When I was a teenager, I–like many people, I imagine–wasn’t a big fan of apologizing, particularly to the people closest to me. I wanted to “be myself” and “speak my mind,” and all the other cliché-ridden things that I learned from Teen magazine and MTV. At least, I thought I wanted those things. I also, somewhat paradoxically–and again, like virtually everyone who has ever been to junior high or high school–desperately wanted to be liked, to be interesting, to be cool, to be quirky-yet-fascinating…and, through a magical twist, to be really, really good. At everything.
This overwhelming desire to be someone who was worth knowing, envying, loving, rather geekily played itself out in some typical “Type A” ways: with extra-curricular activities and honor-roll grades, and also in a way somewhat less typical: an obsessive involvement with our church’s Youth group. I (and for a time, Sharon as well) was regularly in church 3 times a week, attending Sunday School, choir, handbells, and drama ministry group in addition to worship services. I liked church–in large part because all of my friends were there–but I also really, really liked doing The Right Thing. Mainly because when you did The Right Thing, people told you how Good you were…or, at minimum, didn’t point out all the ways you messed up. So I plugged along, spending most of my non-homework-filled free hours at church or with people from church, all the while trying to maintain an “interesting” streak by rebelling in inconsequential ways–most of which involved professing to be a Democrat (horrors!) and refusing to wear khakis, or anything else that might be procured at The Gap.
What’s really amusing, in retrospect, is how effective this was. I was usually awash in approval from adults who admired my academic and Bible-related diligence, while simultaneously being treated–at least at church, where things were decidedly capital-V Vanilla–as quirky and daring…and maybe just this side of dangerous.
But there were moments in which things broke down, when I was not the unique and valuable snowflake I had hoped to be, and those are the times that interest me now, because they were also times in which apologies featured prominently, when “sorry”–or some approximation thereof–had to be dragged out and brandished like some sort of self-respect-preserving weapon.
Around the time that I turned 14, things started to feel a bit different in the Youth group: I noticed that a particular group of kids, including my friend Alex and the boy that both of us had recurring crushes on (I’ll call him Jeff), were becoming something of a clique. They had private jokes and seemed to have spent significant time with one another outside of church–and, worst of all, from my perspective, Jeff began hanging around Alex, asking her advice on serious Churchy questions and suggesting that they pray together, alone. Only a year prior, Jeff had gone “with” me to the 8th-grade dance out of pity–he was significantly more popular than I was in our public school, but when I asked him, I think his church-related sense of obligation was too much to ignore. By now, I had transferred my interest to a different boy, but the idea that Alex was getting Jeff’s attention, and that both of them were involved in some kind of exclusive group of which I was not a part was almost too much for my insatiable, approval-requiring teenage brain. I’m sure you can guess how subtle my attempts to rectify the situation were.
“Alex, what are you guys all doing on Saturdays, anyway?” I whined one day, after realizing that, yes, closed gatherings were being regularly held.
“We have a special Bible Study with Sam,” she said, “at his house.” Sam was one of the Youth leaders, a gawky, awkward middle-aged engineer who drove the world’s oldest minivan. He seemed to care deeply about us, but showed it in odd ways, like charging interest on loans of a dollar to “teach us a lesson” about…either being prepared or capitalism. It was never totally clear to me which. I thought about all of this as Alex told me about the Bible Study, which involved both matching workbooks and rotating lunch-duties.
“Can I come?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I think it might just be us.”
Around that time, Jeff showed up, coming around the corner from the boys’ Sunday School room. He put his arm around Alex, playfully.
“I want to come to your Bible Study!” I blurted.
Jeff just smiled his regular, cocky half-smile and explained, “It’s already started. You can’t start coming now.”
“But how did you even know about it? I never heard about it!” I was getting desperate.
“Sam asked us to be in it,” he said, his arm still around Alex’s neck, “He might ask you next time. If he didn’t ask you now, he probably thinks you’re not ready.”
I felt the words fall on me. Jeff left to find his friends, and I looked at Alex, jealous and embarrassed. I remembered the time I had just barely stopped myself from saying “fuck” in an argument just outside the Youth room–who else had heard me? I looked at my blue nail polish and ill-fitting baggy pants. I remembered, a few months before, declaring to Sam–with Sharon–that we would like to be known, henceforth, as “Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats.” (I swear I am not making that up.)
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he’d said.
For some reason, at the time, such a response was totally unexpected to me. I knew that most people in the church were conservative–indeed, that most people in our city were (I vividly recall, for example, being the only kid in elementary school who rooted for Dukakis in the ’88 election)–but usually, my politically rebellious declarations were met with some mixture of amusement and indifference. Sam seemed genuinely horrified and disappointed…a fact which I had, in true ALFD fashion, brushed off before running off giggling with Sharon about “protests” we would stage at the next church picnic.
Until now. Now, Sam’s disapproval meant something more than that I would owe him an extra ten cents on the dollar. There was a group that was both Good and Cool, and I was Not Invited. I have the sense, now, that my being excluded from the Bible Study had less to do with my espoused political views (such as they were) than with my goofy, teenage need to broadcast them–like my clothes–as a marker of my difference. It was church, after all, and Good kids, especially Good Girls, might be different, but they were above all to be respectful and humble and outspoken only about how great Jesus was.
I had learned that lesson, in a way, on my first-ever Sunday in Youth group. I was in 6th grade, an 11-year-old whose sheltered existence had left her ill-prepared for interacting with teenagers. That day, the Youth Minister entered the gathering carrying what he said was a letter he had received from a member of the congregation expressing concern over the behavior of some of the church’s Youth.
“I’ve blacked out the name,” he said, raising the letter aloft so that we could all see it, “but I want to read part of it to you.” The letter-writer, he explained, had witnessed some teenagers engaging in several forbidden activities while outside the mall. “Not only were they all smoking,” he read, as my heard began to pound, “not only were they all swearing, but one of the girls – who was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen – was from our Youth group.”
I was descending into panic. Is this what happened in Youth group? The older kids were less horrified, but more eager to exonerate themselves: “It was totally you, Shelly!” one yelled. Shelly, half-laughing and half-aghast exclaimed that it was not, and and shouting match ensued amongst the girls, who were each desperately attempting to out the others as shameless sluts. Finally, one of the older girls who Knew All the Answers raised her voice to exclaim over all of them, “Y’all, it’s not important who did it; what’s important is what we’re going to do about it.” The Youth Minister nodded approvingly.
And then he confessed to having made the whole thing up. The letter from the congregant was a fake, designed apparently for the dual purposes of slut-shaming and teaching a lesson about how Good Girls were to behave publicly–whether that public were Sunday School or outside the Mall. Be demure, be respectful, be sensible, and for Chrissakes, cover up.
Of course, parts of that message had failed to stick with me, and thus, my 14-year-old self was on the outside peering in, wanting to belong while at the same time struggling to have my “independence” recognized and valued. I began to try and prove my Christian devotion to everyone at church (and probably to myself): I volunteered to go on mission trips, I wrote Jesus-poems, I bought t-shirts with Jesus-related slogans. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, I also started hanging out with some of the “freaks” at school.
How I got involved with them is another story entirely, but my short-lived Lindsay Weir-esque time only encouraged my fantasy of being both Cool and Good–a blue-haired Bible-thumper who loudly professed her love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Youth group. The summer after our Freshman year of high school, I took the opportunity of a Youth camp trip to show off my (poseur-rific) “freak”-ness by wearing a fantastic outfit-and-hairstyle that is best expressed not in words, but in this photo:
(And yes, I cut it up to make it look more awesome before hanging it on my wall.) Before heading to church camp, we were on our way to a wholesome, fun-filled day at Six Flags over Georgia, followed by a laser show at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta. Needless to say, my outfit was a fantastic success–until the log flume ride. In a departure from my general baggy-pants style, the shorts I’d worn that day were some of my mom’s old cutoffs from the 70s (they were vintage, you guys, which meant that they had to be cool), which were tight and a bit mid-drift-exposing. After the log-flume soaking, I was getting more than a little uncomfortable, as both my tight stripy top and the vintage cutoffs chafed against my skin. Ever the sensible one, Sharon suggested that I change out of my mall top and into the sweet Led Zeppelin t-shirt that I’d bought earlier that day for my “freak” boyfriend (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless). This wasn’t a perfect solution–I still had to wear the cutoffs, after all–but it made sense. So, before long, I was sporting a much-too-big black ZoSo t-shirt with my braids, and ready to watch some freaking lasers already.
Stone Mountain was crowded, as it was apparently the place to bring Youth groups on their way to various church camps. It was also, unfortunately, ridiculously boring, and by the time it was time to load up and leave, I was hot and tired and cranky. As we were walking back to the bus, Jeff appeared over my shoulder.
“Justin is here,” he said. Justin was a friend of his from our hometown, who I had “gone out with” for a total of 3 days in 8th grade. “You should say hi to him.”
I didn’t really have much of a desire to say hi, but I did, and Justin gave me a hug. We chatted for a moment and then left to rejoin our respective Youth groups. As we were walking back, Jeff said to me, “see, he was nice to you. You didn’t have to worry, he’s a nice guy.”
I tried to interrupt an explain that I wasn’t worried; I just didn’t give a shit, when Jeff cut me off.
“Besides,” he said, “I had already prepared him. I said, ‘Look man, Erin’s here, but she looks like a freak today. She doesn’t normally look this weird, though, I promise.’ And he was cool with it.”
And with that, he slipped away and caught up with his friends. I looked down at myself, was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged. My shirt was enormous, and my braids had gotten frizzy. But who the fuck was he, to “prepare” someone for my appearance? And what the hell did I care about what some dude I held hands with in the hallway when I was 13 thought of me, anyway? I sulked on the bus and talked to no one.
Later that week, when we had finally been at church camp for a few days, I showed up to the evening worship service to find our Youth group’s resident odd girl, Dawn (who Sharon mentioned in her last post), wearing my clothes. I had been recruited to room with her–maybe because I was a little odd myself, or maybe because I’d made such a show of being Good over the last few months–and she had borrowed my favorite vintage Mickey Mouse t-shirt, jeans, and Airwalks. Without asking. I was livid, in that incomparable teenage way that shrieks (if only internally) those are mine, and people will think that you had them first!
I wish I’d had enough self-awareness then to realize that Dawn, too, only wanted to belong. I wish I’d realized that neither she nor I needed to prove anything to anyone, least of all a group of judgey church kids. But that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, I suppose…at least, that’s what we did, or tried, desperately, to do between the moments of self-preserving apology.
After the week at church camp was over, I never got to give the Led Zeppelin t-shirt to my boyfriend, who broke up with me to head to greener–and probably, less Vanilla–pastures. I still remember what Jeff asked me after he found out:
“So, are you going to stop dressing like a freak now?”