At my California high school, my best friend Jeannette and I lived parallel lives: Advanced Placement classes, trivia competitions, swimming and track. We were nerds, sort of, but also jocks, sort of, and as a result were pretty much never invited to parties. Instead, we’d siphon small amounts of liquor out of five or six bottles from her father’s cabinet, combine it all into a Nalgene and go bowling. She felt deeply uncool. I thought we were awesome.
I puzzled over the difference in our perspective for decades, only recently realizing that I felt perfectly acceptable, though not totally accepted, because I knew what it meant to be truly unpopular.
In elementary school in St. Louis, I’d had a best friend, Kim. She routinely informed me, “I am your best friend, but you aren’t my best friend.” That honor went to her next door neighbor Brenda, who went to a different school. Oh, how I longed to be Brenda. But I was happy enough to be included in Kim’s group at school, which included Heather, Jessica and Amanda. We did sleepovers. Birthday parties.
One sunny day, when we were 10, Kim got mad at me for no apparent reason. This happened often, even before her younger brother died. On the day in question, Kim said I had to move to the other side of the playground, because “this side is for cool people like Heather, Amanda and Jess.” The others refused to make eye contact, and I ended up standing by myself underneath an impossibly high basketball hoop, thinking if I focused hard enough on throwing the ball, I wouldn’t cry.
She sent Amanda over with an insult. I missed a shot. I told Amanda my reply and watched her scurry back. I missed again. Kim’s next salvo criticized the first new outfit my financially strapped mom had gotten me all year. I missed a shot. Then I maligned girls who wear glasses, even though I’d been so desperate to wear frames like Kim’s (and Brenda’s) that I’d feigned poor eyesight convincingly enough to win an optometry referral. My ruse had seemed less clever when I read the tiniest line perfectly with just one lens shift. My single mother, having cleared her morning work schedule, let me have it on the car ride back to school. I was selfish and manipulative.
And, according to Kim, I was also “not smart enough for Great Books.” Again, I missed. I always missed.
The gibes escalated, my aim remained poor, and finally she went for what was the jugular in the early ’90s, the zenith of Diet Coke culture. “Kim says you’re too fat to play basketball,” Amanda told me.
I fired back: “At least I still have three brothers.”
As soon as I said it, I knew it was a mistake. I chased after Amanda, shouting my plea that she not repeat it, but I was too fat to catch her, and she was too excited about the explosive situation to help defuse it.
From that day forward, I was cast out. The teachers glared at me, shaking their heads and whispering under their breath. None of the kids would play with me. Most of them acted as if I were diseased or radioactive. And socially, I was.
In sixth grade, we all moved to another campus, and new kids were added to the mix. I found a group willing to tolerate my presence at their lunch table. We never talked on the phone or saw each other outside of school, but I didn’t have to eat alone anymore. Then Heather approached me in the cafeteria one day that December and said, “We all think Kim has taken this too far. Do you want to join us?” I did. Desperately. I would have shoved my beloved Christian Slater off a cliff if it meant sitting with them. It was my second most fervent desire, right after my parents getting back together.
For 48 glorious hours, things looked up. They smiled at me, even laughed at my jokes. But when I approached their table on the third day, Kim ran to the bathroom crying. It was her brother’s birthday, she said. “And looking at her hurts,” she added, referring to me.
The others apologized, but said they just couldn’t torture Kim with my presence. I wanted to object, to say she was overreacting and they were as weak and fickle as ever, but I knew she was right. They were right. I wouldn’t want to sit with me either.
So I went back to my old lunch table. Except that group had noticed my absence. They said if I preferred the other girls, there was no room for me anymore. As I sat alone, trying to fill the emptiness with pizza and fries, I hadn’t wanted to die, exactly, but I hadn’t much wanted to keep living either.
Then the pranks started.
I had broken my thumb by spinning in a circle after Sunday school. The dizziness brought a taste of the oblivion I craved. It also brought my thumb head-on into a swingset pole. I asked only one person to sign my cast: my crush, an older boy at school. In what now seems a monumental act of kindness, he did. The one signature, rendered in Wite-Out across plaster casing as dark as my outlook on life, unintentionally broadcast my affection.
Later that week, I got a phone call from my crush. He wanted to be my boyfriend. Jessica did a really good job faking the voice. Until the giggling started, maybe 10 minutes in, I thought it was him. I thought he liked me, that someone liked me.
I went to my first school dance in a carefully chosen, full-price ensemble from The Limited. I was a little embarrassed by the corsage my dad had gotten for my wrist, but I needn’t have worried. No one even looked in my direction. I stood there for hours, a natural extravert with no one to talk to, no one even to stand silently next to. I watched the other kids socialize and planned lies about what a great time I’d had so as not to drag my mom down with me.
Sensing that things could be going better but in the dark on the specifics (the withholding wasn’t totally altruistic; I wasn’t willing to risk seeing disgust in her eyes as well), my mom asked if I’d like to have a party. I’d seen the movies. I knew a killer party could wash away my sins. So I passed out invitations. I got dressed up. I put food in bowls. I filled my room with balloons. And no one came.
Jeannette thinks we were unpopular in high school. I know better.
I try not to use that exact phrase with my children now, as I do my best to pass down the lessons rejection imparted. Actions have consequences. Hurting others hurts you. Winning an argument isn’t worth losing a friend, nor is the satisfaction of being the quickest draw or the sharpest wit worth the loneliness it invites. It’s not just better for others when you prioritize being kind over being right; it’s a more pleasant way to be.
Why did I chase after inclusion where I obviously wasn’t valued? Choose to spend time with people who make you both feel good and feel good about yourself, I tell them. Your reflection in a friend’s eyes should look larger, not smaller. And resist the temptation to perpetually level up. Going through life always maximizing reliably extinguishes not just appreciation but also that brand of contentment that wards off anxiety. So my kids and I count our blessings over the dinner table, trite though that may be.
We host their birthday parties outdoors so we can invite the entire grade. Each time the siren of a trampoline park or ceramics studio calls and promises more fun if only you can whittle your friends down to nine names, I remind them we never know who might think they make that cut and be devastated to learn otherwise. You hold people’s hearts in your hands whether you want to or not.
Don’t assume you can know what a person is like, or what they’re going through, just by looking at them. You have to ask and listen and be open. Try to relate. Try to respond. And refuse to judge anyone by only the worst thing they’ve done. We’re all so much more than that.
“I encourage my kids to value each other even as they chafe. I tell them about my crush who signed my cast and how small kindnesses can balloon in unanticipated ways. I use the story of my misery to remind them that even the most threatening thunderclouds eventually pass. I beg them to eschew self-flagellation in favor of making amends and choosing forgiveness.”
I remember what got me through those dark years: our live-in babysitter who, when I confided the whole tale a few months later, decided the other girls must be jealous of, among other things, my “button nose”; the Sweet Valley Twins series; my siblings reliably by my side, vacillating between humoring and hating me, but never indifferent; and my mom saying most women, as their faces become more gaunt with each passing year, would kill to have had chubby cheeks in adolescence.
So I compliment tweens readily, in passing on the sidewalk, at the grocery store. I still read YA lit to continue empathizing with their plight, and also, because it’s good. I encourage my kids to value each other even as they chafe. I tell them about my crush who signed my cast and how small kindnesses can balloon in unanticipated ways. I use the story of my misery to remind them that even the most threatening thunderclouds eventually pass. I beg them to eschew self-flagellation in favor of making amends and choosing forgiveness.
These are the things within one’s control. Being inclusive, cooperative and otherwise pleasant to be around makes you more likable, psychologists say, which is a better type of popularity than having status. I’ve shared that factoid with my kids and in my writing, and spent time busting other myths when it comes to friendship in the tween and teen years. You don’t have to have a best friend or a tight-knit clique to be socially successful. Most humans are not great at secrets. Deep-seated similarities are much more important than surface-level ones. Friendships morph and end, and that’s OK.
But the message I try hardest to impart is: Recognize your own strengths. Being unpopular, having social status so far outside my reach that it felt irrelevant, freed me to embrace my interests and instincts with fearless abandon in high school, to walk onto the men’s water polo team, to insist an older boy let me out of his car just before he flipped it, to appear thoroughly pumped about learning history, to choose playing euchre with my family over just about everything. But before all that we moved to California and I met Jeannette. I’d broken the spine of “Jurassic Park” and splayed it open on the pavement so I didn’t have to stop reading to do burpees in PE. She approached me after class to ask whether I’d read “The Andromeda Strain.”
When an older kid called me “Gail the whale” and “Gail the male,” it stung, but couldn’t scar with her on my side. The research I’d later read ties this protective value of having even one friend to better grades too.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell the desperately unhappy little girl I was that one day people will like her. That she will be considered fun and interesting and worthy of compromise, adoration even. And not because she discovered a time machine and kept those callous, wounding words from ever leaving her mouth or because of perfect abs or fancy clothes or a great party or because she never messed up and hurt anyone again. That she is worthy just for being her, flaws and all.
But I can’t do anything for that child, other than try to reassure her kids that even if they fail to heed a single one of my rejection-inspired lessons, or if they abide by all of them and still aren’t liked by themselves and others, they will one day be recognized as awesome. Like Jeannette. And me.
Note: The names of individuals and some identifying characteristics in this piece have been changed to protect privacy ― except for Jeannette, who agreed to be included.
Editor’s note on February 1, 2022 at 7pm: This essay has been updated to clarify several details.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter, and read more at gailcornwall.com.