I know a lot of people who didn't have an awful time in high school. They have fond memories of a time in their lives when they didn't have any responsibilities and lived a life that was basically consequence-free. You were allowed to screw up. Hell, you were practically encouraged to screw up, mess around and be held accountable for absolutely nothing. The people I know who figured that out early had a great time in high school; they made friends, went on adventures and navigated puberty with grace and dignity.
I wasn't that person. I'm a socially awkward guy, so I went through high school stressed, worried and waiting for puberty (I'm in my late 20s, and I feel like next year will probably be the year I can finally grow a beard). There are one or two things I wish I'd known back then that would have made going through high school as a socially awkward dude a lot easier. Well, not "one or two things." Four. Four things.
Achieving coolness was near the top of my list of the most important things in high school (a list that also included chasing girls, eating corn dogs and absolutely nothing else). High School Daniel was even more socially awkward than Present Daniel (and Present Daniel is sort of a trainwreck), but still held out hope that he'd take the right steps down a road that would eventually lead to a town called Coolsville. And I never thought, as a young, short teenager, that I'd someday be captain of the football team (a position that I know based on pop culture denotes an elevated level of coolness, but one that I'm not sure actually exists in real life), but I thought I'd somehow end up being a cool guy. Not the coolest, but cool. I never thought I'd be, like, six Fonzies' worth of cool, but I imagined I'd be a few Fonzies, at least.
I was so preoccupied with a pop-culture-created version of coolness that it was often all I worked toward. I'd try to change the way I dressed or the kinds of things that I liked, assuming that eventually the rest of the world would see me as "cool," and then life would be easier.
One of the most relaxing moments in my life came when I realized that I was not and was never going to be cool. If someone had told me, as a 15-year-old, that coolness was not only not an important pursuit but also completely unpursuable, it would have saved me a lot of time, and a whole lot of awkward haircuts.
I wasn't cool not just because I was awkward and sweaty and measured coolness in Fonzies in fucking 2012, but because I was so focused on chasing coolness, a pointless and intangible thing that only goes away when you try to catch it, that I never got a chance to actually get comfortable. But you can't really blame me for chasing coolness. I was raised by movies, where coolness is important, and no one told me that ...
Almost every movie and TV show about high school (especially those that were made when I was growing up) got everything about the experience completely wrong. I'm not just talking about the basic, superficial things, like the fact that absolutely no high school student ever looked like this:
Those are just unrealistic beauty expectations created and perpetuated by Hollywood, which is ... fine? It's not fine, it's probably very bad, it's just not what I want to talk about in this particular column. Though, as a sidebar, yes, it's absurd that Hollywood wants us to believe even for a second that this dude:
... is 16 years old.
But where Hollywood really got it wrong for me was in teaching me that winning and succeeding socially in high school meant overcoming whoever or whatever I was. The problem wasn't that awkward nerds weren't represented in movies and TV shows; the problem was that those nerds excelled when they stopped being nerds and suddenly became cool. I would identify with awkward guys in fiction, like The Karate Kid's Daniel-san or Can't Hardly Wait's William (the super-nerd who ends up getting drunk for the first time). By the end of The Karate Kid, Daniel can stand up to and physically beat his bullies, and by the end of Can't Hardly Wait, William isn't the shy, nervous, awkward guy; he's the party animal who bests his bully, wins everyone in his school over with a rocking rendition of "Paradise City" and hooks up with a pile of random, attractive women.
Awkward high school students see those movies and think, "Oh, good, I'll eventually be either the guy who can kick the shit out of my bullies or the guy who surprises everyone because he was secretly cool the whole time. It's only a matter of time before I'm the kind of guy who should be the lead in a movie."
And that just doesn't happen. Navigating high school as an awkward person isn't about eventually not being awkward anymore, like all of the movies say; it's about being OK with being awkward. When things got bad for me in high school, I contented myself with the fact that eventually I'd be super cool or charming or interesting without having to put any work in, because I saw myself as the protagonist in the movie of my life that would eventually resolve in a crowd-pleasing third act that involved me getting the girl and winning State (whatever that means). And that's wrong.
Guess which one you'll be.
Hollywood trains us to think there's some kind of karmic balance in the universe that is favorable to "good guys," and that does nothing but encourage laziness and delusion. That's a terrible way to go through high school, because it will only lead to disappointment. A) You're not the protagonist and B) no one in high school is going to follow a three-act Hollywood movie structure because this is real life, and your "cast" is a bunch of teenagers experiencing hormones for the first time. Movies that train us to try to "win" high school are wrong; they should be telling us that ...