What’s Wrong with Me?

Honoring the thirty seconds I spent as more Cady Heron than Janis Ian

Honoring the thirty seconds I spent as more Cady Heron than Janis Ian

I’ve been thinking about school a lot lately. Maybe it’s because we are very casually shopping around for a house, and one of the important considerations is the quality of the school district. I keep joking that we can only consider Jersey towns with schools that are rated higher than the one where we grew up, since you’re supposed to do better by your kids. But, for me, there’s some truth to the statement.

My husband and I were raised in an idyllic community in northern NJ that, on the map drawn by some some wise-ass, would fall into the “Lake Houses Owned by New Yorkers” region. We attended different elementary schools but the same junior high and high school, though we didn’t meet and begin dating until we were 17 (he was one grade below me.) But, if you interviewed each of us, you’d never guess that we received the same education. G. was always well-liked and respected by classmates and teachers. He doesn’t remember anyone giving him a hard time growing up, although he is definitely not the kind of guy who remembers petty crap like that as a rule. If it weren’t for the ridiculous commute, he wouldn’t have a problem raising our kids in our hometown.

Then there’s me. We moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey in the middle of my kindergarten year. I think there must have been a brief period between my “Can’t we move back to MA?” and “OMG I have to graduate and get out of here” phases, but it was indeed brief. My poor mom and dad! My goal of escaping our town didn’t have anything to do with them. I just wanted to be done with school. I cannot remember a time in my life when school felt easy to me.

I always had really good grades. I say this not to brag, but just to add some context. School wasn’t hard from that standpoint. I had to work on calculus (yuck), but for the most part, I wouldn’t say I had to apply myself to succeed. No, school was difficult because I just always felt so rejected by everyone. Bullied, sometimes. Rejected, always.

I cemented my reputation as crybaby pain-in-the-ass from day one. If you teased me about anything as a kid, I would start to cry. I don’t know why I was like this … just one of my quirks, I guess. I grew out of it as the years went by, but by then the damage was done. If you go to school with all the same people for 12 years, you kinda establish yourself in a social class pretty early in the game, and upward mobility is limited. My reputation was: smart and nerdy, not into drinking or drugs, and just generally very uncool. Plus I was super sensitive (duh). If you wanted to make someone cry or blush, you called me ugly where everyone could hear.

I was kind of an angel as far as getting into trouble. Taking a drag of a cigarette was, like, a really big deal for me. I remember that when my French class took a trip to Paris my junior year, I was the only student who didn’t imbibe on our last night in the hotel, because no one would pour me a shot. My husband and I joke that I was generally bummed enough to want to do drugs (our school was full of them), but nobody would give me any because they would no longer be cool if I started using them. I was that much of a goody-goody. So when I started ditching class my senior year, you know I’d really had enough of school. You know the principle of learned helplessness? It applied.

So what kind of negative experiences am I talking about? Well, in late elementary school, kids would pick on me and (this is the part that’s unusual and messed up, I think) certain teachers would join in or punish me for trying to fight back or protect myself. In junior high, the teachers left me alone, but classmates called me ugly and stupid on a daily basis. And then, in high school, nearly everything that wasn’t strictly academic was pretty much a disaster. My career aspiration was to be a singer, and the drama teacher pretty much ignored me at casting time. I applied for our peer leadership program (mentoring eighth-graders and freshmen) and despite my squeaky-clean status, I never got in. I was always at the top of my class, but I didn’t get into National Honor Society the three times I applied. To this day, I admire a classmate of mine who endured the same rejections and wrote to the Board of Ed our senior, saying “I strongly feel that I was rejected in favor of students with lower grades than I have because they are more popular.” She got in. Meanwhile, one of my teachers bluntly informed me that I hadn’t been selected because I was the annoying person no one liked. That was a lot to take at 16. I remember feeling that our hometown paper summarized my experience very well when it published an entire issue about my class the week we graduated, featuring stories about students who excelled academically, musically, athletically. My name was mentioned once, in a sentence about the graduating seniors who had served on the student council all four years. That about summed it up for me. The one place where I could be myself and feel accepted was marching band–I was captain of the color guard for two years–but I couldn’t completely enjoy that, either, since it made me an enormous target for mockery by non-band-geeks. Day in and day out, I heard what a loser I was.

Two things saved me. The first was meeting my husband. Near the end of my junior year, he simply materialized in front of me: blonde, tanned, athletic, smart, well-liked. When we started dating a few months later, my peers messed with me a lot less. The kids in his grade all but left me alone (which is nice, because nothing makes you feel like more of a zero than having people one and two grades behind you pick on you all the time.) And since I was a senior then, even the worst jerks in my class calmed down and were more into making memories-4-life with their BFFs than bugging me.

The second was my parents. They believed in me. My dad was ALWAYS like, “You are going to get out of here and go to a really good school and it will never be anything like this again. There’s no in-crowd in college.” And he was absolutely, utterly correct. I’m not going to say college was perfect, because I had my share of struggles then, mostly because I tend to get depressed easily. But holy crap! It was so much better. Night and day. At Barnard and Columbia, no one made fun of you for being smart or caring about your grades (obviously). I met maybe a handful of people who were stuck up and bitchy, which would happen at absolutely any college in the country. But for four years, no one called me ugly or a loser or refused to recognize my achievements because I wasn’t cool. The music professors liked me. I had a fantastic voice teacher and coach. I performed in a bunch of Off-Off-Broadway shows. My senior recital won a monetary prize. I graduated magna cum laude. I wasn’t a super-scholar whiz kid, but I did well and enjoyed my time there. My dad laughed really hard when he moved me out after graduation, because he knew  I would stay there for another four years if he let me! I left with the impression that maybe I liked school after all, that I’d just run into some bad luck growing up.

And then, a few years later, I totally washed out of grad school. I auditioned for a program in classical voice, was admitted, and was super excited to enroll. But once I did, everything went downhill in one semester. The dean put me with this voice teacher who wanted me to sing completely inappropriate repertoire (Mimi) because I was “super talented” and “really pretty.” You can’t even imagine how crazy it felt to be mis-fached based on the idea that I looked like a glamorous heroine after all those years of being told I was nothing. It was nice to hear and all, but I wasn’t making any technical strides, and I knew roles like that were wrong for me. So I went to the dean and said look, this teacher’s very nice and all, but this isn’t working out. And he flipped on me and gave me this whole lecture about how she was a good teacher and I was VERY lucky to even be there. We basically had a disagreement all semester, and then, at the end, he told me that I just shouldn’t be a singer at all. Um, really? The whole premise of his argument was that I was with this instructor who was just great, but her assessment of me as “really talented” was way off base this whole time? He was trying to get me to do some other degree program there, probably to avoid my suing his ass, but all of it felt WAY too reminiscent of the rejection I endured growing up. And I was like, peace out. I knew then, as I know now, that the situation genuinely wasn’t my fault. I’ve screwed up before, and I can admit when I do. That wasn’t one of those times. Still, imagine what a zero I felt like after that happened and I left school.

I am talking too much as usual, but I really do have a point. And it’s that I really REALLY don’t like school! I have had, and do have, a happy and blessed life, except for the hours when I was in school. Things that I’ve done during the time I wasn’t in school: worked in PR at a major performing arts organization for three years. Held down a singing job at a church with a well-reputed choral program for five and a half years. Married the love of my life. Bought a condo. Sang in four operas with super-talented colleagues. Had the best baby ever. Helped raise thousands of dollars for charities. Sang solo at NJPAC. Freelanced as a long-term writer and editor for about 10 different companies and organizations. Again, not intending to brag, just pointing out that when not in school, I tend to not to be captain of the failboat all the time. Sure, I don’t get every gig or job I go after, and I mess things up at work and home sometimes, but it’s not this chronic loser thing.

So all this makes me wonder. I’m skilled. I have a good work ethic. I have concrete goals. But school, with the exception of college, sucked. So what gives? What’s wrong with me?