Three girls walked past me – I would guess they were 12 or 13 years old but trying to look much older – and then they paused for no reason other than to look around and be looked at. The first one was wearing: heavy makeup, a choppy-straight hair cut, a halter top that wrapped around the slightest hint of a developing chest and exposed the rest of her shoulders and belly, acid-washed low-rider jeans, and 2-inch high heels. With slight variations in color scheme, the other two were wearing identical ensembles. The matching hair and outfits made me laugh. Then I noticed their matching postures and I just felt sad. They all stood with their arms tightly hugging their waists and one leg crossed in front of the other. They oozed insecurity with every little tilt of their heads and awkward tug on their skimpy clothes. Ah, puberty. I remember it well.
I have conducted a very scientific survey of family, friends, vague acquaintances, and total strangers in line at Target, and am convinced that no one on the planet actually enjoyed Junior High School. At best there may be a few who survived it, like someone survives a case of herpes I suppose. But at worst, most say – with a slight facial tic – it was a traumatic wasteland of emotional fallout from which it has taken them years and extensive therapy to recover. Why is this? I promise not to spew my own pitiful teen angst onto the screen for all to see because I’m saving that for my first novel, but I am going to wonder aloud at the causes of this phenomenon.
First of all, I am puzzled by the fact that for all the stories I’ve
“Weren’t we just so cool when we put a wet sponge on
When I think about Junior High, the thing that causes me the most pain is not the fact that I was on the receiving end of a few mean tricks, but that I cared. With pitiful desperation, I wanted to be accepted by the very group of girls who were being mean to me. Today, from my lofty adult perch, I look down on my 13 year old self and I want to shake her and tell her that in the end it makes absolutely no difference who she sat by in the cafeteria and it makes even less difference whether or not the cute boys left her standing there while they threw every other girl, protesting but not too much, into the snow. I look around at my life now – my beautiful kids, my awesome husband, my amazing teaching job – and I know that the Jr. High stuff totally doesn’t matter.
But the maddening thing is that it mattered at the time. I was unsure of who I was and so uncomfortable with finding out that I just wanted to be like everyone else. More to the point, I wanted to be liked by everyone else. For the price of an Izod and a pair of Levi courds, I could even look like everyone else. Why should I stand out when I could blend, blend, blend….
So here’s my tribute to Junior High: Andy Warhol’s 100 Soup Cans. In the 1960s Warhol made quite a few different versions of Campbell’s soup cans – single soup cans, soup cans with their wrappers coming off, stacks of cans, dresses made out of cans – but this one is my favorite. To Warhol, the image said something about the aspects of popular culture that had made Campbell’s soup an American icon, namely post-war consumerism, mass production, and the success of the advertising industry. To me, it says more about teen crowd mentality. It’s a metaphor for the two embarrassing years of my life when I aspired to a uniformity of packaging that devalued the unique in favor of the popular. . . and common.