What Makes Us

unpopular 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:

  • Networking
  • Relationships
  • Referrals

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.

49 comments
Watch the Writer
Watch the Writer

Amazing indeed, Erika. Jaw dropping and tear provoking. I think you may have helped me pinpoint my fatal flaw: you've moved beyond the high school drama and disappointments and, while my high school experience was quite different from yours, I feel like I'm still waiting for that special guy to ask me to Homecoming. I've been unable to move on, to become Me. Thanks for a great wake up call!

'Q' - Nathaniel
'Q' - Nathaniel

Erika, First let me start by saying I am new to your blog and from what I can see I am going to be a huge fan. I wanted to share a little different perspective of HS. I hate school from the very begging. It all started in elementary for me. I was not "smart" in school. I didn't do well with language and it was hard for me. I hated spelling test as the made me feel dumb. However I develop social skill that made me feel smart, I learned to rad people and I learned how to listen. These were the skills that helped my survive my HS years. I was not popular but I also was not the bookworm. I don't think I ever read a book all the way through when I was there. My relationships are what kept in school, well that and sports. If I didn't have friend or relationships I would have never gone to school. I would have dropped out and worked at the construction site with my dad, that's if he let me. See I hate HS for different reasons than you did. It's not that I didn't fit in, it's that it made me feel lesser than the other kids around me. While you were kicking ass academically I was learning how to relate to people. I hung out with jocks, the mathletes, the band geeks, the theater kids, the goths, the stoners, the kids that kept to themselves, the teachers (god I even got along with the teachers) and the lunch ladies. I was a social butterfly. I was lucky to graduate HS, while you were #6 in your class I was lucky if I was in the top 85% of my class. I think my over all GPA was 2.1. So I too hate the idea of HS and felt like I was being judged everyday. But I made it through and I graduated, I even ended up going to college, it took me six years to get through but I made it. So, Just like you I learned how to compensate to get through the day. And it has served me well today. I agree networking, relationships and referrals are symbiotic as well as cyclical. Thanks for sharing your demons and helping me to share mine. Cheers, 'Q'

Demery
Demery

I admire how honest you are. I know we weren't really friends in high school, but I had many classes with you growing up. I always knew you were crazy smart. And, I thought you were cool. After all, you were one of those goth, artsy, theatre kids! OK, so I know, I was a cheerleader, and maybe I was considered to be popular, but YOU had opinions and style that went against the norm. I wanted that, but didn't know how to get there. I just skated along listening to people tell me what I should do and what I should think. No matter what we experience in high school, aren't we are all just trying to fit in and figure it out? I'm thankful that I went away to college in AL where no one else I knew attended. I was 1000 miles away from home, without a car, and without any friends. I hated my first semester. I wanted to go back to Texas. But, I didn't. I stuck it out. It was one of the best decisions of my life. It forced me to start over, find my own opinions, and as you put it, survive. 20 years after high school, it's a delight to read your blog and share it with my friends. Your writing is truly inspirational.

Alysson
Alysson

I grew up in a very small town. I was never an outcast, but never really felt as though I fit in, either. Fitting in was never among my goals. I might have had to wear the same uniforms or ride on the same buses to away games, but being teammates didn't mean I had to be like them...or even like them, for that matter. I never wanted people to look at me like a spoiled rich kid or small town assclown that would one day face the reality that being a big fish in a tiny pond doesn't translate to success the real world. Despite where I lived and the circles I appeared to run in, I was neither a spoiled rich kid, nor a small town assclown. High school wasn't awesome. It also wasn't torture. It just WAS. I spent my entire childhood in the same small town. I often watched as new kids or those who seemed to be easy targets were picked on mercilessly by the popular kids. For the record, I'm pretty sure I ended up in "the popular circle" mostly because I was aloof & couldn't have cared less about being "one of them". I didn't bully or pick on other kids, but I never stood up for them either. Those moments of cowardice & indifference are among a handful of childhood regrets. I never wanted to go to prom. Never. And I found myself rather relieved that I never had to say, "Um, hell no!" Because I would have, had some silly boy thought that I'd have swooned at the idea getting all gussied up in a frilly dress, drinking some cheap liquor and barfing in the back of a rented limo. "Yeah, y'all have fun. I'll see you at after-prom and you can tell me all about what an asshole your date was all night." And that's what happened. Every time. While silly girls in hideous dresses and dyed shoes were bawling their eyes out in the bathroom because their boyfriends chose prom night to dump them, I was quite content to be anywhere but there. Even back then, I did what I wanted to do...and never cared much what anyone thought. I suppose that's how I know those supposed rites of passage have never been important to me. I never fantasized about being asked to the prom. I've never daydreamed about a proposal or a fairy tale wedding. I've never imagined any of those moments or been disappointed that they haven't happened or will never happen. Then again, I've always had a tendency to dance to the music in my head knowing no one else could hear the tune.

Crystaline Kline Randazzo
Crystaline Kline Randazzo

Erika...love this post! It's a testament that our pasts create our futures. And sometimes, lead us down the very road that is right for us. I like to think of life not as a final destination, but the experience of the bumpy journey. I also take some sick pleasure in the way my life turned out versus the kids I went to high school with. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Bill Dorman
Bill Dorman

New school, new town; it's not so much that I was a geek because I sure thought I was cool, but I was so shy I would have never asked you out anyway....... The town I came from was small; the town I moved to wasn't huge but had 600+ people in the graduating class. I had a pretty good click and we weren't the boozers but those other guys w/ long hair. I went to the 10 yr reunion thinking all my buds would be there, but they weren't and only new about 10 people. My wife was thinking "what a loser".................:( 3 years of the Army and no daddy to financially support me, I had to figure it out on my own real quick. I still live in the same town and I see some of the 'popular' kids; it's interesting to see how some of them turned out. Even though you don't appreciate it at the time, sometimes adversity for whatever reason ends up being the best thing that ever happened. Thanks for sharing, that's certainly laying it all out there......

Leon Noone
Leon Noone

G'Day Erika, My initial response to this post was to write a long, intense piece that would probably have been helpful to me but to no one else. With the benefit of decades of hindsight I offer some personal insights. * schools are involved in schooling, not education or learning. As governments make school attendance compulsory we've just gotta make the best we can of it. * schools, colleges and universities exist primarily to try to give everyone the same basic career starting point. How well they do this is debateable. * learning is your own responsibility. Of course, teachers don't explain that to you. It's something you work out, usually after you finish your formal education. * by and large, educational institutions are very good at designing curricula but not much good at designing learning. Few teachers seem to know the difference. Anyway....thanks for publishing this post. Please keep on saying what you feel needs to be said, and,of course......Make sure you have fun. Regards Leon

Chris Eh Young
Chris Eh Young

I went to a high school that consisted of 1300 preppy kids and 8 outcasts. You know what group I fit in with. Never went to a high school dance, never cared. I was an outcast because my single mother that worked 3 jobs to support 3 kids on her own couldn't afford designer clothes. I also started grade 9 with a tumour growing on my face. Any oddity is an invitation to be made fun of and one on your face is basically an open invitation to everyone. As it turns out, drugs are a great companion for the lonely so that's where I turned. After 4 years in high school and a grand total of 9 credits, I moved on and have never looked back. That was 17 years ago. My oldest daughter started high school this year. I thank some deity every day that she is more popular and fits in better than I ever did. Adversity is a great teacher but a lousy friend.

Jeff Gibbard
Jeff Gibbard

I just wanted to comment to say thank you. You put it all out there and I just love that you do that. In High School I played the middle. I tried to be friends with everyone. It worked out for the most part but I was never really "part" of any one group except my small group of close friends. I think time has a way of working things out. Even though I wasn't in the popular crowd I look at that group and feel a little bad for them. The freaks and geeks are just fine, now having realized that being unique is an asset rather than the liability it is in high school. But the popular kids have to acquire all of those skills that you mention the "others" developing as a matter of course. It must be a far fall from grace for the prom kings and queens to realize that they'd peaked and the kids they made fun of are now their boss.

Jim Mitchem
Jim Mitchem

Having attended 5 high schools, I was unpopular and not very motivated. I knew enough to graduate and then join the Air Force. And I skipped the day they gave the SATs. Which only meant that when I finally decided to go to college (early 30s) I had to go to a high school on a Saturday morning. Walking up the steps, I had to run the gauntlet of jocks out front who were taking it that day too. Then one of them saw me and said, "Old guy." Resulting in a few of the others also saying, "Old guy," as they parted for me to walk past. I didn't give a damn. I could have kicked any of their asses, I figured. Plus, as it turns out, I rocked college. Thanks for this reminder, Erika.

The Redhead
The Redhead

Thanks so much, Jessica. And you make a great point: when you stop worrying about all those titles and whatnot, YOU can come through. A great lesson for companies and people alike :)

The Redhead
The Redhead

And you, my dear, are welcome at my table anytime as well!

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

This is freaking amazing! I feel like I had the same experience as you, except that I couldn't even hang out with any of the other geeks because my parents were so strict. I was unpopular, smart, and without friends because I had five younger siblings to take care of. But the most interesting thing to me is the point about unpopular kids making great entrepreneurs. Now I have the confidence to use that in jest. And use it, I will!

JB
JB

As Grandma taught me, though the lesson didn't stick till much later in life, the ability to know exactly what is most important and when, is what determines how we do at any given time in life. Your experience in high school, compared to what and how you attack life now, demonstrates that admirably. When we're ignorant of what's important, as most of us were, to one degree or another in high school, pain results. You've obviously figured much of this out. Good stuff.

Risa
Risa

Although you may never have been popular in your crowd in our younger years, I have to take a moment and say that you were always the person I wanted to be. Yes, I claim you as my older sister and...I always saw you as the cool one. You wore the clothes I never could (I was the mismatched clasher from hell). Maybe you weren't the best athlete (I remember the hurdle that ate your ankle), but you went out there and did it anyway. You got on stage and performed with confidence. You had (have) a brilliant mind and were (are) creative in ways I never could be. Believe it or not, practically everyone I knew, knew who you were. How many times I heard..."your sister is so cool!!!" I wanted to barf, but it also made me proud. You still make me proud. You're a damn fine bootstrapper girl. Keep it up. Love you.

Jonathan Vaudreuil
Jonathan Vaudreuil

My wife and I have a debate about how important being popular enough is for our children. She grew up and was friendly with everyone, dated one of the most popular guys for a while, and had no problems even though she wasn't part of THE in crowd. Me? Super dork! I took honors and AP everything while being a top-notch student in art class, and if there were enough classes in the day I could have continued taking concert band and kept my title as saxophone section leader from junior high. I don't know how much it had to do with cultivating my self-dependent lifestyle, but I do know I was running my first business by the time I was 11. I know how to sell, how to hustle, how to keep my customers happy. Even my mother will tell you I decided when I'd push myself (AP English, because I couldn't write well until I was forced to) and when I'd slack off (Physics, and I've never used it but for theory). I do remember being afraid of graduating because the future seemed so vast and unknown. Yet after the ceremony I was ecstatic: since kindergarten I had been labeled and categorized by these very people, and now I was completely free of them. There's something beautiful about the struggles we unpopular have had to endure and who we become because of it. Thank you for this post.

Karen Bice
Karen Bice

Great post, Erika. Didn't know you were a UofH grad. Public ed wasn't designed for those square pegs. I don't have too many fond memories of school myself after the 7th grade. And, I've never gone back for a high school reunion. My worst nightmare. :)

Kelly Tidd
Kelly Tidd

Lady friend, I knew I liked you for a reason. I never *fully* came into my own until about 4-5 years ago. But you know what, now we're the types of people that folks genuinely want to be around because of who we are, not what we're wearing or who we know. If I could do it all over again, I probably wouldn't do high school any differently. But who the fuck wants to do it all over again?!

Darien Goldman
Darien Goldman

When hearing that all the cheerleaders and valedictorians of my grad class (of which I graduated a year and a half before them) were in crap jobs, knocked up right out of HS, or in a boring loveless marriage, I learned to treasure all those days of being looked down on for wearing shabby Air force uniforms stolen from my Dad's garage stash and drawing fake Sharpie tattoos on my arms in homeroom. The learning experiences gained by being my own person and living the lovely nomadic gypsy life that I CHOSE will always outweigh the absence of 'cool'. When I was in my finishing year of HS (somewhere in an average person's beginning junior year), I took the pre-SAT, finished hours early, and had to sit there until the rest of the class was done. I took a small bottle of ink and needle and gave myself a tiny tattoo of a whale on my left wrist, a symbol of what never to become, never to be what surrounded us. My nickname at school was Orca the Killer Snail (my birth name was the same as yours, but with a C), the fat slow kid, who not only beat the best track runner on a bet but also the best marksman teacher at a military school.

Killian
Killian

OK, can I just say that the pic of you is excruciatingly cute? And I say that because I was a total dork myself...one step behind in fashion and everything else. I was never in the cool club. I was bullied until I learned to use my fists, and then I got in fights way too often. I was the invader into their school as one of the only kids to not have filtered in from the local middle school. *whisper* "She's from that CATHOLIC school!" 20+ years later, I've been a recovering Catholic for over a decade, I have 3 amazingly geeky kids (who all graduated high school at 16 and started college, one of whom is actually majoring in Entrepreneurship at her university!), I have a career that is frustrating but is putting them through school. When I am done with my responsibilities (financial), I will pursue my dream, live my life for me, and be grateful to the bullies who made me resilient and resourceful, and who are now stuck in their boring lives, in the same town where we grew up, plodding along. You're a strong, amazing woman, Red. And I think Jason would've smacked you on the ass when your breath caught, not just for the chance to swat your ass, but to knock you out of the panic and into the reality of your amazingness. (Yes, dammit, that IS a word. I said so!) The past shapes our present, but it only holds on to our future if we allow it. Kudos for cutting that fucker loose.

Tobey Deys
Tobey Deys

Wow. Thank you for affirming that I wasn't the only one. Yup - overly tall gangling red headed geek here too. Could not find any clothes that fit my too-long stick insect body (least of all fashionable ones). High school was awful - socially - because I was uber-introverted and exceedingly uncool (still working on that ... ;) Like you, I had lots of time on my hands so I excelled academically - even had time to write other people's essays. Had lots of time to work - by the time I went to college, my bank account was busting. I wasn't afraid to try something new, to take risks because - as you said - no one was watching so there would be no pointing & laughing. I know that I'll only ever regret the things I don't try - even if I'm scared shitless half the time. All this lurking in the background as the unpopular kid served me well. I've just started my newest business adventure so can't claim success just yet - but in the past, I've found success by connecting, nurturing, and really caring about relationships that matter to me (vs. looking for the 'cool kids' to hang out with). I learned that I don't really want to hang out with them - they have too much to lose. I do still struggle with the 'I'm not good enough' refrain which can kick my confidence in the nads and send me into hiding - still working on that, too ;) Thanks, Erika, for such an intimate post - you just made a kick-ass difference to me.

SL Clark
SL Clark

Dearest Erika, Prom(s) - check, didn't bother. Girls are great, boys suck! M.A.S.S. Jock, sorta - but wasn't a "cool" one, much less great at any. Soccer, Swimming... 5, 10, 15, eek 30 Reunion - check, not worth wasting my time. Since the age of six, this Freak never gave a crap about Networking, Relationships and Referrals. Unpopular and I like it, still. Ooops, my latest venture requires these. Ouch... Payroll the demons <-- you are fucking brilliant; owe you a hug someday, at the very least a drink. Cheers, -Steve

Kellie J. Walker
Kellie J. Walker

Not to by funny (or punny)... But, this post took my breath away. Literally. The number of things you and I have in common re: high school is just downright spooky. There was only 1 thing you mentioned that I didn't have in high school. Talk about being able to relate. Damn, girl! I've often said that I was (in a way) glad I had the experience I had in school. It's nice to finally mean it. :-) The last 23 years has given me a bit of perspective on the subject. Unlike a lot of kids I grew up with, I had my own identity. Who I was wasn't dictated by what I did or didn't have or what others thought of me. And, I never had to worry about, "Who am I if not So-and-So's girlfriend anymore?" I believe my business is successful because I do what I've always done. I am honest, but not brutally so. I genuinely care about the people I work with. I want them to get what they want as badly as they do. And, I'm willing to tell them what they need to hear - not what they want to hear - so they can get it. My demon? The "too" label. In school I was too: tall, geeky, smart, poor, awkward, kind, honest, etc. I haven't quite figured out how to get that one on the payroll yet. But, I will. As ever, Red, thank you.

kate
kate

i swear there is nothing like walking into your old highschool (or any, but worse with the one you attended!) to realize how far you have come. I still care too much what people think, but then i think that's what makes me good at guessing how people will react to websites/social media - words and pictures. All those years of trying to figure out the crazy people around me growing up! That said, i do have friends now who were super popular in highschool (we did not go to school together) and are really actually quite successful. However, these are the people that were popular because they are were just fun and didn't care what others thought about them - did their own thing and somehow everyone wanted to be them. I am not sure if it's really the popularity thing as much as it is the ability to watch/figure people out and/or not giving a damn what anyone thinks... both have the knack for striking it out on their own and being successful.

John Lutter
John Lutter

Ha.. wow... memories... The best time I ever had with relation to high school, was going back for my 10 year reunion in 1999... I had been working in the web for a couple of years, and was pulling in a salary worth attaching a paystub to my nametag.. It was fun to meet the folks that used to make fun of me, and find that they were still working at the grocery store, but they were now assistant manager... :) Of course, my 20 year was more about how we were all now divorced and swapping war-stories about child support and evil exes...

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