“I’m trying to be friends with Lera,” Jenny said to me with gravity. “She’s becoming a prep, so she’d be a good person to get attached to now instead of later.” A few of us sat in an upstairs play room, pajama clad and slathering on layers of glittery nail polish faster than the previous ones could dry. We had a pizza coming. The little brother was off to bed. We were twelve.
To hear me tell about it then, I would say I was the ugly girl with no friends, nothing to say, and zero prospect of getting a boyfriend. Ever. Looking back though, I need at least all my fingers and toes to account for the girls I was close enough with to garner frequent sleepover invites or throw together an impromptu game of night Ditch ’em. I had a handful of girls who made up my Tier 1, or Gold Level, friends—a few I’d known since kindergarten, and one I’d met in the third grade—and there were always others caught in the ebb and flow of middle-school circle hopping. We were a modest but happy grouping, and we looked on as the preppy girls spent summers together at the exclusive town RV club or returned from group shopping trips at the far-away and middle-class posh Fox Valley Mall—the one with an Abercrombie and a Sbarro. We were popular in spirit only—we had friends, but not the “right” friends.
It’s a pretty common story for small-town folk like me. With scarcely a hundred kids to a grade, my fellow grown-ups-in-training and I saw the same set of kids since the days of finger paints and nap time. Once in a while, a new student would move in, and the popular kids would harness the glow of this exotic human being and make her one of them. By middle school, the allure of someone new turned to threat, and new kids quickly fell in with the burnouts—losers, everyone called them. It was just a label, every bit as descriptive as “the kids with blue shirts,” and until I heard the word applied to my best friend, I never gave its meaning a second thought.
“I’m a loser, and I’m fine with that,” Tiffani had said. But she wasn’t. She just saw herself as part of the label because she wasn’t in with the popular kids and didn’t buy into their polos and Doc Martens. Thirteen years old and already she was self-defining based on what the center of power chose to name her. But she was cool. She played softball, painted murals, and slayed everyone at Mario Kart. She was funny and kind, and hearing her use the preppies’ word to describe herself, and any outsider, as Less Than made me want to punch all the polo shirts in the world.
With the start of freshman year, we finally blended with other grades, and the social lines began to blur, but only enough to muddy things. Now, instead of clothing, boy-girl relationships and partying seemed to be the new litmus tests. I started as Band Geek and became Tease when I got my first boyfriend. Eager to ditch the tease, I became Slut—who put out with her boyfriend—and then switched over to Goody Goody when Slut didn’t feel right. I tried my hand at art but dropped it when my mother and I agreed that I had always been Music Girl, not Artist Girl. It was like walking through an air tunnel filled with sticky notes, hoping desperately that facing the wrong way for a second wouldn’t plaster on the words that sounded like insults.
What I realize now—and didn’t then—is that I didn’t have to be any of those things if they don’t fit me. It’s society that scribbles all those words onto tiny fluorescent squares and throws them out to whoever falls in the line of fire. I’m still Band Geek, but now people think it’s sort of neat that I used to run around a college football field in a wool suit and stupid hat, blowing movie themes and Gustav Holst through a hunk of brass. Tease and Slut are more like, “I’m the one who decides who and when.” Goody Goody means I try to be smart and level headed, but I still do things I shouldn’t if I feel like it. Artist Girl doesn’t have to churn out frame-ready sunsets in oils—instead, she can draw up the serious book covers and occasional pot leaf illustration that separate pre-literate eras from ours. And she can do that while getting all sentimental about how Wax Fang’s La La Land is the best album you’ve never heard and then switching gears to bitch about how nobody appreciates Anne Brontë. To live is to embrace every scrap of multiplicity and contention that comes with growing into your own, and if done right, being a total scatter brain can really feel like a win.
So who I was to everyone had a lot to do with relational dynamics. On the same day I could have been a loser, or popular, or weird or funny, depending on who’s watching. Back then it meant everything to have those labels to hold onto, like raking together fistfuls of passable words made you a worthwhile part of the collective experience. But today I’m all those things and none of those things. I’m just a person making her way, pausing now and then to cross out a word and write in my own. My pen, my decision.