Saturday, October 3, 2015

Do We Ever Leave The Land of the Uncool

High School: when no one could even get my name right.
In the nicest part of McDonald's, the section where they have the leather chairs and a loveseat, seven teenage girls sit. They're texting each other, instagramming, and squealing with each "like" they get on their posts.

I'm sharing a lunch with my high school son, my middle boy, and we hear everything the teens are saying. I ask him how these girls could have so many friends. He shrugs and says, "People do," and he goes back to his burger. I stop chewing so I can hear them better, because I have always wanted to know, Why do some of us have the secret to social life? Will these girls fall away from how effortless friendship feels right now? Do we lose this sense of feeling at ease with others, do only some of us? Will we all?

"Oh!," one of the girls shrieks. "She just liked my selfie!" The other one grabs her phone to look and asks, "Why do you even like her?" "I'm only stalking her to find out about her boyfriend's friend. She doesn't know I can't stand her." I ask my son if people in his school pretend to like each other a lot. "Some might," he answers again without looking over at them as they leave.
I was never a teen in the midst of giggling girls. I was never among a crowd that numbered in the sevens. I was eighty-nine percent of the time on my own, inside my head. My teen life was spent in the land of the uncool.

Back then, when I met someone new, I would cross my fingers that maybe they would turn into a friend, but instead of smiles back when I initiated conversation, it was knitted brows and pursed lips that came back in reaction to my not knowing when to stop with any topic of discussion. I couldn't help it, I had a head full of trivia and nothing that I loved to do more than share little known facts and historical surprises. Believe me, I had no shortage of things to talk about. And each one, at the ready.

Kids would spend a few minutes with me and then excuse themselves, saying, "I'm going to go talk to Jackie now," I'd smile at them and nod, "yeah, sure, Ok. I'll see you at school Monday!" And they'd give me a tight lipped smile back, no teeth showing, a quick look back but without the energetic, "Yeah! For sure!" that I hoped I'd hear.

Then, when I was 15, during our school's morning announcements, some news came out that could have changed my world. The department store downtown was going to be interviewing for a candidate to win a scholarship to their charm school. Charm School is what I needed! This was it! My big chance to learn how to do everything right. I would learn how to eat in an expensive restaurant if someone ever took me to prom or homecoming. I would learn how to waltz if someone ever asked me to dance at a wedding reception. I would learn how to walk with my shoulders back and how to keep eye contact. I would learn etiquette and how to carry conversation so it would be equal for both parties. I clicked my pen and wrote down the date, Saturday, and the time, 9:00 a.m., at Boston Store.

The Friday night before Interviewing Saturday, I set my clothes out: a pair of brand new sailor pants, a thin as an extension cord white suede belt, a red ribbed sailor top and white suede platform sandals that matched my belt. I snuck a red chiffon neck scarf from my older sister's room to tie around my neck, I planned to have the bow twisted to the side. I bought new blush, "apricot sparkle." It was a cream form, and cost almost a dollar more than powder.

I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. and tried to get the beauty sleep Seventeen magazine told me I needed so my complexion would not be sallow and my eyes would be bright. On Saturday morning, I arrived at the department store by 8:30 a.m. for the interview. It had taken me two buses to get there. I had only been up to the third floor of the store before, but the offices holding the session were on the 7th floor. I got on the elevator and pushed 7. When the doors opened, I looked out into a hallway that held every beautiful teenage girl in the city. Their tall, long bodies with hair to match, leaned against walls, sat in front of occupied chairs, and rested against window sills. There wasn't a single girl who looked anything like me there. There wasn't a single girl there wearing pants.

When I checked in with another tall woman who had a clipboard, she wrote my name down and gave me a number. She told me I probably wouldn't get seen because of the amount of girls that had answered the call. Still, I wasn't going to go back home after taking two buses to get downtown before 9:00 a.m. I would wait until they told me I had to leave and locked the doors behind me.

At a little before noon, the woman with the clipboard shouted my number. I gathered myself up from the hard floor and with wobbly legs and a pounding heart I followed her to the office where the interviews were happening. There, a woman sat behind a faded wood desk. To me, at that time, I guessed her to be about 50 years old. She had black glasses that sat at the end of her nose that she kept pushing back up to her eyes with her sharp red fingernails.

She asked me to keep standing. Then to turn. Then to walk away and then turn and walk back to her. She asked me to turn sideways, then to lean the side of my body against the cold wall, with one hip jutting out. I did all those things while I watched her write. She made some notes, had me repeat my name and phone number, and then asked me for my pictures.

"I don't have any." I panicked. No one had mentioned pictures.

"Well. Thank you. You can go now."

I stayed, I was ready for the interview part.

"You can go now."
"I'm ready for the interview. I can talk about any question you ask me."
"This was the interview. You can go now."
"Didn't you want me to talk?"

She put her pen down and peered up at me. Then she stared. She asked, "What did you think today was for?"

"An interview," I told her, "for charm school."

"This was the interview and we have other girls to see."

I looked down at my feet, flustered. I had so much information to tell her, from all the books I had read. Then I noticed that the zipper on my pants had been down the entire time. My cheeks burned, both from embarrassment as well as the excess of apricot sparkle. I thought about how I never got anything right and never fit in anywhere. I stood, ready to go, but before I left, I turned around. "When do we find out if we won?"

"We'll let your school know."

I was sure to thank her for her time.

On Monday morning, back at school, girls buzzed about the interviews. "Do you know anyone that went? Who would go? I can't believe anyone would go. You'd have to be beautiful. I heard Antoinette Omdahl went." I stood frozen against my locker. Antoinette Omdahl, the senior went? She was the girl with the most perfect legs, a ballet dancer, a cheerleader, on student council, prom queen. Her teeth looked like they had been put in place by a master. Why didn't I know the interviews were for girls like Antoinette Omdahl? Why did I think I was one to go?

The school morning announcements began, and toward the end, our principal cleared her throat. In her thick Italian accent, she began, "It is my great pleasure to announce that one of our girls was chosen for the Boston Store Charm School scholarship. Antoinette Omdahl is going to be our ambassador with Boston Store."

Antoinette Omdahl. Popular, athletic, always smiling and giggling. The senior who skipped down the hallways, her shiny hair bouncing behind her. Her hair never needed to be tied down when it was humid. Why did I think I belonged somewhere where she was? This was another event that I thought I understood. My life was missed marks and misunderstandings. How did people know not to do things, when I didn't?
The girls at McDonald's begin to squeal again. "Oh.My.God. You guys, look at this-I can't believe she posted this. And that Keith even likes her. Whatever."

I've forgotten about the story of charm school, until today. And how much being cool mattered. I tell my 18-year-old son the story about the charm school interview, my zipper being down, my cheeks ablaze with apricot sparkle. How I waited for the interviewer to ask me for my favorite Louisa May Alcott book, to which I would have answered Jo's Boys. He laughs while eating his french fries and almost spits out his soda. "You're so funny, mom. I wish I could have known you back then."

The last 20 years of my life have been spent as a mother. I have been with my children who accept me as naturally as sunshine and without question. Their hearts so full of love, they listen to me prattle about facts and the books I've read and the things I've learned, and look at me as if I'm the most fascinating person they've ever known.

They make me feel like I just graduated from charm school.
* * *


  1. My 16 year old daughter has great perspective on that. She tells me all the time that those are the people who "peak in High School". And when i look back, she is right. You and your apricot sparkle blush are probably miles ahead of those people today and you kept your individuality, which is serving you well.

  2. This. This brought back a number of memories--my "friends" forgetting my 13th birthday among them. I remember what I was wearing. (I always remember what I was wearing. Photographic memory is good for that.) I wonder what stories my sons will remember... and I hope they forget this current season with some issues they're facing with some not-quite-so-friendly boys. Sigh.

    I think you're quite charming, my friend.

    1. we are such amazing books with the most fascinating, endless stories, aren't we. xo

  3. I know I type this too often to you--almost every time I read a new piece from you--but this one's my favorite.

    Oh, the way you sandwiched it between the moments with your son...the detail of the red chiffon scarf around your neck...those feelings of wanting someone to see and value all that you were as a teenager...

    So good.

    1. Jocelyn, and I've told you so many times, too, I am incredibly pleased as all get out to know you. xo

  4. Oh, I just want to give that teen-age you a hug. I would have loved hearing about all your books.

  5. Totally uncool over here as well. I would have listened to all your stories. xoxo

    I adore Louisa May Alcott. Now I want to go to the library and reread those books again.

    1. Read them aloud!! Your girls will love them!

  6. I love you and your stories. I don't come here often enough to tell you.xo

    1. Thank you, T. I will always be grateful for this little corner of the world to share life with .

  7. So much beautiful truth here, lady. But it was your last full paragraph that gutted me... Because every day with my 14 year-old son the knowledge crystallizes that I have four more years with the person I most love to talk with, who listens to me prattle, who loves me and "accept(s) me as naturally as sunshine." And then...? It's going to be like the worst break-up ever.



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