From the ages of 10-16 (a considerable lifetime when you’re that young), my time at school was spent trying to ‘earn’ my place in friendship groups that would mean I was deemed ‘popular’ to my peers. As is always the way with this kind of clique, the ‘popular’ girls were actually mostly awful, and only earned their title by their own admission and threatening behaviour towards anyone who differed to them. That same old, tired story of teenage bullies that most, if not all, of you will be well familiar with.
I’ve been reflecting on the extent to which the experience of being, or not being, afforded the privilege of teenage popularity at school affects you as you grow up. My personal conclusion is that those difficult years, where we struggle with rejection, authority and teenage angst, are the ones that have defined about 75% of me as a person.
Sure, I continued to seek approval from people who couldn’t have made it clearer that, in their eyes, I was an embarrassment who didn’t fit in. And as far as conventional standards for young people go, I suppose they were right. I was a red-haired kid for a start – never an easy hand to be dealt in the throngs of Year 8. I didn’t like a whole lot of mainstream music, I couldn’t retort a cool phrase if you gave me an hour to research one, and I struggled to keep up with fashion, preferring instead to be experimental which ultimately resulted in many weird ensembles and venturing across the metaphorical picket line into the realm of the emo kid and the skater girl. I just couldn’t get it right.
Never was this made more apparent to me than when I tried to become the third compadre to a popular duo at school. I did everything I could to befriend them and, finally, was at the point where I’d be invited to the odd sleepover or shopping trip to the then-new local shopping mall.
On one specific occasion, one of these girls had stayed the night at my house, where we spent much of the previous evening putting an outfit together that I could wear the next day, when we had planned to meet the third member of the gang and go for the obligatory £5 Saturday cinema trip. To my delight, my guest was incredibly enthusiastic about styling me for the outing. Even choosing my favourite and poshest pair of shoes and jewellery to top it all off. I couldn’t wait to jump off the 423 Arriva bus to Bluewater the next day and strut my stuff, expertly chosen for me – little, plain me! – by the prettiest girl in school.
It was during this bus journey that I twigged something was up.
As the bus turned a corner, I swayed into my friend, who’d been avidly texting someone on that timeless classic, the Nokia 3210. Sensing that her phone screen was in my line of sight, she snapped it away and asked, with a twang of guilt in her voice, “did you see that?” in reference to whatever text it was she’d sent. I genuinely hadn’t seen whatever it was, but the reaction was suspect.
After we met our third friend, it transpired later (I overheard) that the girls had plotted a fun little prank to dress me up to the nines and parade me in my so obviously non-popular-girl outfit, whilst I flounced around under the impression that I was Miss Thing.
As if to bring the metaphor for my feelings to life, my beautiful black and gold beaded shoes suddenly turned ugly. They began to rub and cause me painful blisters. I made my excuses, caught the bus back home, and I cried.
It stuck with me
Why, you might wonder, would I hold on to what is probably not a particularly wild or out-of-the-ordinary story of nasty girls I met in the playground? Is it a sign of petulance in my personality? Perhaps I just like hold grudges? Perhaps it’s shaking your faith in me as a person? Understandable. There’s nothing to be gained from replaying the scenario in my head for years. It’s just kids being kids.
Except there is a point.
Firstly, I’m only human. Even today, as I write this, I don’t like the people who devoted some time to shaming my teenage efforts to fit in, and thanks to Facebook and the rigamarole of politeness to people you may or may not bump into one day upon returning to visit your hometown, they’re still present in my life (from a great, uninterested distance). But I don’t just recall this story out of self-pity; I actually can understand and sympathise with why they did this, and with the many similar instances that took place in the coming years as we attended the same secondary school and I fell foul of continuing to desire a place in the popular crowd. Even though they were, to all intents and purposes, knobheads.
I get it because I was pushing personal boundaries. Sure, if you want to be someone’s friend and that feeling is unrequited, it’s not very nice. But to keep trying to slot yourself into someone’s life and ignore their pushback becomes invasive. I didn’t understand this until my twenties, when my mental health deteriorated and the need for my own space to recollect myself and work out how to muddle through this tumultuous time became of paramount importance. Now, if someone all but forces their way into my life – friend, foe or unwelcome corner-dwelling spider – I will lose my shit. Or I will step back and work out how to manage the situation. Or both. Which is a strange thing for a person who can easily make friends with a whole room of people without thinking twice on it, and do it by being ever so slightly over familiar. But the important bit is my choice to ignite that connection with a person. I guess that means I need a sense of control over who I’m affiliating myself with. If I’m in control, it’s largely up to me to stop people feeling rejected or lonely, which is exhausting but easily traceable to that day in Bluewater with girls who didn’t like me.
Deep down, I am grateful. Sweet Jesus, am I grateful. I’ve certainly made mistakes, and those mistakes have sometimes been really detrimental to the people closest to me. But I’ve never gone out of my way to make someone feel shame. It can be a by-product of argument, sure, but never a conspiracy. And I’m glad to have had that lesson so young.
My twenties have been an active effort not to be like those girls. To see more, learn more, empathise more, stand up for bigger things, on occasion be more outrageous (so I like to think. In reality I’m about as outrageous as shampoo compared to many fabulous men and women out there). To live my life in the full knowledge that what I want will not come easily, but to avoid – as far as I can – making people around me feel second rate. I’ve lived a decade knowing exactly who I didn’t want to be like. And long may that continue.
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