My high school history teacher – who was the “cool” teacher because he had a side gig as a bartender – wrote the following tidbit of advice in my yearbook:
Try not to take life so seriously.
I was insulted. How dare he imply I was too serious (obviously a euphemism for “uptight”)? I’d spent the previous four years cultivating a persona of airy nonchalance specifically to thwart this sort of errant accusation.
For instance, at the end of freshman year I’d gone to the senior prom after-party and gotten so drunk that my only real memory of the evening is of being slapped awake under a cold shower by several seniors who were diametrically opposed to having their final high school memory stained with the death of an alcohol-poisoned fourteen-year-old girl. Honestly, is there anything less “uptight” than taking a shower in front of a dozen people? My history teacher clearly had no idea what he was talking about.
I was also really good at pretending not to care about my grades. As far as my classmates knew, I naturally absorbed the material without even trying. I would fall asleep in class using my textbook as a pillow and assimilate the knowledge contained within it through a string of drool. But no one could have imagined the hours I spent at home crafting outlines from that same drool-covered text book, or the blubbering of snot all over my bed sheets while my mom rubbed my back and soothed, “Kristen, honey, it’s just one test!” That was the sort of information that would kill my reputation as “cool girl who doesn’t give a shit.”
I drank. I smoked pot. I snuck out of my house in the middle of the night (and then slept through all my classes the next day). I dry humped random strangers in the cage at the local dance club’s “teen night.” I wore trendy clothes. I dyed my hair blonde. I was a cheerleader for Pete’s sake. I. Was. Fun. I was not serious!
So why did that jerky teacher tell me not to take life too seriously?
Could it have been because of that one time I screamed at a boy in my class for throwing a pen down the back of my overalls and into my underwear? Please. I had every right to go nuclear on that guy. He might as well have placed the pen right in my butt crack with his bare hands. You just don’t do that.
No, it couldn’t have been the pen incident that made my teacher think I was too serious. Maybe it was the three weeks I sobbed into my backpack after my boyfriend finally broke up with me once and for all. But who could blame me? The last six times we’d broken up, it only took one week of crying to get him to change his mind and take me back. What choice did I have but to extend the sob fest for an extra two weeks to be absolutely certain he wouldn’t change his mind?
And really, there’s nothing that unusual about crying nonstop for weeks over a boy, especially if you’ve been reading tons of Jane Austen for your Advanced-Placement English class and are obsessed with literature of the Romantic Period. In cases like this, crying and a general malaise are to be expected, I think we can all agree.
So I’d had a few very minor disruptions of my otherwise consistent affectation of “cool girl who doesn’t give a shit.” Certainly not enough to warrant my teacher thinking I was some kind of emotional basket case! And yet, in spite of being perplexed by my teacher’s weird advice, I considered the fact that he was super old and probably knew lots of stuff. Maybe he had perceived something in me that I was unable to perceive in myself.
Hence, I resolved that in college, I would work even harder at being less “serious.”
I spent my entire freshman year being as frivolous and carefree as possible. Fickle, even. I made a few mistakes right off the bat, though, like scheduling 8:00 a.m. classes, taking more credits than was required, and buying a “college wardrobe” that covered me from head to toe like an eighty-year-old English lit professor with a fetish for plaid. In hindsight, I can see that these were gaffes on my part. Obviously you don’t schedule early classes, because that turns staying out partying until 3:00 a.m. into a huge suck-fest. And taking more credits than required? Well that’s just plain stupid. And those clothes! Why??
At the time, though, my choices felt reasonable. I’d been getting up at 5:30 a.m. for the last four years of high school, so having an 8:00 a.m. class on Tuesdays and Thursdays felt like sleeping in. And what’s weird about taking eighteen credits in a semester? I mean, don’t the classes get harder as you go along? Why not take as many easy courses as possible in one semester so that later on, when classes get harder, you can take fewer of them? It’s like saving your favorite food on your plate for last. It’s just common sense. There’s no explaining the clothes. I have no idea where I got the idea that college people wore corduroy and plaid all the time.
However revealing of my true nature these initial blunders may have been, they would not derail my plan to shape myself into as unserious a person as humanly possible. I was committed. No one was ever more committed to frivolity. When I met the hottest guy on earth and accidentally fell in love with him while snuggling with him on the couch in the student commons, I hid my intense feelings really well by sleeping with him two days later and acting like casual sex was totally fine with me.
And when that same guy invited me to go dancing at a salsa club with him and his friends, I proved how indifferent I was by making him wait twenty minutes, and then finally showing up in what I thought was appropriate salsa dancing apparel for the kinds of people who just don’t give a shit, but was really the clothing equivalent of what would happen if you combined the fashion sense of a Spanish flamenco dancer, an Atlantic City showgirl, and a gangsta rapper. Without going into too much detail, because oh my God it’s embarrassing, let’s just say there was more red satin and baggy denim involved in that outfit than really any normal person wants to see at once. The other girls in our party wore cute black pants and spaghetti-straps, and had no reservations about gawking at me as though I had just sprouted tree limbs from my breasts. I spent the entire evening pretending I was not embarrassed at all. (This event obviously took place while I was still unraveling the mystery of why college students don’t wear plaid.)
Months later, when that same love of my life replaced me with a thinner, more clear-skinned version of me, I showed him how totally unserious I was by sleeping with his best friend.
Outwardly, I was doing a fantastic job of not being serious about anything. But on the inside, I was feeling more gnarled and disjointed than ever before. The supposed love of my life had just thrust me off of him like so much maggot-infested meat, I was away from my mom (my rock) for the first time ever, and I was exhausted from sleeping only three hours per night. Worst of all, I was getting a B in Spanish Conversation! My “cool girl who doesn’t give a shit” endeavor was rapidly becoming the most ironic slide into neuroses ever to grace a college campus.
The dam finally broke in my friend’s dorm room when I ugly cried for twenty minutes because my football spectator ticket wasn’t in the same section as the rest of my friends. As my friend looked on in horror (Who cries over football tickets? What is WRONG with this girl?), I remember thinking, Now everyone will know how serious I really am because I cried over a fucking football game!
Because the 8:00 a.m. classes didn’t make it obvious. Because practicing with my Spanish flashcards for two hours per night outside of my dorm room hadn’t already clued everybody in. Because pacing aimlessly for hours in the dorm lobby so I could “accidentally” run into my love-obsession wasn’t the unstealthiest thing anyone had ever seen.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me how transparent I was, or why I was incapable of seeing that who I was – a serious, thoughtful, passionate, intense sort of person – was a perfectly okay type of person to be.
I have, of course, finally come to terms with being the kind of person who takes things seriously. It’s who I am, and although it clearly didn’t click for me in my teens and twenties, it’s who I was always meant to be. Sure, things might not “roll off my back” as I’ve always wished they would (and as people have so often told me they should). Stuff weighs on me in ways that some might consider outside the scope of normal. If a stranger is rude to me, I brood about it for days. I have strong opinions about where to squeeze the toothpaste tube. The other day I cried over a maxi pad commercial.
But that’s okay. It’s who I am.
I’m not going to say I wish I could go back and change the way I did things. I know the bumpy path I traversed to find myself was a necessary evil, a counterpoint to the way of being that is most suited to me. It’s kind of like how you can’t appreciate the beauty of light until you have witnessed darkness. I’m glad for the clumsy bumblings of my past, even if many of those moments still have the power to make me cringe.
And yet, if I could offer advice to a young person who has that same tendency I once had, to act in a manner that feels unnatural because you believe it is expected, I would say this: Don’t. You don’t need to do that. Go ahead and take in all the words of wisdom about paths to travel, foods to eat, classes to take, books to read, people to know, technology to try. Do take all that advice and do try all those things. But don’t ever let anyone tell you how to be. That is the part you have to figure out on your own.