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I DIDN’T ENJOY HIGH school. I hated almost everyone I came into contact with, and I couldn’t wait to leave. But in the nine years since, I’ve met dozens of happy-go-lucky graduates, blithe souls who seem never to have caught an episode of My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks, girls who hold court at parties reminiscing about their great friends from cheerleading, drama club or 4H and pull out old pictures just to show that their complexions were just as perfect then and their bods are just as tight now.

Most of us have at least one friend like this, for whom high school was just so much fun that life as an adult pales in comparison. Not only is said girl obnoxious — and probably more attractive than you — she is probably lying. We didn’t all have fun in high school, did we?!

Still, looking back on it years later, finally detached, can be just the remedy for those of us who chiseled our identities out of LPs and rock shows, failing to grasp what your average cheerleader might have known all along: High school can be fun. It wasn’t until college that I realized how much of the good stuff I had blocked out in my determination not to become the happy-happy people I despised.

For me, memories of high school are called up with that grainy, Wonder Years quality, like mini-movie reels in my mind. I have flashes of specific moments and memories, but ask me the name of anyone in my Speech class and I’m at a loss. In Arkansas, it’s hard to tell if you’re more bored in school or out, and sowing wild oats is a lot easier said than done. I don’t have any wild stories, but some things stay with me no matter where I go, or how much I change. The smell of my boyfriend’s Delta ’88 is just as strong as it was back then, and the right familiar old song can still make me feel like an uneasy newcomer to a tight-knit group of friends. To this day, Fugazi’s Waiting Room gives me the chills, because I have such vivid memories of driving around downtown Hot Springs with Jamie, listening to Ian yell with the volume turned all the way up. I recall how listening to a Bikini Kill CD during study hall one day led to an hour-long conversation with Meghan Maxey (head cheerleader) about women’s rights and the meaning behind Carnival. 7 Seconds can bring me to tears, if anyone says the name Chris while it’s on. Music shaped so much of who I was — who I am… My vinyl offers a better description of what high school was like for me than any yearbook or photograph.

Now, though, it’s hard to recall why I connected so much with the songs I liked. Minor Threat, the Sex Pistols, Fugazi and Born Against were all in regular rotation — but why? Sure, I pretended it all had a lot to do with me, but who was I fooling? There were no drugs at my high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas. No one was smoking cigarettes outside the gym. Why did I feel the need to put X’s on my hands every day at school? I didn’t want the Queen to die, and I couldn’t care less about materialism. After all, I had a dress code to worry about.

But I wanted to stand out, to be noticed and asked what I was about, so I could explain the ideas behind all the “uniqueness.” I wanted to tell people about animal rights, straight edge and hardcore, and I wanted them to be impressed. I didn’t, however, want them to join me. That was — and probably still is, in some circles — the paradox of being punk: The idea was to change the world, but no poseurs, please. I wanted to be accepted, but I didn’t want to accept anyone else once I was in. It was like a secret club, and I didn’t realize the absurdity until much, much later.

I had a group of friends with more than common interests or extra-curricular activities — we were going to change the world. But all the angst and venom that came from our speakers was negated by our inability to see the big picture: We were just as typical as any of the other kids we loathed; we just wore different outfits. We were just as snobby, just as closed-minded (“I seriously doubt Matt Owen, captain of the football team, actually listens to Sunny Day Real Estate.” Yet, he did.), and just as against change as our detested classmates.

Any psychology student will tell you I wanted to fit in with something, someone, anything … and I did. I became a cool kid, or a freak, depending whom you asked. I was opinionated or quiet, smart or retarded, beautiful or butt-ass ugly. I fell in love madly and made a mixed tape for every day of the week for my boyfriends. Ryan — my first real boyfriend — came to visit me every weekend from his neighboring town. He was smart, witty and lead singer of a loud and obnoxious band. What more could a girl want? I felt like a Hollywood princess arriving at shows on his arm, and became my own version of Yoko later that year when his band broke up. But he somehow became a lot less attractive when he wasn’t sweating on a makeshift stage. A string of band boyfriends followed, but none were as special as Ryan, and I still regret dumping him over something so trivial. But at the time everything rested on my beliefs, my drive, my scene.

I did nothing without passion, everything to the limit. I spent Saturdays making posters for animal rights protests I couldn’t attend, harassed people who wore leather and made fun of people who smoked cigarettes. On Saturday nights our ‘gang’ got together and played four-square in the grocery store parking lot. Wasn’t it obvious how important and special I was? I was going to college out of state (something really rare for Arkansas kids), and I was going to be the new, special stranger on campus. They would surely see me walking across the quad and think, “Wow, now there is a girl with something to say.” They would talk about me when I wasn’t around, but in a good way. They’d want to know all about me, but I would be so cool and unapproachable, they would only be able to guess. They’d make assumptions, and I’d rest easy knowing I maintained Mysterious Stranger status — the cool girl with the cool clothes and the headphones. “What is she listening to?” they’d wonder. I longed for the day that someone would ask me, so that I could reply, “Oh, some band you’ve probably never heard of.”

So, what happened at college? My plan proved a complete failure. It all came crashing down the day I realized I was actually considering dropping out of college for a boy, and that my record collection was more important to me than a Greek exam. Well on my way to becoming more of a music snob than a punk kid, I found myself skipping classes to get to D.C. in time for a show, and making mixed tapes for friends with nothing but hubris in mind.Does she have this record? If not, I’m putting this song on, she needs to be aware of the fact that I have this record and she doesn’t. Finishing up a love letter to my new, curly-haired band boyfriend took precedence over trying to make new friends in college, and working on being the Mysterious Stranger was far too stressful for a girl who’d never had to try so hard to be different before.

At college, everyone was different, and choosing a small liberal arts college showed me (rather quickly) that my identity was so contrived, so imaginary, that I would have to change or be devoured by fitting in. Almost everyone wore the same clothes that I did, loved the same records and had all their own crappy stories about shows being cancelled due to rain or cops, crappy band boyfriends that cheated while on tour and the perils of being “different.”

But here’s what really drove me to the edge: None of these people were nearly as interesting as they billed themselves to be. They weren’t out causing trouble or skipping classes: They wanted to go to class, and they wanted to be something — I have to give them that. All this had bored me, but I was quickly realizing that I was the boring one in this chasm of hip-ness. Devastated by this turnaround, I brooded for weeks … until I could finally see how insane I’d been. Here I was with this great opportunity, and what was I doing? Trying to fit in by not fitting in. Trying to define myself with a record collection and a black book of ex-band boyfriends meant to impress. These kids weren’t any different from the ones I hung out with at home, but I was so secretly afraid of not being cool enough that I’d adopted an I’m Too Cool for You act to keep them from getting close. It wasn’t about being the Mysterious Stranger, it was about avoiding adulthood. Suddenly — finally — I wanted out.

I had had it with being different to fit in. I wanted to listen to sappy music about sweaters and friendships, wear last year’s corduroys and buy eye shadow. I desperately wanted to go shopping, to watch hokey television programs marketed for my demographic and eat hamburgers without shame. I wanted a girlfriend, someone I could talk with and relate to without having to compete over coolness points. I realized that I’d made no friends in college, because I’d put a huge barrier between me and everyone I could possibly identify with. There were many kids that I had things in common with, but I shut them out because I assumed that where I had been was cooler and in some way impenetrable. I was lonely.

So one morning, I put an end to my Mysterious Stranger project and hunkered down in school. I soon broke up with the curly-haired boyfriend in a band who was two hours away, and started showing up for class. I studied. I started going to the darkroom. I used my Converse for playing sports. I think I was even heard admitting, “I’ve never heard of that band.” I stopped trying so hard to tell people I was just being me, and actually became me: a strong woman with a voice, someone who continued to fall in love easily, but found a real relationship the instant she stopped planning punk-rock retirement with every boy that passed on the street. Someone who does not (for one instant) regret obtaining the most useless degree on the planet, who laughs at her own idealism even when it spits in her face. Yes, I still shop at thrift stores, still write letters on paper, still play four-square — only now I bring my son. I guess you could say I’ve grown up, but to me, I’ve just grown into myself.

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paige maguire is an american living in germany, writing and maintaining her blog, miss domestic.