This past Friday night, my day took an odd and twisted turn of events and at 6:45pm, I found myself walking through the doors of East High School. It’s a central Denver icon, a sprawling campus directly across from the city’s largest park and the oldest school in Denver – it’s where one of my best friends (Merredith) and her husband (Alan) went. It’s also where their daughter graduated from and where their two youngest still attend. They’re all really talented singers, so while Merredith was in New York on business, I got to be Surrogate Merredith and catch a performance of East High School’s Spring Pop Show.
I left the breezy, sunny, early spring evening behind me and walked into the lobby of the auditorium. Tweens and teens running everywhere. I had to pee. I made a beeline for the bathroom and when the door swung open, I was met by a chorus of giggles and “Uh mah gawwwwwwds” dripping from a group of girls all trading and changing clothes.
And then I couldn’t breathe. Panic attack.
For the first time since Jason died last year, I couldn’t breathe. And it all came rushing back to me: I hated high school and hadn’t step foot in one since the day before I graduated in 1991.
I was always the girl whose glasses were a bit (okay, a lot) too big with lenses tinted too lavender (shut up). I thought silly t-shirts were cool. I never had the latest fashions and hated that I had to roll up my shirts so they were the same short length as all of the other girls. Girls who were cheerleaders and on the drill team – they were cool. Girls like me…weren’t. And it made school, from elementary all the way to high school, a living hell.
I coped with academics. I have a photographic memory (I see words), so studying wasn’t much of a challenge. I read fast, got bored faster and was the girl one grade below in the AP U.S. History classes that all of the popular kids wanted to sit next to on test day so they could copy off my paper. I played volleyball but was never good enough for anything other than the JV squad. I managed the varsity softball team.
I never got asked to Homecoming. I also got pregnant late in the summer before my senior year and spent the first Friday of that school year playing hooky so I could get an abortion. The girl who never had a boyfriend until her senior year of high school fucks it up first time out of the gate. He broke up with me a week before the prom.
But holy shit, could I take a test and write a paper.
A’s were easy. Well, except when it came to calculus my senior year of high school. I was a wiz with proofs. Unfortunately, we only spent 2 weeks on them. And then I pulled a D for my first six-weeks. That’s also when the assistant principal told my mom that if she spent less time working and more time in the home, maybe I’d be different. I could mentally hear my mom telling him to go fuck himself.
My friends were the freaks. The goth kids who wore funky clothes and all black and we had an ongoing contest to see who could bleach their hair the whitest. And the day of the honor graduates reception, nobody expected to see me walk in. Sure, I was a geek, but I looked funny. I wasn’t popular. I was pretty forgettable. And that day, a classmate asked, “What are you doing here?” with regards to my audacity to show up for the (invitation-only) honor graduates reception. My reply?
“Graduating above you.” (And it was true.) 9th out of 360 students. But I was unpopular. I had lots of time to study.
The best day of my life was the day I walked out of that school, never to return, because I got to leave behind over 300 students who had followed me for the past eleven years. I got to go be someone I never had the chance to be: me.
And Friday night, it all came rushing back. The pop show was stunning (some amazing talent – whoa), but it was everything I could do to stay until the very end because I just wanted to be able to breathe again.
For eleven years, I found ways to survive. I thought it would end there, but it didn’t. I spent the next five (I took a year off) at college, wanting to fit in with all the cool actor kids in the Theatre department at the University of Houston. I eventually said fuck it and went to the scene shop and costume shop and never looked back, opting to build things instead of try to compete in the games for which I didn’t know the rules. And while I graduated with a solid knowledge of costume history and proper use of pneumatic tools, it didn’t end there, either.
I went to work, like most of us do after college. In my biggest year, I had seventeen (one-seven, 17) W2s at tax time. Nothing fit.
Now, this whole story isn’t to gather up attendees for a pity party thrown in my honor. I have a feeling that many of you are all to familiar with the tune I’m hummin’. Being where I am today, I wouldn’t trade 30-some-odd years of unpopular for anything because I learned an invaluable lesson: how to survive.
What Unpopular People Have That Popular Ones Don’t
We can identify opportunities and slink off into the background to tap into them. No one is paying attention to us anyways. And by the time you figure out what we’re doing, you’re already relegated to playing a game of catch up if you decide to play any game with us at all.
The unpopular kids don’t rely on the opinions of others in order to deem whether something is a success or not. It’s why we love science, competitions, academics and research. Information offers validation.
We’re resilient. You can kick us time and time again and we’ll find ways to hide, morph, adapt and thrive.
We’re made to be entrepreneurs. There was a kickass article in Forbes not so long ago that speaks right to this. When no one’s your champion growing up, something really cool happens over time: you find ways to get things done without a whole lotta help. We’re born bootstrappers and have a lot of time to strategize since we know we’re not getting asked to the dance. But we’re all about organizing our own little Bootstrapper’s Ball.
And Wouldn’t It Be Lovely…
If we changed the way we thought about being unpopular? As kids, we’re awkward and always on the offense because kids are mean little shits. We’d rather be a Freak than a Shitkicker, because any label is better than none at all. Someone is always going to dislike us. But some of us have better tools for dealing with that (perceived) rejection than others.
There will always be kids like me (like us) who don’t get asked to Homecoming and who get dumped a week before the prom. Even though in my case, I got dumped for two girls (yes, two, dos, 2) and I enjoy to this day the irony of him wanting me back after the threesome had lost its charm. And yeah, it would have been really nice to be asked to a dance. To be someone’s date (which actually happened once in all those secondary years). But given where I am today, I like the unpopular route.
I did a poll on my Facebook page asking: “What’s the one thing that’s made your business more successful? Is it blogging? Networking? Hiring great people? Lay it one me and tell me why.” Do you know that not one person said that it was being the prom king or queen or being “well-liked?” The top responses, hands-down, were:
The first two are things that are second nature to The Unpopular. We have to make our own networks because we didn’t get them by simply buying the right pair of jeans. Our networks bring us relationships. Relationships are real, multilayered things that require attention and nurturing. Perhaps we pay better attention to our relationships because no one paid attention to us. But those relationships earn us business and then, the referrals come.
Symbiotic, ain’t it?
Finding My Breath
So, for the first time since dealing with Jason’s death, I was without breath on Friday night and wondering when I could escape. I’m glad I stayed as long as I did and even more glad I got the serendipitous chance to revisit something that apparently scared the living shit out of me. Come 11pm that night, my heart had stopped racing and I was laughing that being on a high school campus alone had freaked me out to completely. Whodathunk? I’m never above being scared, so long as I walk away with some benefit from it. The takeaway this time? What makes us and a reminder of everything that makes me. And moreso, what doesn’t (and never will).
Why is your business successful and what do you struggle with? We all have our demons and if you’ve stayed this long, you’re pretty well acquainted with one of mine. But I figure if I’m going to have my demons on the payroll, they’re going to do some work, dammit.