4 Things I Wish I'd Known as an Awkward High Schooler
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.
You're Not Going to Be Cool
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 ...
Every Single Movie Is Wrong
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 ...
High School Is Largely About Survival
Like I mentioned waaaay above these words, some people have a super fun time in high school or, failing that, some people have a time that doesn't leave any profound impact on them at all. They see high school as a very brief, very low-stakes thing that came and went and didn't enhance or impair their ability to enjoy life. I envy their maturity, as a socially awkward lunatic who stored reruns of Doug in the parts of his brain that were supposed to be reserved for empathy and emotional maturity.
For people like me, high school wasn't always great (was that not clear yet?!), but it would have been a lot easier if one person had sat me down and said to me, "Hey, man, just stop whining and get through it." When you're in high school, everything feels so HIGH STAKES because you're learning what emotions are for the first time and you're slowly taking those first few steps toward being a human. Everything feels important and life-or-death, because high school is the first time in your life when you feel things other than "hungry" and "need to pee."
On the first day of high school, someone should address all of the students and say, "Work hard, be nice to each other, try to have fun, study and REMEMBER: This is all mostly bullshit. Just get through it, because after high school, real life starts."
Unless you go to college. Then life just sort of hangs out in the wings for another four years.
I was always trying to win high school, like the movies told me to do. I was looking for the moment where I overcame my awkwardness and slight stutter and started becoming, like, 11 Fonzies. Really, what I should have done was just keep my head down and hang out until high school was over. I would stop stressing about high school as if the decisions I made there would impact every social and professional aspect of my being for the rest of my life (spoiler: they did not), and I would relax and have fun and, mostly, bide my time. I'd bide my time because ...
Things Will Get Wildly Better ... Eventually
(At this point, it's a cliche to say "It gets better" , but just because something's a cliche doesn't mean it isn't true.)
Getting out of high school, whether you go to college or just hang out, is just wonderful. As someone who pretends to be an adult, high school reduced to a sentence sounds crazy to me: several hundred people who have nothing in common beyond geography are forced to spend every single minute together five days a week while A) being force-fed an impossible number of lessons and B) going through puberty. That sounds like a nightmare.
College was better. It was crazy better, for a socially awkward guy. And I'm not saying that college was better because all colleges are full of socially awkward people; I'm saying all colleges are full of everyone. In high school, you're sort of stuck with whomever you're stuck with. If you go to school in a town where high school football's important, you'd better be into high school football, because otherwise you'll be ostracized. You do the best you can navigating a world that often feels alienating, and that's what you think life is. You suppress those nerdy things you do, as an awkward person, because you're just trying to get through the day without bringing too much attention to yourself.
After high school, in either real life or college, whatever nerdy things you did in high school that got you picked on or made you feel embarrassed or alienated, I guarantee you that there are enough people around you who also love doing those exact same things. In high school, I made little figurines out of clay and shot movies alone in my room and kept quiet about it, because I didn't want the rest of my school to make fun of me (I came from a largely non-clay-model-making high school). In college, all of my weird little hobbies came out and I pretty quickly found a bunch of other nerds who did the same kind of stuff, or at the very least, thought what I did was cool (in its own unique, objectively uncool way).
Growing up and getting comfortable in your own skin isn't about suddenly becoming cool with the outside world; it's about finding enough people who share your interests that you don't even notice the outside world. Every nerdy thing that I did alone in high school found a home with people outside of high school, and it never felt lame or nerdy or shitty (even though it probably should have). Hell, I sang a cappella in college and didn't even realize how lame and nerdy that was until fucking never. I still think our group was dope as shit.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's senior writer (ladies), and is just now coming out of his awkward high school phase (everyone else). Follow him on Twitter to find out about spontaneous San Diego Cracked meet-ups.
Check out more from Dan in 5 Terrible Situations for the Socially Awkward Man and 5 Situations That Are Secretly Terrifying for Awkward People.