Sometimes the Universe shoves you against the lockers of life just to remind you that no matter how old you are, you will never leave high school.
If you don’t believe me, try this on for size: on the very first day that online permits became available for the high school my son wants to attend in the fall, I was perhaps the first to fill it out. The brown-noser good girl always is, and Lord knows that identity was established long ago when I did extra credit for “fun” and was a back-up mathlete.
Cut to about three weeks later: on the same day I got my New York magazine with the cover story, “High School is a Sadistic Institution,” I found out that the application I’d submitted had one crucial wrong answer on it. Worse, I was apparently the only one to make the idiotic error that rendered the thing null and void.
My recurrent nightmare that started somewhere around Algebra I was actually coming true.
You know the dream I’m talking about: you take a test, are the first to turn it in, and then realize you finished early not because you’re so smart, but because you didn’t notice there was a second page.
It took me a week, a flurry of emails, significant groveling, and ultimately redoing the tedious paperwork to make it right. The mad scramble took some fuel, and while I suppose I could’ve downed a Red Bull, instead I decided to tap into my old teenage motivator: Shame.
In another fun Universe moment, I had just watched sociologist Brené Brown’s TED talk on Shame. And in the New York magazine piece, she sums up why high school can be such a sadistic pit of madness by noting, “… this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging? You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”
Just those four measly years? I feel like an eternal teen, as most recently evidenced how I had just elected myself “Mom Most Likely to Fuck Up Her Kid’s Future.”
To cap off my week in the way back machine, a group of us parents and our kids caught a high school basketball game together. There, in a gymnasium that smelled like teen spirit — a delicate blend of sweat, pheromones, and the Lysol the janitors employ to offset the whole stench stew — I had a mini-panic attack.
Where would my kid fit in? And worse, what if he doesn’t?
Brené Brown says this kind of “secondary trauma” is normal; many parents she interviews reports high school-rooted shame getting triggered all the time: when their kid doesn’t get a seat at the “cool table,” the first time they get stood up, or worse, not asked out at all. It can be so paralyzing, she says, that parents are often unable to react with compassion and instead chastise their child for not doing a better job fitting in and getting along.
I hate to say this (and really, I do), but been there, done that. I’m praying that was a freshman faux pas, and now that Professor Brown has given me a sneak peek at the parenting answer key, hopefully I’ll ace that pop quiz next time.
Back to the high school gym where I was experiencing a bit of my own secondary trauma. It was senior night, so all the graduating cheerleaders and basketball players were being honored in a special pregame ceremony that included their parents walking them through a festive balloon arch. And every cheerleader’s mom was even prettier than her daughter — leggy, blonde, sexy, and confident.
As I watched my husband elbow his buddy, I could tell what was going on in their re-pubescent minds.
And suddenly I was that back-up mathlete again, twirling her little Billy Dee Williams mustache and plotting her Heathers revenge on the popular girls who sat at the cool table and nabbed the hot boys.
Lucky for all of us, the game started and distracted us from our respective teenage dreams.
As I watched the game, a strange thing happened. I became acutely conscious of the fact that I was watching every move on the court not through the rose-colored glasses of youth, but through the spectacles of parenthood.
When the home team was down, I worried about the boys’ self-esteem. When they finally came to life, I breathed a sigh of relief that the seniors’ last memory would be at least of a credible comeback.
And then, in the last couple of minutes of the game, a rare and unsettling thing happened: one of the boys from the other team “pulled a C-Web,” calling a time-out when they didn’t have one, which resulted in a technical foul. Two perfect free throws and a minute later, the home team won.
As the fans around me exploded, I couldn’t help but feel crushed for the boy who’d made the fatal call.
“That kid won’t be able to show his face around school,” my husband commented.
While I hoped he was wrong, I wasn’t at all thinking as far as Monday. I pictured the kid in an hour or two post-game, locked in his bedroom. His mom would be waiting patiently outside his door until he was ready to come out and talk about it. Or at least let her make him a midnight snack of his favorites to cheer him up and remind him that this was just a bump in the road, not the end of it.
As I left the gym, holding my kids’ sweatshirts and following behind the pack of excited teens reveling in the post-game glory, I realized that although life is high school, I no longer care where I sit at lunch or who’s friends with whom, or what anyone else got on their test. I’ve graduated and am happy to report there is life beyond high school.
Still, I’ll always be a teen alumna. So if you see me attending events, giving ’til it hurts, and supporting the home team, just know secretly, in the deep recesses of my mind, I’d rather be making out with someone under the bleachers or detonating a stink bomb in the boys locker room.
Because after all, growing up doesn’t need to mean growing old.
Speaking of high school, if you missed Brené Brown’s viral smash/TED Talk /precursor to “Listening to Shame,” “The Power of Vulnerability,” watch it now: