Last night I saw Captain America. I quite enjoyed it; I especially liked the semi-1940s period setting. One aspect of the film I could sort of relate to was the skinny kid who was transformed.
I was sort of like that as a boy–really skinny, that is. I was tall, which was a plus, and even then I knew that it was better to be skinny than the opposite of that, but still, it’s not easy to be an American boy and also be skinny.
In my high school, there was a pretty rigid social stratification, just as there is in all high schools. The royalty was the jocks, of course. The other main groups were the band members (no single name for them), the billies (= Judd Apatow’s Freaks), and the Brains (see Geeks). There were other, smaller groups, like kids in the Drama club or whatnot. But those were sort of the main groups. And I had a perfect storm of circumstances to ensure I would not be part of the popular, in-crowd.
Unlike the classic nerd, I loved sports (still do, in fact). I played a lot of sports in the neighborhood with my friends. My favorite was (and is) football. But I was the wrong body type for that. I was better suited to basketball, which I also enjoyed, but apart from being tall I really didn’t have the basic athletic tools necessary to play at a varsity level. (I was more suited to playing intramural type games, like Church Ball, which I did.)
The other route to entry into the cool kids’ club was to be a big drinker at parties. But I was religious (not cool); not only that, part of a really weird religion (so not cool), and as a consequence, I didn’t drink beer at all (basically unforgivable).
On top of that, I was smart. I hated being smart and tried to hide it, even going so far as to intentionally trash my grades my junior year. But people knew, and I couldn’t really hide it effectively, and being intelligent was a major offense against the social order.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression; I was happy enough in high school. I had plenty of good friends, mostly from three sources: kids from my neighborhood, LDS kids, and other Brains. But there were also plenty of times during those four years that I felt like a total loser. I didn’t go to prom, for instance, because I simply couldn’t think of a girl who would find me appealing and actually be pleased to get such an invitation from me.
But you know, things that make one a loser in high school aren’t so negative in college or later in life. In fact, they often can be quite the positive. In college, no one cared that I played intramural basketball and not the collegiate kind. Being LDS and religious just made me normal at BYU. (And I since have learned that many of my high school classmates had actually been more religious than they let on, and were only better at hiding it than I was.) Not drinking all my life has been a plus for me; I definitely feel better preserved than a lot of my classmates, who continue to drink (and for some, smoke) like they were still in college–and it shows. Being smart is, wonder of wonders, actually a significant advantage in post-high school life. I practice tax-exempt finance law, and there is no way in hell I could to what I do (which I love) without some significant brain power. It just wouldn’t happen.
And you know, even being skinny has worked out well in the end. I recently attended my 35-year high school reunion. And for the first time, I didn’t psychologically slink back to my self-perception during those high school years for that three-hour evening. To the contrary, the reunion was something of a major ego boost for me. Yes, I was skinny in high school, but I’ve filled out without actually getting fat. I’m still trim, but I weigh 45 pounds more than I did in high school (I’m 6’5″, 225#), and my body has never looked better, even though I’m now a middle aged man. A lot of those husky football studs from back in the day have now gone to seed. I wouldn’t trade my body for that of any other man there.
I suspect that on some level high school tends to suck for most people. But Dan Savage’s message for troubled gay teens has a broader application; his mantra is true for most of us. It does get better. I consider myself a success in life: a great job, a great family, wonderful friends, a rich church life, intellectual passions and interests that keep me engaged and involved. And finally, after 35 years, I was able to look myself in the mirror and not see that high school loser I thought I was back in the mid-70s. It does indeed get better.