I guess I achieved a certain measure of notoriety by the time I was a senior in high school, the kind that comes from whispers about "the little genius" in AP Lang (whispers I never heard directly), "the child prodigy," "the published author," "the girl with the Wikipedia page." This was cute, flattering, and constantly surprising.
But notoriety is different from popularity.
Someone might have heard of me, sure, but that was different from the kind of all-consuming desire to be with me, to be me, that shadowed the popular kids.
In tenth grade I was a shy fourteen-year-old, the kind of person who sat back in my chair and watched events I didn't fully understand. But I quickly realized who was "popular." They were carefree, rich, and beautiful. They had cars which they talked nonchalantly about crashing, and cabins at Steven's Pass or Whistler. I wasn't old enough to drive. I'd never been skiing. The popular kids all seemed to be athletes, too--beautiful lithe cheerleaders, dance team girls, tall volleyball or soccer players, and a whole lot of football and track and cross country. I didn't have a team or a club that felt particularly like home; it would be another year before RHS Speech and Debate formed for real.
Because of that lack of a cohesive group, the struggle that epitomized high school stress for me was the task of finding who to sit with at lunch. In the hallway leading from the classrooms to the cafeteria, illuminated by sunlight flooding in through floor-to-ceiling windows, were wooden benches. They lined the walls, gleaming rosily. They were always packed with people. The cafeteria itself was a zoo. Both the benches and the cafeteria tables seemed reserved for that separate class of the species: people who knew people. Oh, sure, I knew people, but I wasn't confident enough to feel like I could barge into their tightly-linked circles. My sister and her orchestra friends sat on one of those wooden benches in the hallway. We said hi, tersely, once. I didn't expect to be able to rely on her for an entry into high school social life in any way other than being introduced sometimes as "Adri's little sister."
My main point is this: much as I hate to admit it, and probably tried to forget it, I know what it's like to look around furtively for an empty table, somewhere in a corner you can sit with a laptop and some food to pretend like you're eating alone by choice. (Hint: I'm not.) I know what it's like to make a last-ditch effort to bond with two of your older sister's friends just so you have some friendly people to sit with (holla, first day of junior year). I know what it's like to sit in the emptiest of empty bathrooms with your plastic sandwich container and a sandwich you suddenly don't feel like eating that much anymore because you don't want anyone you know to see you eating by yourself. I know what it's like to feel unwanted because it takes your big sister's intervention to get you a homecoming group (sophomore year!) And oh, the most painful--I know what it's like to hear one of the boys in that homecoming group tell your sister afterwards, "Adora kind of dances like a spaz."
It does get better--so much better. In a sort of exquisite karmic retribution, the boy of the spaz comment asked me to homecoming in junior year. And at lunch I started having philosophical conversations with a classmate from my AP Psych class, debates on cynicism and idealism, and alternating dirty jokes and heart-to-hearts with my best friends. I looked around a cafeteria of hundreds of people and realized that I could find a friend at almost any table I wanted. It was the kind of thing I'd only dreamed of as that shy fourteen-year-old of sophomore year.
There's a New York Magazine article entitled Why You Never Truly Leave High School, a (grim for some) piece on the disproportionate influence of your late adolescence in shaping the rest of your life. "Our self-image from those years...is especially adhesive," the article states. Maybe that's why I revert a lot to that shy fourteen-year-old I once was, feeling like I'm just tagging along with the big sister who didn't want the nerd kid sister around to cramp her style. Just tagging along with the boy who never really liked me that way. Just tagging along with the popular kids who find something entertaining or philanthropic or astute about being kind to the petite girl with half-framed glasses and big vocabulary, whose worksheet answers were always available for copying in the madcap minute before the bell.
When I think of my true self, sans all the impurities that come with time and the experiences that mean little more than X's on a checklist, I think of a fourteen-year-old girl who's never been kissed, still lights up with the joy of the unexpected when someone calls her beautiful, acts like everyone's kid sister, tells two boys she likes them with inelegant apology-and-pathos-filled letters, loves hard and runs fast. I think of a seventeen-year-old girl who will always feel grateful for the invite to the party and the seat at the table, and tries to pay those forward too. Sometimes it's those moments of struggle we try to forget that enable us to rescue the reincarnations of our past selves, as their eyes scan crowded cafeterias, looking as delicate and vulnerable as we once were--
in some ways, as we will all always be.