I just came home from the gym and as often happens when one comes home from the gym after a good workout, I feel amazing and pretty much ready to take on the world.
I cherish moments like these because confidence and pride in myself is something I continuously work at. I didn’t grow up in a home where I was fed positive messages about myself, and because we moved a lot, I didn’t always have a strong support system to carry me through. I spent a lot of my life feeling ugly and weird, and as a teen I felt the pressures of it.
It is why a recent interview with Abercrombie and Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries, has a lot of our stomachs turning this morning. His obsession with limiting his clothing line to only the “cool, good-looking, popular kids” may seem crass to some of us, but I can see teens everywhere aiming to be that kid. It brings back so many memories for me, one in particular:
It was 1984. I had been moved around like crazy, not just from neighborhood to neighborhood, but from country to country. My father kept passing me off to family members and on this most recent move, I ended up in Jackson, NJ, smack in the middle of suburbia, right at the start of 10th grade. In America.
I had just gotten off the plane from Dominican Republic, and had a short stint in Brooklyn. But because I kept getting into street fights with the Puerto Rican girls who tried to bully my little cousin (you know, the life), my father decided to send me “to the country”.
The high school was exactly like the high school movies most of us grew up watching on TV. There were the cool kids, the nerds, the jocks and cheerleaders, the punk rockers, the black kids, and the Puerto Ricans. I fit nowhere. Walking into the cafeteria and trying to figure out where to sit was like walking into hell and trying to find a cold spot.
The punk rockers took me under their wings, and I spent my lunch hours and afternoons enveloped in their cloud of cigarette and pot smoke and feeling like, at least, I belonged.
Then, one day at gym, we had to separate into groups. I had no idea where to go. Groups formed quickly, leaving me and another girl whose name I never knew, next to each other. She was my partner. But she was weird. She had greasy hair and glasses that took over her face, which was covered in pimples. She was painstakingly shy and her braces glared at me when she smiled. Because she smiled, thinking that I, unlike everyone else, had stayed behind to be her partner. I looked around the gym. People snickered and pointed and whispered. I got nervous. Started sweating. Started feeling like the little progress I had made to “be cool” was quickly fading. It felt as if the room was caving in and the whispers were getting louder and in one quick second, I got up and walked away towards another group, leaving this girl alone. She stood there, her face looking down to the floor. I could tell she was fighting back tears.
I have never felt like one of the “cool kids” since that day. Over the years I replay this scenario in my head and wish I had the courage I showed in Brooklyn, when I fought off bullies and gang members, or the courage I have now to speak out when I see things that are unfair and unkind.
But I was just a kid trying to make it in this weird environment where “belonging” mattered so, so much.
That experience killed my spirit and after some begging, I left the school mid-year saying goodbye to no one. I essentially just disappeared. I got on a plane and left the country.
I couldn’t deal with the pressures of being a teen in the American high school system, which felt so riddled with segregation of so many different kinds, with being “cool” or not leading the way. I didn’t understand how anyone could. And I have lived every single day trying to make up for being the a-hole I was that one day, to that one girl, who needed nothing more than a friend.
Eventually, I realized that I will always dress like a boy and act like a kid. I will always laugh too loud, or eat too much. I won’t ever be one of the pretty girls, and I still avoid events and places where I have to dress the part. I never really did find my “group” and I always did stay kind of weird. But at least now I know that’s OK.
Now, my teen is in highschool, in suburban America, and I fear that his moment of truth will come. I wonder what choice he will make and I hope that all the experiences I have shared with him, all the lessons I have taught, all the words of wisdom, and heart to hearts will make him kinder than I was.
The people like Mike Jeffries aren’t the cool kids. They aren’t the beautiful people. They aren’t who we want to be, or even who we want our kids to be. And I feel sad for any kid having to suffer through that level of superficial ignorance.
It might be time for us to sit down and have a talk with our kids, or even look inside ourselves and see what it is we are teaching them and putting out there in the world.
Being kind, when it isn’t cool, isn’t always easy. But it’s a lot easier, and a lot cooler, than living with the memory of ever having been cruel. And no amount of over priced clothing can erase that.