I have just finished an amazing book by Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings. The one sentence synopsis would read “six teenagers meet at a creative arts camp, and their friendship sustains them for the next four decades.” That is grossly inadequate.
The kids who huddle in a teepee at 15 declare themselves The Interestings, and set about to BE interesting. They are a clique with varied interests and economies, but the tight coil that they form keeps them tied to the Spirit in the Woods camper personas. They have defined who they are at 15, when life was lush with possibilities. To become typical is a fate they cannot abide.
Being in Detroit and reading this book made me wander back to the years when I was a teenager.
I was not an Interesting.
I suppose I looked like one to the outer circle, with the quarterback boyfriend, good grades, a cheerleading uniform, the occasional solo and a big part in the musical.
But like most kids in those awkward years, I was consumed by insecurity. I was not a cool kid. I was a nice kid. In the 60’s there was quite a difference.
I did not drink or smoke. No one wanted a holy roller at their overnights. So I stayed home.
I tried to be special in ridiculous ways. I overcompensated.
I remember chasing a 4 year perfect attendance award by going to school with a giant throbbing boil on my face. My eye was swollen shut.
A mistake. It allowed people to look at me with horror and whisper.
It was also an error to fail to ask the meanest nun if I could use the washroom during class. I still sweat when I remember walking out of a classroom, down the hall, with a puddle of blood expanding and obliterating the back of my plaid uniform skirt. It was the Interestings who made fun of me for springing a leak.
The cool girls left mean notes in my locker, or tittered at me, or rolled their eyes. Mostly they just let me know I was not cool.
Like I didn’t know.
During my four years of agony, our school merged with another Catholic school in order to survive. Two groups were folded together, and the Sisters of Charity were joined by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It was not altogether smooth. The Sisters of St. Joe were less demure than the Charities. They wanted to upgrade the academics, and downgrade the social. They saw the powerful cliques stratifying my class, and saw mean girls at work. They began some social engineering. It was not subtle.
It was as if they had listening devices in the washrooms. They knew everything: who was having sex, who smoked, who drank, who was mean, who was a victim. They decided to elevate the good kids. I’m sure they were trying to effect a more Christian atmosphere at the Shrine of the Little Flower.
But the devil was in the details….
They redlined all the Interestings at cheerleading tryouts. Yours truly, a clumsy girl with right-left confusion, was handed pom pons as the cool girls remained seated at tryouts. Our troupe of extraordinarily nice girls was deficit in athletic skill and grace. To see the popular kids laughing at us in the stands made this experiment a FAIL. I was even more of a pariah.
Still, I signed up for everything. Yearbook, newspaper, choir, drama, First Friday Club, Mother Seton Club. Nerd upon nerd activity. Nevertheless, the 15 year old girl wants to be more than a joke. She wants to buy some acceptance. And so I lent the harsh girl down the street my birthday gift outfit (I got 2 per year, one birthday and one Christmas. We wore uniforms, it was enough) I had to sneak it into her mailbox so Mom wouldn’t know. She looked adorable in my argyle sweater and matching knee socks.
She still ignored me.
And so I let her pierce my ears. Twice, because they were so crooked. Mom had told me NO extra holes in my head until college, so that one got me grounded.
You know what? I was fine with that. I could stay home where my big family automatically liked me as I was. It was a relief not to have to extort affection. To this day I am a homebody.
I graduated and did not look back. I tried to reconnect at the 10 and 20 year reunions. But at 20 years a classmate said she was surprised I got fat. That was my last dance with the mighty mighty Knights. There is no re-do of high school, even if you want one desperately.
The old Janet now sees the same arc of life that Meg Wolitzer saw. Those cool kids had the same issues of youth that I did, they just processed them differently. The hard shell, or the mean shell usually covers up a deficit. Of family time, or self esteem, or confidence. My clothes borrowing friend had a mom who worked and never showed up for school events. Maybe drank. A few years after we graduated, her Mom hanged herself in the garage. I imagine that the pain she carried at the moment of this tragedy had been brewing all during those 4 years of plaid madness. There was no clue in her demeanor. She coped with her cool girl toolbox.
The 15 year toolbox is a starter set; ideally it is augmented by parents, quality friends and mentors. The longterm goal is to keep adding tools, to grow beyond what makes you interesting at 15. If there is a circle of people ratifying and mirroring bad behaviors during the teenaged years, there is less motivation for growth and change.
So if you have teenaged kids, watch them for signs of the mean syndrome or the emotionally battered kid syndrome. When they say “I don’t care,” you know they do.
If your high school years were angst filled, you are in good company. Let’s cosmically toast to moving on, with gratitude that we morphed into unstunted adults. The friends we have now are friends of choice.
And as a PS- when my father died, classmates I had not seen for decades came to pay respects- Colleen, Chris, Tommy, Bob, Mickey. It touched me to the heart. Maybe I was not as alone as I thought back in the late 60’s.
So read The Interestings. It will engage you and haunt you. Like all good books, it will stay with you. Let’s have a little book club here.
All of us want to be interesting. If we are lucky, we will not have to work ourselves raw to be seen as such, like kids do in high school. Our adult selves can see something interesting in every person, every day.
So maybe being interested is the true measure of a good person.
That wisdom is a consolation of age.
Sorry for unloading my teenaged wasteland upon you. I’ll try to be less confessional. Come back. Subscribe. I’d love to have a new friend in my circle.
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