. He’s not about to get ragged on. The kid asks the guy how to graph a rhomboid or something.
All through the class, Frank does stuff that gets other kids ridiculed. And all through class, his classmates don’t raise an eyebrow. Because Frank is cool with his weirdness. That shit is armor.
You know the fat kid who’s picked on for being fat? He’s putting out a Damn, I’m fat vibe. Know that other fat kid who’s wicked funny, who everyone wants to be friends with? He’s putting out a Damn, I’m funny! vibe. That’s the only diff.
So here it is, a nice little vitamin pill. The prescription for losing your high school loserdom. Feel fine about your thing. Weird? Fat? Dorky? Loud? Awesome. Fuck what anyone else thinks, in the friendliest way possible. They’ve got their own thing, you’ve got yours. Both are cool. Believe that, and you’re teflon.
I’m subbing at a new high school. It’s often written up in the local paper, but not with glowing stories of promising young athletes. Rather, it’s “Student Assaulted Teacher” and “Teacher Molested Student.” I did my first 3 years of teaching at a school with metal detectors at the door. I’m not afraid of “bad” schools. More like, I’m afraid of the pain-in-the-ass subbing can be at a school where teachers are so miserable, they’ll just not show up one day. But maybe it’s my kind of place, I thought. I kind of like mayhem. So I decide to check it out. Here’s what I find.
First period class is big. Like, 33 kids-big. One guy tells me they’ve had a sub almost every day since the start of the semester, which explains why there are no lesson plans. I say hey to the kids and start taking attendance; everybody’s acting fine. Then the classroom door opens, and three adults step in: a teacher, an administrator, and a security guard. Now, it might be worth telling you that the class is like 98% black kids. It also might be worth telling you that 2 of the 3 adults are also black. And it’s probably a good time to keep it real.
Whether we want to talk about it or not, there are big differences in how white people and black people are living in this country. I’m saying, look up some statistics about the people who are stinkin rich. What are they? White. And look up the rates at which white folks graduate college, and compare them to the rates for people of color. Or just go straight to the heart of it: look up the incarceration rates for black males. Hint: on any given day, 1 of every 10 black men in their 30s is locked up. Bottom line? As a general rule, white people live easier than black people. We all know this, right?
I’m no social scientist. I don’t think I understand the problem, or have the solution. But I do know what worked for me.
I didn’t live the “easy white life.” I had free lunch in elementary school and junior high. I shared a bedroom with my step-sister and step-brother. I got smacked more than I got praised. I was homeless at 13. For a long time, life was hard. The one good thing I had? School.
My teachers saved me. They made learning fun, so school was an escape. They gave me good books to read, which were better than drugs. They told me my writing was excellent, which was sweeter than a hug. I was really, really lucky. Because of my teachers, I had something besides the ugly. Because of my teachers, I pulled myself out of that mess.
Now, back to the classroom. Back to the 3 adults, the 33 kids. Refresher: the kids are acting fine. The adults? Not so much.
Trying to support the new sub, I guess, the administrator says, “These students need to behave and do their work. Do not hesitate to call security. If one student–ONE student–does or says something you do not like, you just pick up that phone and call security.”
“Um–I’m fine, they’re fine,” I say back. “I just don’t have any lesson plans…?”
The teacher shows me a stack of copies with carefully numbered Learning Objectives taking up half the page. Like, 3.01: The student will be able to assess and analyze the difference between blah and blah and blah. This jargon makes my eyes spin. And I’m supposed to force 33 teenagers who’ve had a sub for 2 months to take it seriously? Why yes, I am. I know this because the administrator speaks again.
“These students need to take this work very, very seriously. They have not been doing their work, yet they have a standardized test coming up, an EOC. In 3 weeks! If they don’t start caring about this work and taking it seriously, they will fail. They better start caring about that.”
I have to force myself not to apologize to the students for her words. And just like every time I’m in a classroom, I have to force myself not to teach like my teachers taught me, back in the 70s and 80s: with excitement and color and creativity and good books. I have to pretend 3.01 is what they must do, because that fill-in-the-bubble, there’s-only-one-correct-answer-to-every-question EOC test is the most important thing. Because in schools today? We don’t give kids an escape route. We don’t give kids a reason to want to learn, or inspire them to do more than just survive the ugly. There’s no time for such nonsense. There’s simply no room in the curriculum.
Even cooler? She’s a white chick. How many white girls do you know with the ballz to rock flourescent orange patent leather weejuns? Zero. That’s how many.
Her words: “I like orange.”
All hail the new queen.
I’m one of those annoying adults who only follows the rules that aren’t stupid. My trustworthy dogs, out in the woods, clamped onto leashes? Stupid rule. Not following it. Besides, their galloping ahead introduces me to wonderful people. Like the kinds of teenagers who don’t use Proactiv or attend Youth Group, who like to hide whatever they’re up to in the woods. Or, who like to hide themselves from the adults who don’t like them.
One day, the pups are barreling down the path when I see two teen boys walking toward us. Because I’ve been reamed by ramrod-straight adults in the past–There is a leash law, you know!–I call out, “They’re friendly!” I could’ve saved my holler, though. The guys–clad in scungy jeans and black t-shirts–are bending over to say hey to my dogs, at dog-level. When I catch up to them, the one kid smiles up at me. “They’re cool dogs!”
Now, I’m so used to the fury of leash-Nazi grownups, his words leave me stunned. So stunned, I forget my cheese-filter. As we part ways, I call out the corniest thing ever: ”Hey, thanks. You’re good kids.”
This time, I stun him. He and his friend stop, spin around. “Really? You’re the first person to say we’re good. Most people say we look evil.”
So that’s what they walk around knowing adults think of them. That they’re evil. I’ll tell you something, and I know this for sure: if you stoop down to pet some random dog who just came roaring up to you, you’re not evil. Not even a little bit.
Today, same trail, the dogs peel off to investigate what’s going on up there, by the side of the lake. It’s three teen guys, zero fishing poles, and a cardboard box that says ICEHOUSE. Just standing around, liking the feel of a sunny, breezy day on the lake. I keep my eyes on the pups, making sure they don’t pee on anyone’s sneakers, and give my line: “They friendly.” I get a pleasant chuckle, but no reply.
Feeling weird about interrupting their little party, I say, “Okay, dogs, let’s go.” But the dogs have gone deaf. “C’mon, dogs!” in the happy voice. Not a move.
“This is weird,” I say, finally looking up at their faces. They’re wearing that helpless smile and them red, red eyes. They’re stoned to the beejezus, and I scared the sweet shit out of them. To them, I’m the cops. My dogs are drug sniffers.
As I start clearing the hell out of there, to put their minds at ease I say, “They won’t leave! They really like you guys! Come on, dogs!”
There’s another chuckle as the dogs break free of their trance and follow me. We’re ten steps away when one of the guys responds.
“Hey, you wanna beer?”
In other words, “Hey, thanks for not judging us. Hey, thanks for getting it. Hey, thanks for not thinking we look evil.”
I didn’t look back as I called my “No thanks, dude.” I didn’t want ‘em to see my corny, grateful smile.
God, do I love them teens.
Before you go all snot-breath on me–like, all black is a fashion statement, Etler?–lemme tell ya something. This kid goes to a military school. She has to wear all black. So, way to be a fashion Zulu at a military school: AllStars, funky laces, and my blog as an anklet? All hail this kid.
At least, all grownups hail this kid. The rest of you kids can hail your own selves.
Maybe my favorite thing about working with you guys is this: your style blows my skull apart. It’s like, you didn’t get the rules book, so y’all do whatever you want. Examples: I’m doing this memoir-writing class in my stupid suburban town. First chick shows up? Striped purple hair. Purple hair with her old-lady flowered blouse. Next kid? Porkpie hat, big cartoon-red watch, and the world’s oldest t-shirt. It’s the no-smoking sign with the words, “There are cooler ways to die.” Kid blows my mind. How do you get that much style in 13 years on earth?
The next chick’s rocking silver-screen eyebrows and a do-rag, cholo-style. Bobby pins clip it into place. If I put that look together, it’s cuz I’m scrubbing toilets. And this gal’s the most glamorous thing on earth.
How do you guys do it? How do you make this nonsense work together?
I’m driving down my stupid suburban street this morning at school bus hour. Poor little girl, this strange lady–me–pulls alongside and rolls the window down, starts talking to her about her outfit. Scared the crap out of her, but I couldn’t help it: she had this magenta sequined bag, as big as my kitchen, over her shoulder. I’m like, Wait! You can wear a disco-ball bag with a white dress made out of crocheted doilies? And then throw a sailor-striped sweater on, too? My world will never be the same.
So I’ve got to thank you guys. I’m the one earning $ to “teach” you, but I’m the one getting schooled. Every cool outfit I’ve come up with was inspired by you and your warrior style. But it’s a fight, lemme tell ya. Hit 25, and the universe strong-arms you into looking like everybody else. So next time you see some oldster looking fly, tip your porkpie at ‘em. They worked hard to look half as cool as you.
P.S. There is one exception to the rule, one lady who can hail her own self: the mom I saw at Starbucks this morning. The one in the black pantsuit with the sun-yellow flower pin, the sun-yellow heels, and the slicked-back Evita bun. Damn, girl. You look good.