When I was in 8th grade, I changed my life. My boyfriend of 9 months (which in middle school meant we were practically married) had just broken up with me and the only way I knew how to process it was with a chick-flick-style transformation. I cut off my long hair, lost some weight, got my braces off, and decided to start over at a new school. My dad had asked me the year before about switching to private school and I decided this was the perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. It was the 13-year-old version of moving to Europe. For the first time in years, my confidence was soaring! I hadn’t just leveled up in looks, I had become Much, Much Cooler. I’d discovered grunge and punk music, started playing the guitar, and was getting really into Film with a capital F. I also decided my artistic nature should be expressed through my style, so I customized my clothes by sewing on a zipper into the middle of a shirt or painting the words “Malaise” and “Nihilism” onto a pair of jeans. I was completely insufferable.
For my first day of high school, I knew I needed to stand out. There was a dance for the freshmen that evening to welcome all the new students, so I needed something that would look great in class and at a dance. I chose a tank top with a skull on it, a skirt that I’d “improved” by attaching pieces of metal, a pair of fishnets, and combat boots. When I looked in the mirror that morning, I couldn’t believe how awesome I looked. “Wow. I bet the guys are going to think I’m so hot! I’ll probably get a boyfriend by the end of the day!”
I did not get a boyfriend by the end of the day.
Although the school did not have official uniforms, the students seemed to all be wearing pastel-colored polo shirts. Some people even layered multiple polo shirts, drawing power from every stacked popped collar like Superman on a sunny day. Within the first hour someone had come up to me to ask if I was a goth “like on TV.” But instead of feeling embarrassed and running home to change, I misinterpreted the attention as a good thing. “I’m really getting noticed!” I thought proudly.
While the outfit on its own would’ve been enough to be labeled “that weird girl,” I just had to take things further. Despite looking like a Hot Topic catalog, I had found some funny people to talk to at the dance who would later become my theatre friends. I’d even danced with one of the guys, though he was also hoping to get a boyfriend that night. Everything was fine until the DJ decided to change things up.
“OK OK OK!” DJ Spinz yelled into the mic. “We’re going to have a talent contest! Sign up and dance, lip sync, karaoke, and show us what you’ve got! The winner will get a sick prize!!!”
Most adolescents have a natural instinct to blend in and avoid public humiliation, but because my confidence was so dangerously over-inflated, I immediately signed up to sing something. They didn’t have any Nirvana, Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, or anything that I listened to. The closest thing they had to rock and roll was Kelly Osbourne’s cover of “Papa Don’t Preach,” so I took it. They called me up first, and I walked onto the stage like I was going into battle. I didn’t just sing karaoke, I put on A SHOW. I strutted and jumped around, playing air guitar and whipping my hair. Finally, I sank down to my knees wailing out that stupid Madonna song like I was a freckled Freddie Mercury.
Afterwards there was a moment of stunned silence, some light applause, and then DJ Spinz came back up to bring on the next performer. No one came forward. He consulted the list and called the one other person who’d signed up: a girl who recited slam poetry she’d written about Tupac. It was terrible. Only then, by seeing the company I was in did I realize how badly I’d just fucked up. For the next two months I’d have a theme song in the hallways. “Papa Don’t Preach” quickly became my least favorite song of all time. But the worst part was that the “sick prize”for which I’d sacrificed my dignity and reputation turned out to be a mix CD of lame hip-hop burned by DJ Spinz. I gave it away to a girl in a pink polo shirt.