On a bookcase in my living room is a framed photo of me and my grandma. It’s the summer of 1988. I have curly permed hair and am working at a fireworks stand by a lake in northeastern Oklahoma. I’m 15. My boyfriend, his best friend, and his friend’s girlfriend, and I worked at that fireworks stand the two weeks before fourth of July and maybe made $200 between all four of us. It was hot that summer — over a hundred degrees every day — and we’d take turns working and hanging out at the lake. We’d skim a little cash off the top and buy beer at the nearby convenience store. We had unlimited access to fireworks, and in Oklahoma in 1988, a lot was legal. Amazingly, none of us ended up in the hospital.
A friend stayed with me this weekend and ended up driving through some small towns nearby to go for a hike. She came back with photos of fireworks stands. She grew up in California where such a thing was unthinkable. They were a novelty to her. I showed her the photo. It was a world she couldn’t fathom.
If I look back objectively, I was a mixed up kid.
Every part of my being was fixated on the one goal of my life: to get out. To not squander being smart. To not be stuck in a small town my entire life. To accomplish something. The only way I knew to do any of this was to go to college, so I focused all of my energy on that. I wanted to go to a good college but I didn’t have any money and my parents didn’t believe in college, so I’d need to get a scholarship. To do that, I’d need good grades, lots of extracurricular activities, to be in lots of school clubs. But I also needed money to pay for things like the SATs and college admissions so I’d need to balance all of those things with a job.
I so looked forward to the day I turned 16 so I could get a job that paid minimum wage. In addition to the fireworks stand, which was not, strictly speaking, a money maker, I worked at my parents’ antique store for a dollar an hour. I turned 16 at the end of that summer and excitedly got my first job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Our small Oklahoma town didn’t have a lot of choices.
As you might imagine, I was a conscientious student. I did all the homework, got all As, aced all the tests. I made due with what the school system could offer me. We bounced around between Oklahoma and central California when I was growing up, and high school was no different.
More was available in California. I took algebra in summer school before my freshman year to get a head start. I took 0 period trigonometry my senior year and took all honors classes. In Oklahoma, where I was my sophomore and junior years, my high school didn’t have honors classes or trigonometry so instead I enrolled in a concurrent program at the local college the summer after my junior year and took college Chemistry. I was in mock trial and spirit club and any other school club I could add to my college application (Oklahoma, ironically enough, had a large Mothers Against Drunk Driving group.)
And yet, I was still a teenage girl. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to have friends and do fun things and kiss boys. Even though (or perhaps because) I didn’t grow up with anyone I went to high school with and was the “new kid” three times between freshman and senior year, I somehow managed to be on the edges of just about every group in school. I was always perplexed when the popular girls invited me over to their houses to hang out. (Especially since my mom cleaned their houses.) I would find myself at a party, making out with one of the cool boys or playing quarters with all the boys and drinking them under the table.
I somehow juggled perfectionism at being a student with going to a lot of parties, drinking a lot, skipping school (I was great at forging notes from my mom), and spending a lot of time with boys. I don’t know how I managed this with strict, religious, and crazy parents, but a combination of sneaking out my window at night, lying about spending the night with friends, and leveraging the nights my parents were out late at auctions for their antique store seemed to do the trick. I used being smart in ways other than just to get good grades.
I think back to when I was happy in high school and I’m not sure. It’s all a blur. I remember the days when boys broke my heart. When I listened to the same sad pop song in my car over and over again and cried until I thought I would die. I remember the horrible fights with my parents. The bad moments stand out to me as black and white in their awfulness. No ambivalence.
Was I happy being invited to all the cool parties with the popular kids, hanging out at the lake with them, getting over a hangover by drinking a beer for breakfast? Kind of. But it was always against a backdrop of wondering what I was doing there, sure I would be found out at any moment and chased away. Maybe we’re all like that in high school. I always thought it was because no one knew me well enough and as soon as they did, it would all be over.
I’m reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace right now, and Wallace says something about shy people that really resonated with me.
If I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me.
With that one sentence, he managed to sum up just about every social interaction I had until I was 30. My greatest happiness in life right now might be that I don’t live my life that way anymore.