Exorcising High School

My daughter started high school today — obsessing about her clothes, her hair, her make-up, the friends she’d made the night before, the plan for lunch, whether she’d get lost, whether it was actually true that she wouldn’t need her textbooks on the first day and that teachers are lenient about getting to class on time the first week, and probably a host of other things she wouldn’t admit out loud.

As a wordsmith, I chose my words of encouragement with care:
Set the bar low. Just live to the end of the day!

Because I know she’ll do fine. She is her mother’s daughter, freaking out about stuff ahead of time so she’s ready for it when it comes (whatever “it” is).

me at 13; Natalie Hart - Exorcising High School

But I’m remembering the thirteen-year-old from 1981 who started high school without the benefit of a launch day that would take her to all her classes before that high-pressure first day, without the benefit of seeing all the kids and what they were wearing and carrying. That poor sweet girl, coming from a weird and tiny Christian school with its graduating class of seven, all girls, two cousin pairs, four of from the same church. Whose grade had been the oldest one in the school for three years. Who only knew two other kids in this school of hundreds. Who knew no boys her own age. Who bought her own clothes with her own money from the local consignment shop, with a very experimental fashion sense, except for jeans, which (according to the weird school’s subculture) had to be boys’ jeans. Who still wore pigtails in her hair. Who went to high school that first day with a doubled Loblaw’s bag (plastic grocery store bag) in which to carry her books.

Should I mention that she went to a public school that had a reputation as the snobbiest school in the city, even worse than the private schools?

She certainly considered it a victory to live to the end of the first day of high school.

Of course, this sweet girl was me. My daughter starting grade nine is bringing it all back.

I’m having flashbacks to that first day, standing stock still in the central hall, students streaming around me, jostling me, my nerdy Loblaw’s bags (while everyone else had backpacks or school bags — oh, the horror) cutting into my fingers, on the verge of tears because I had no idea where the science wing was and I was too terrified and mortified to ask anyone.

To that day when my choir teacher made an appointment for me with a guidance counselor because the altos had been making such obvious and loud fun of me in class that he’d heard it. I hadn’t wanted to deal with it at all, so I said it didn’t bother me. It did.

To that day when a boy who smoked a wide variety of things in what we called Cancer Alley turned my entire desk around in history class so I had to face him while he told me a made-up and obscene dream he’d had about me.

To that day when someone complained about me being at a party because it brought the stature of the party down — to my face. And I had neither the confidence nor the social capital to laugh it off. Because in the hideousness of high school, it was true.

To that day when someone yelled to me, “Nice ass. Shame about the face.”

Other people had it worse, I know. I was never physically threatened, and I’m grateful I didn’t grow up in the digital age with cyber bullying. But oh, did I hate high school.

Now, I had friends, and I was on the swim team and in clubs (nerdy clubs), and I laughed, and I skipped school to go for bike rides or to the mall a block away. There was my birthday buddy who took me to her house once for an authentic Chinese dinner. There was the girl whose uncle was in the mob in New York City (he really was). There was the druggie girl who liked to tell me stories of her exploits (probably because I had no competing stories). There were the two boys who would practice with the girls’ swim team, so I got to know them enough to flirt with them. There was the girl who would invite me to her cottage in the summer. High school wasn’t all skin that felt permanently red from blushing, and clenched teeth.

I’ll still occasionally dip into a daydream in which I get famous enough to be invited back to NTCI to be a graduation speaker, and I speak exclusively to those kids who had a bad time. Which, now that I’m an adult and I’ve talked to more people, I realize was most of the kids; even if someone looked like they had it all together, inside they felt just as awkward and terrified and self-absorbed as I did. Ah, perspective.

Thank you for indulging me while I got all that out in the open. I feel better now.

Want to engage in a little high school horror story one-up-manship? The comments are yours.



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8 thoughts on “Exorcising High School

  1. Ugh, sorry but I can’t one-up you. How yuck. Maybe I’ve blocked all of the horrible parts. Maybe it’s because I was a guy. But my memories of KCHS are as bland as stale white toast, no butter.

    I guess I was one of those kids who sort of managed to be accepted by all groups, and yet didn’t really belong to any of them. Although I have very few fond memories of those years, I think it was because I couldn’t wait for college. And I did come into my own there. The few friends I carried forward from high school became a part of my college era gang. One of them is visiting my house right now, and all of the reminiscing sessions we’ve had this week, oddly none are from high school.

    Sorry for the crappy memories. Best of luck to your daughter! I know you’re reassuring her that there is life after what is hopefully a blip of time at an awkward age.

    1. I’m glad you skated through high school, Vaughn — it’s a much more pleasant way to do it 🙂 My daughter will most likely do way better than I did, socially; she’s a lot spunkier than I was. Thankfully.

  2. My boys aren’t in high school yet, but there are so many moments in their schooling — even at this age — tha trigger memories of my own school years. And none of them are good. I was bullied every day from grade 1 to grade 12. I went to four different primary schools (grades 1-6) and four different high schools (grades 7-12), and hated each and every one of them. Between always being the new kid, having the wrong accent and the wrong fashion, being over six foot tall by the age of 12, wearing glasses — before it was chic — and being alternately a nerd or the teacher’s pet, school sucked. I was pushed and hit and had things thrown at me. I had my belongings stolen and broken. I was teased and taunted. I had people tell me I should just kill myself and make the world a better place. I had people pretend to like me just so they could humiliate me in public. And the list goes on.

    For most of those twelve years, I had no friends. The exception was a blissfil two year period over grades 9 and 10, where I managed to find myself in a group of misfits and geeks where, for the first time in my life, I actually felt I belonged. Of course, that just meant our entire group was victimised — but, hey, at least I had people to share the humiliation and pain with. And then we moved to a new state, and I returned to being friendless and alone.

    Plus there was the pressure from home to always be top of the class. A grade of A- would be met with disapproval. I had to be the “academic one” in the family, and nothing short of perfect would do. On the few occasions when I talked to my parents about the bullying, I’d be told to ignore it. Or that if someone was mean to me, it meant they secretly liked me. Or they were jealous of me. And then my mother would tell me that friends weren’t important, and I should take all those bad feelings and push them down inside, and smile at the people being mean to me.

    Sending my eldest son to school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I spent a lot of time finding the right school, and making sure it had the atmosphere, underlying values, and philosophy I wanted. But it still took every ounce of courage in my body to release him into the playground that first day. And it doesn’t really get easier.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Nat-Nat. I’m sorry you went through those experiences in high school, and I wish your daughter well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it really does get better.

    1. I wish I could reach my arms out over the ocean to hug you. It is such an act of courage to send kids into school. Oh man, does it ever get better. And schools can get better, too, as educators get more concerned about bullying like that and build school culture that doesn’t support it. It still happens, of course, because people are people, but school culture makes a difference. The culture at my kids’ high school has changed so upperclassmen are kind to freshman: both my husband and my mother-in-law remember asking upperclassmen for directions and being told to go in the opposite direction. Such a little thing, but that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s what can make us hopeful for the schools we put our kids into. Love you 11!!

  3. Great post, Natalie! I could tell my own stories of going to high school fresh out of the Netherlands. What a huge change that was. In due time, I got used to it.

  4. I was one of those nerdy girls in HS. We had our own click, but I still wanted to be part of the ‘in’ crowd. I got invited to go to the movies with them. I was elated and let my friends know that it wouldn’t change anything. I paid my money–fifty cents. Naturally, the leader selected our seats–about half way up in the center section. I was happy and excited. This is it! I finally was moving up. Five minutes into the movie the leader asked us to go with her to the restroom. We obediently followed and stayed in the restroom for the rest of the movie. They fixed their hair, reapplied makeup, and talked trash about every other person they could think of. I was upset, hating that I had wasted my money more than anything else. I wasn’t used to talking bad about so many people and decided that I no longer wanted to be part of their circle. My friends took me back and I never regretted my decision.

    1. You had your own Disney TV show moment! That’s been a plot I’ve watched over my daughter’s shoulder a few times 🙂 I’m so glad you had that “what if” experience, and were true enough to yourself to reject it.

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