She inspired me to think of my life in a new way.
I have a confession to make: I was a cheerleader. All four years of high school.
I don’t know if that made me popular or not, because I spent those four years wrapped in a cocoon of sadness and self-loathing. And I never got asked to a dance. True story: I had to ask an acquaintance to the prom -- we weren’t even really good friends. He had graduated the year before and I think he only went with me so he could see his ex-girlfriend, who was one of my friends.
I always felt like the fat, ugly friend who had to drag her inebriated friends away from drunk assholes at parties, because I was the designated driver and I had to make curfew. At times my life ventured into “Heathers” territory, but without the bitchy lunchtime polls and Christian Slater pretending to be Jack Nicholson. Most of the time I was just lonely and felt worthless and could not wait to grow up.
What I’m saying is I listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, because, you know, life. And this one time I was cheering at a football game and a group of kids started throwing raisins and popcorn at me. I mean, you haven’t really lived until you’re in the middle of shouting “Be aggressive! B-E aggressive! B-E-A-G-G-R--!” and you take a piece of dried fruit to the eye.
The cheerleading squad itself had a hazing ritual, an “initiation” for the freshman cheerleaders. I don’t remember what all we had to do, but I remember something about being dragged out of bed while it was still dark, and riding around in a car with other cheerleaders and doing ridiculous things in public and feeling as if I didn’t belong.
And in retrospect, I probably did belong, even if I felt as if I didn’t. But when you’re a teenager and you’re all wrapped up in yourself and you think you have it all figured out (and the thing you’ve figured out is you suck and no one understands you), any even remotely negative experience or unkind word can seem like it will follow you throughout the rest of your life, like a tattoo on your forehead that reads, “DAMAGED.”
And then you grow up and realize that literally no one cares what you did or who you were at 16 years old, unless you plan to run for president, and that your entire life is a blank slate upon which you can write whatever the hell you want.
I used my blank slate to move 2,000 miles away from my hometown and build a life for myself. I'm still constructing it, every day. I surround myself with people I find interesting and I do things I enjoy. I like to drive to the coast to breathe in the salt air, or just go for a walk in my neighborhood and admire how the sun hits the foothills on a clear day. Just last weekend I stood with my feet in the ocean and built a sand castle(ish) with my son. I read a ton of books and I write every day. I have a lot of love in my life and a roof over my head. I am so fucking lucky, and I have a great life.
Do you hear that, teen Somer? Your life turns out to be really great, and what you thought you were, at 14 or 17 or whatever, is totally irrelevant. The way people treated you then is but dust blown away into insignificance by years of living as an adult. The four years you spent in high school are a tiny fraction of your life, and someday you will forget what prompted you to write all that horrible poetry. I really wish I could go back and tell my teenage self all this.
Even knowing how insignificant the teen years can become, once you have enough distance in capital-L-Life, my heart did sink a little when I heard about this “Senior List” at a high school in Missouri. The list, which details the personal and sexual habits of some of the senior girls, is a yearly tradition at the school and is compiled by a group of junior boys.
My first thought is, if such a list had existed when I was in high school (and who knows, maybe it did) and my name had been on it, I would have been so humiliated, because when you are a teenager and you are already in a dark place, what is worse than public shaming and embarrassment?
Honestly, the fact that the school officials know about the list and allow it to continue is sort of surprising to me, especially with bullying being such a hot topic in the last couple of years. And I don’t know if this is a specific case of bullying, because we don’t know the actual content of the list. My guess is that many of the girls on the list feel embarrassed, and that is probably the intent.
The mother of one student at the high school (she hasn’t said whether her daughter is on the list or not) is not accepting the explanation that the list is a tradition, and that school officials can’t do anything about it. She’s suing the school. My inner mama bear is high-fiving this mom right now.
But these girls are going to get over it. And I don’t mean that as in “they should just get over it.” I mean it as in “it’s a stupid list and they are going to go on and live their lives because that’s what people do.” What may seem like the end of the world now is actually completely irrelevant to the rest of their lives. They get to leave high school, and there is nothing that says they ever have to revisit it.
And the boys who wrote the list might grow up to be fathers of girls and will probably feel like total dicks for their participation in such a gross annual high school tradition. Or maybe they will have sons and can teach them how not to be jerks. That is my hope for all kids who are perpetrators and victims of high school B.S.
If I could say anything to the girls on that list, and to teenage girls everywhere, it is this: Life gets better, and you are not what your peers perceive you to be. Your life is not stuck in one permanent state -- it is fluid, and it changes. You get to be anything you want.
Somer is on Twitter @somersherwood