Thursday, December 16, 2004

Do you remember the moment you started to feel uncool?

I do. I was in fifth grade at a Jewish day school, and a new girl joined our class – I’ll call her Heather, after that movie, because that’s what she was like. We were all really excited that a new girl was coming, because the school was small, so anyone new was like a breath of fresh air. Anyway, Heather shows up, and she’s 10 going on 17. Not for one second was she shy, like new kids often are. Oh, no, she took the class by storm. Today they would call her a “Queen Bee” or an “Alpha Girl,” but back then those words didn’t exist, and anyhow it wouldn’t have occured to me back then that anyone my age could be a “Mean Girl.” All I knew is that she was new, and seemed fun, and I wanted to make her feel welcome and be her friend.

Some time during Heather’s first day in my school, I heard her tell one of the other girls that she had a sticker collection. I was so happy! I collected stickers! In fact, I was very “into” my sticker collection – at that point I had at least one whole album full of them, neatly divided into “puffies,” “smellies,” “holograms,” “Hello Kitty,” “My Melody,” etc.

So, on Heather’s second day, I brought my collection to school to show Heather and invite her to trade. Trading stickers was a fun “girl” activity – anyone who grew up in the 80’s would remember that. I shyly approached her before recess and said “Heather, I have a sticker collection too! Tomorrow do you want to bring yours, so we can trade?”

Heather looked at me, and looked at my sticker collection, and then she rolled her eyes, snorted, and said "Oh, come on, I don’t trade stickers anymore.” Then she walked away and joined some other girls to laugh about something.

Today I’d have a few choice words for her, but I was only ten. I just stood there in shock, feeling very small.

That was the exact moment that I learned that there is something called “cool” and I wasn’t it. I realized that, it was true, very few of us still traded stickers . . . I’d started in second grade and still traded with my sister and a few friends . . . when had everyone else given it up and I hadn’t noticed?

A few weeks later, all the girls in my class showed up to school one day wearing mini-skirts, except for me and one other girl. Wearing mini-skirts was against school rules. I do not remember whether I knew that Heather had been cooking up this scheme that all the girls would break the rule on the same day. Maybe I’d heard but ignored the plan, or maybe I was so out of the loop that I hadn’t even heard about it. What I do remember is the principal calling all the fifth grade girls out of class, and all of us standing in a circle, getting a "mussar shmooze" about modesty and school rules.

You’d think that I would have been happy that I was not in trouble, because I was wearing a long skirt. But what I actually was thinking, looking around that circle, was: I don’t even own a mini-skirt. You mean all these girls- every single other girl but one- own them? Why? Where do they wear them to? What was I doing while everyone else was buying mini-skirts?

That settled it. There was something going on with these girls that I totally did not understand. My fate was sealed. Never would I ever feel that I understood other girls, as a social group. I never “got” the latest styles or how to wear my hair or put together a trendy outfit. Even now, I think one of the reasons my tastes run to the “simple and classy” is that there isn’t any guesswork about what looks good together or whether an outfit is cutting edge. I’d read Seventeen and think “I don’t understand why people wear this.” And every August I’d go clothes shopping and feel pressure to buy stylish things, but I always knew that whatever I did, my peers would be one step ahead. I bought those stupid neon socks and goomy bracelets, hoping it would make me “in,” but I always knew there was something more to being cool than just the socks, and I couldn’t figure it out. Heather had taught me well.

And it wasn’t just clothes. In seventh grade I found out that I was the only one in my class who still subscribed to Olameinu, the kids’ Torah magazine that was distributed in schools. Again, it hadn’t occured to me to stop reading it. I liked it. I liked reading the letters from girls in Brooklyn named Rivki and Chaya Rina, and the Mendel the Mouse feature. When did everyone else outgrow it? Why hadn’t I noticed?

No, I was definitely missing something. Or so I thought.

At UYO two months ago, we re-enacted the Heather story.

Stay tuned for Heather Revisited.

Meanwhile, please share in the comments: When did YOU start to feel uncool?

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