I have never in my life been cool. I have always wanted to be, but it was something that escaped me. I suppose I was simply not made for it. I was shy and nervous around everyone. I was awkward and funny looking – very small for my age with freckles and big teeth.
When I was in elementary school, I was the teacher’s pet. Not a good foot to start off on with fellow classmates. In fact, Ms. Youngblood was my first grade teacher at Cloverdale Elementary and when she got married and became Mrs. Meredeth, I was invited to the reception. My run of being the teacher’s favorite continued until 4th grade when I was subjected to the worst teacher I ever had (and the one I still have animosity for 30 years later – one day maybe a post will purge me of that demon – and here it finally is). There were a few teachers who liked me after that, but elementary school was the only time I was ever a favorite. Unfortunately, I went to school with the same kids from kindergarten to graduation and maybe some of them remembered me being the smarty-pants, goody two-shoes teacher’s pet….and maybe that was not such a good thing for me and my hopes of fitting in.
It did not help that my mother was employed by the school system in various capacities from the time my brother started elementary school until she retired almost 20 years later. When I was in middle school at Beverlye, she worked there in the kitchen. She was not above coming out from behind the lunch counter and getting on to me in front of everyone. In her defense, I don’t think she realized the humiliation it heaped on me when she did it. She also did not realize that I was horribly susceptible to teasing and I was extremely sensitive, making the teasing all the worse for me and all the more fun for the teasers.
Mother’s obliviousness to my predicament was not her fault. My mother was popular in school. Granted, she graduated from Pike County High in 1963 and there were less than 150 students in her graduating class, but she was in the middle of everything. If there was a club, she was secretary of it. She was the runner up to Miss Brudidge in 1962 and rode a float in the Peanut Festival wearing a lovely white ballroom gown. In 1963, right after she graduated high school, she won the Alabama Beef Cookoff. I have the engraved silver platter hanging in my dining room. I don’t think she understood me. I remember her telling me once that when I was little I knew every nursery rhyme by heart, was runner up in the Little Miss Dothan and they thought I was gifted – then I got to school and they realized I was just normal like everyone else. My parents thought no differently about me than any other parent thinks of their child, but I think it disappointed my mother a bit more. But then again, we are all average, really. No matter how talented, smart or beautiful someone is, there is always someone else they feel is more talented, smarter or more beautiful. It is just the way the world is and people are. I doubt Einstein thought he was the smartest person in the world or else he would not have said, “Before God we are all equally wise – and equally foolish.”
By high school I think I had gotten pretty good at staying under the radar. But I was FAR from cool. I was mostly ignored and dismissed and, while I did not like that exactly, it was better than being singled out in a negative way. I was certainly not the guy’s first pick – or second, actually, but I had met a guy in Florida at a summer camp in 1984. He was from Texas and we had a long distance romance that soothed my ego. I only dated two guys in high school. The first one was a popular guy named Eric who I dated about 3 or 4 months at the end of the summer before and the first month or so of my junior year. When one of the popular girls (who I knew outside of school because our parents were friends through church) found out, we were at her house and she looked at me incredulously and asked, “You are going out with Eric S—–?!” She said it loud enough that heads turned to look and I am sure I turned five shades of red. All my pride vanished with that one question. I doubt I said anything in response. He broke up with me not long after and moved away. My other high school boyfriend truly loved me and we dated my entire junior and senior years, but he graduated a year after me and I moved on without him. It wasn’t until my mid to late 20s that I found out some guys are apparently attracted to short, small red heads and I can say that I have enjoyed attention fairly consistently after that, although it has been on the decline over the last couple of years. I am sure that as I get beyond 40 those heady days of male attention in my late 20s and early 30s will be a fond, if slightly bitter, memory. Being pretty and attractive to guys or being handsome and attractive to girls does not make you cool though – although it does not hurt. So, what does make you cool?
I came from a very outgoing mother (as you can imagine) and a reserved father. I was neither. I was a people pleaser. I wanted to be liked and to feel at ease with people – and most of all I wanted acceptance. Unfortunately, I think it was obvious, and anyone who has ever had any interaction with other people can tell you that the most unattractive thing you can be is desperate. I tried too hard. I never mastered aloofness. I was always off somehow. People didn’t get my jokes and I did not get theirs, things like that. It was rare to find someone I was comfortable with. It will surprise a lot of people to find out I am a fairly decent actress – as long as no one knows I am acting. My self consciousness will not allow me to “become” a character and act when someone knows I am trying to act, but put me in a social situation where I am nervous and I can do a spot on version of my mother and couple of other people. I am also bad about mirroring someone else’s speech patterns and mannerisms when I am talking to them. Most of the time I do not even notice, but I do when they are very different from my own. Still, I sometimes cannot stop. The more nervous I am, the worse it is. I read somewhere that mirroring is actually a tactic for making someone feel at ease and establishing rapport, but I do it out of desperation. Oh, and then there is the ever-horrible not being able to shut up. Humiliating! Have you ever been in a situation where there was a pause in the conversation? I haven’t. Why? Because I can fill that void – wait, did I say fill? I mean I can stuff it with so many words that people stare in sheer surprise at the volume of words that can tumble out of my mouth.
Unlike me, some outsiders can be cool. It only takes one thing, but that one thing is elusive and hard to fake. Confidence – that comfortable inside your own skin feeling. I don’t know when it started for me. I suppose sometime in my late 20’s I would start going through rough bouts of knowing who I was and knowing what I wanted – starting to be comfortable with myself. Maybe dating helped. I am a reader. A studier. When in doubt, I find a book on the subject. Oh, the self help books I went through! You would not believe! Over the years I have gotten rid of them either through exchanging them or donating them. If I had kept them all, I could open a small bookstore. Some may find this funny or sad (so un-cool – my mother thought it was funny, which I found humiliating). I do not. I am a researcher. And I want lots and lots of opinions. I don’t want to be preached to and told what to think, I want to gather knowledge and pick and choose what makes sense to me and come to my own conclusions. But this was not easy. I was not ready to take responsibility for myself and I had enough issues to work though that it took years – and a lot of mistakes – to get to know myself.
I can only hope I have learned a lot and that I will continue to learn. I have come to accept my un-coolness. Embrace it, maybe. There are things I will never get about American life and culture. I will never understand how someone would rather watch Real Housewives of God-Knows-Where over The Presidents. I will never like either Rod Stewart or Bruce Springsteen. My favorite car will always be my 1999 Jeep Cherokee Sport (and one day I will have another one – maybe I will upgrade to a 2001). I rarely go to the movies – Avatar will have to run another 6 months before I get around to it. One of the last ones I went to was Sherlock Holmes and I wanted to see it because I have read every Sherlock Holmes story ever written – more times than I can count. (Sherlock is cool; having read your way through the The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels repeatedly, maybe not so cool.) I have been to maybe 5 concerts in my life and own less than 15 CDs – all of which were bought in the late 90s. I would rather spend my money on books than clothes. I don’t join things – groups, clubs, gyms etc. I like to sing, but will never do karaoke. I will always talk too much… and probably overshare, simply because I cannot stop talking to save my life.
But I will say that I have cool friends who I love. And maybe that makes me cool by association – or maybe some coolness will rub off. One day.
Originally written March 30, 2010