It Gets Better

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.


  1. And on that hope, I will persevere. Thanks, Kevin.

  2. My husband would agree. He is 6’8 but, even with eating massive amounts of calories, is lucky to see 180 on the scale. He loves sports and played a lot of club and church ball growing upl, but when it came down to it, even with his height, he was too easy to push around on the basketball court and didn’t play on the varsity team. He did excel at school though and definitely was a nerd. High school was as awkward a time for him as a lot of us, but once he was at BYU he too felt like he found a place he fit in and his brains have served him well as a systems engineer, as well as a guy who can have a great, deep, intellectual conversation – a characteristic that very much attracted me to him. So, yes, it does get better, even for tall, skinny, brainy guys.

  3. Definitely gets better.

  4. One aspect of the film I could sort of relate to was the skinny kid who was transformed.

    Isn’t it troubling though, and rather ironic, that Captain America was created through drugs and the willing modification of a human being into something else? The irony being that Captain America was supposedly fighting against Nazis, who also toyed with the notion of “super beings.”

    I like super heroes, but I’ve always been troubled by the premise of Captain America. The vision of the great American super soldier is a modified, drugged man.

  5. Steve L says:

    Yeah, but he was, like, a total weenie before the drugs made him a man.

  6. I really appreciate this post, Kevin.

    I was medium-sized and in great athletic shape throughout my youth – especially prior to high school. I was involved at the highest level possible in almost every sport available to me in rural Utah. (no soccer or hockey) Then, at the end of junior high school, I stopped growing. When I graduated from high school, I was one inch taller and one pound heavier than when I wrestled in 8th Grade.

    I’m no taller now than I was then, but my top weight a few years ago was almost twice my weight at graduation. I would love to lose at least 40 pounds, but doing it is another story altogether. In many ways, junior high was the apex of my physical condition.

    Having said all that, I’d rather be in my current clay tabernacle with my current life than in my former version without my current life. Yes, it does indeed get better.

  7. Well, it was a bit different for me. I was a little short, fat, and slowooo. I had but one window__”push iron”. I did and turned myself into a “Captain America”. At 17, I finished High School. I was not ready for college and too young for a Mission. That’s why I joined the Marines.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, you’re completely missing the point of Captain America, which is that internal strength, courage, and moral conviction are what lead to true victory.

  9. John Sifuentez says:

    The second coming, how could God ensure that in the second coming no evil comes to that man. If Satan had taken a man to be his true love, and that man was then given or encircled by that which is woman so that Satan would be in love because that man was Compass woman. If Satan who had known that he had his true love now after six days, finds that on the seventh that true love could not be, because the man was falsely accused and Satan misread the words of that man. Now that man would always be Satan’s True Love, but a love he could never have. Would then that man be able to go further in the second coming because Satan would love that man just as God loves that man.

  10. #9 FTCrazyW.

  11. Josh B. says:

    Funny. I hated BYU, but persevered in the hope that things get better. They certainly do. Thanks for the post.

  12. Could there also be a seemingly proof in the idea you’ll be like your friends. For example, the guys who seemed to hit their social peaks in high school–did they make any friends beyond that? I can see how holding on to a thing of the past might lead to a shortcoming in the future since your classmates in college may likely become your coworkers or future experts of the field. Friends in high school? Well, to be honest, the friends I had in high school were more of the “backpacking across Europe with a dollar in my pocket” type.

  13. Of course it gets better for skinny nerdy intellectuals with enormous earning potential.

    As for everyone else, well… go reread “Death of a Salesman”. :)

  14. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 9 Yikes.

  15. Naismith says:

    A few years ago I was invited to speak to a career night in an outlying branch. I had planned to tell them all about my work, that’s what the adult leaders had invited me to speak about. Instead, I felt inspired to give this same message: do not apologize for being a geek, it is so much fun later on. I had an iPhone, which was rare back then, and popped up the light saber app to prove the point. And I did give them some examples from my work, but the “it gets better” message was the heart of what they needed to hear.

  16. Janessa says:

    LOL–it gets better…except when it doesn’t. All those slobs to whom you’re now comparing yourself are probably furiously writing “It Gets Worse” blog posts as we speak.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, Janessa!

  18. I was a popular cheerleader in HS and now I’m a successful professional with a gorgeous husband and super-awesome children.

  19. Kevin, I thought you might have touched on your dancing prowess at the height of disco fever. You were the Captain America of that realm!

  20. @ Mike W/H: You made me recall the story of Willie Nelson Parked out in the front of Patsy Cline’s house getting up the courage to give her a song he written for her to sing__”Crazy”.

  21. E, nobody wants to hear it. =)

  22. MikeInWeHo says:

    I think E was being facetious, Tatiana.

  23. I agree life continues to get better, if you let it.

    There are obviously all kinds of personalities with all kinds of life histories and backgrounds. Some may feel that they reached their peak in high-school, some in college, some as a working adult with a career and family, perhaps some may finally feel that they have come into their own when they retire. When you really get to know people, you will usually find challenges and triumphs inter-mixed throughout their lives. I suppose it may come down to your overall outlook and confidence in yourself and the gospel as to how you view your place in the world.

    Personally, I loved high-school, mainly because I had some great friends, a handful of which I am still good friends with today. We were able to move between and hang out with the jocks, the brains, etc. But perhaps my high school was unusual as exclusive clicks were not the dominant force. I loved my time at BYU too and again have lifelong friends that I have made there. Since being married and having kids and approaching mid-career, life has gotten better still because of the company I keep (family). Then we were hit very hard with the recession and are still battling our way out of the situation, so we are dealing with some major life trials, but I have no doubt that life will be rosy again soon.

    I feel that each stage is amazing and so cool to be in. Your life is what you make of it.
    And even through some diligent effort and persistence I’ve been able to pretty much hold onto the athletic physique that I had in high school and college. Amazingly it’s possible.

  24. A true member of the intelligentsia would never sabotage his grades. Seems fishy to me. :P

    In the era of AP tests and low college acceptance rates and high tuition, all the kids at my high school studied, did sports/music, rarely drank / had sex… It wasn’t that cliquish.

  25. I think it mostly gets better because you don’t care about the same things anymore.

    For those who continue to have the same priorities (basing their self-worth on the perception of others) will continue to struggle.

  26. +1 for ErinAnn. I think it’s the growing up and progressing that makes things better, not just the shift in applicable skillsets.

  27. There’s no demographic more self-centered than teens. It gets better for the ones who grow out of that, and worse for the ones who don’t. Nothing improved my life more than when it quit revolving around just me.

  28. Mike, I was responding to E’s facetiousness with more of the same, hence the smilie. I guess I don’t convey that well, ’cause I’m always accused of taking people literally when I’m joking back. =)

    ErinAnn and Martin hit the crux of the matter. As a mother I’m trying to usher a teen through those years when one’s social standing in high school is one’s only true measure. I wish I could get him to go to college, which would fix it, I think. Other problems prevent that, for the moment. I hope he’s not stuck at that level forever, as some of my hs friends seemed to be at the one reunion I attended. A few college people at work seem to be stuck there, too, though, so I’m not sure what makes the transition happen, otherwise. Long dead topic, but any ideas from parents of teens? I’m trying to involve him in service to others, which seems to be the best character-building activity of all. That and loving him, praying for him, and waiting patiently for him to grow a heart, as scofflaw teens like me sometimes do in young adulthood. There’s a reason he’s my son, after all. =)

%d bloggers like this: