When I was growing up, I was a loner. My father’s job as an engineer in charge of new plant startup and operation took us all over the United States and even the world, living in a new location for about two years before transferring us to the next destination, leaving us to put our lives together once again and reassemble the norm. “Keep calm, carry on” as they say. Many people think that moving so many times is a tough thing, because you’re always The New Kid. The one who doesn’t fit in. An outcast. Honestly, I think you get used to it. It’s not good, it’s not bad — it’s just what you know.
Oddly, there was one more scenario that was far worse, and I dreaded it each time I realized it was coming: returning to New Jersey (that should really be a Springsteen or Bon Jovi song; it would be so much better then). My father was based out of New York City, and we had a house outside of Princeton which became our de facto home base while we awaited the next transfer. Our initial move there was like any other; you are The New Kid, you try to blend in, make friends, and pretend that you belong until that’s taken away in the next move. It was there I got my first ever best friend, a thing that finally made me feel like other kids. You know — normal. Like I actually fit in. Of course, stability never lasts, and once again the time came to leave, and this time was hard. This time I had something to lose, and it hurt to let it go. There was much fanfare and hugging in our goodbye, along with tears and promises of always writing and never forgetting each other.
And so it goes.
Two years later, we returned to New Jersey to await our next move. I was elated to return to my only best friend I’d ever had, but I discovered the bittersweet truth right away: You really can’t go home again. Their world had moved on while I was gone, and I was no longer a part of it. Worse, people tend to write you off; a bit like “been there, done that.” At least when you’re The New Kid, people are curious and try you out to see what you like, what you’re good at, and what potential you have in the friend department. When you become That Kid Again, there’s no effort made to see what you like, what you’re good at, or what potential you have in the friend department. You are now lost in that nowhere space between Not New and Not Friend. And when you find yourself in that wasteland, you’re there to stay. So I embraced the inevitable and became the outcast by choice. The smart kids were really the worst. Once one of them, I was now ridiculed behind my back, dismissed for not being smart enough, disdained for living overseas, for having clothes that were different or experiences that were foreign in all ways.
I really hated New Jersey.
I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, because they were jerks. It didn’t bother me that the girl I had been best friends with in sixth grade now was popular and clearly awkward around me, and prone to not giving me the time of day. It didn’t bother me that I was always left without lab partners, or added to work groups by the teacher since I hadn’t been included by my peers. I told myself it didn’t bother me that I was taller than anyone else and wore dresses because my mother didn’t think jeans were appropriate, thereby excluding me from the herd even more. And when we went to the Smithsonian on a school trip and I had the unfortunate timing to come around the corner when a group of the cool kids were looking at the giant sloth and dubbed me from then on with the unfortunate moniker of The Sloth, I told myself it didn’t matter because it was only words. Even when I discovered the name spread like wildfire and people would snicker whenever I came into the classroom, I reminded myself it didn’t bother me.
I really hated New Jersey.
Mostly I had come to terms with my existence in the netherworld, and instead focused on activities that I liked and was good at. I got my FCC license and became a DJ at the school radio station, where I ended up working regular shows and losing myself in the music. I was involved in anything that remotely involved writing and publishing: Newspaper. Literary magazine. Yearbook. One of the few passions I really had was drama. I’d been heavily involved in productions at other schools, and I craved being in productions again. If there was any group that I desperately wanted to be a part of, it was the drama group. This was a group where I could belong. The teacher who oversaw the program was a very edgy theater type, with dramatic flourish that made me yearn to be one of her flock. And, after all, there was Kevin.
Kevin was the guy who was attractive, approachable, and kind to everybody — and Kevin was an actor. He got all the good parts, and he had an easy laugh and had a way of making you feel that you were special when he talked to you. Kevin was The Quintessential Nice Guy, the Guy Most Likely to Make It as An Actor. Kevin was nice to everyone, I was ever hopeful that I would become a part of his inner circle. My opportunity came when they announced the fall drama of my senior year — Godspell. One of my all time favorites. I could clearly envision the path to my success:
1) Audition for a space, 2) Win a roll in the elite ensemble, 3) be accepted, 4) PROFIT.
I was so wrapped up in this gameplan that I got a bit obsessed. On the day of after school auditions, I faked being ill so I could stay home and secretly perfect my audition. But instead of wowing the drama teacher, I never made it because my parents refused to let me go to the audition when I hadn’t gone to school. So I never auditioned, never won a spot, and never accepted into the one group I craved to be in. Instead, I sat in the auditorium on opening night and watched the performance, crushed, silently singing along to all the songs, pretending I was on stage and one of the chosen, somewhat resentful of the girls who had made the cut. After life moved on, Kevin continued to be nice to me when he saw me in the halls. I think he knew I could really use a friend, even if I didn’t know it myself. Before we left school to travel our separate ways, Kevin wrote me a letter. Kind as ever, Kevin gently encouraged me to believe that I was special. That I was important, but that I had to first believe it myself in order to let other people believe it. (I would discover in later years this was called “Fake it till you make it.”) He said many kind things, but the basic gist remained; be myself and everything else would fall into place. If only, I thought.
The good news is that there is a world outside of both high school and New Jersey, and I took advantage of it. New York City was my salvation, and they didn’t mind loners there. I could wear what I wanted, and it had no impact on anyone — including me. I could reinvent myself in the anonymity of teeming masses of city dwellers, and it was a wonderful thing. In the following years of make my way through life, I gradually gave up trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations and instead, focused on my own. I never got back on the theatrical stage, but I decided to start speaking professionally, and discovered my natural dramatic expressiveness work well for me there. My love for words and design have translated to writing web content, crafting digital stories, and my years as a DJ have given me a plethora of anecdotes and an innate ability to handle those times when things go wrong and you find yourself with unexpected dead air to fill.
And somehow, in spite of my loner tendencies, existing in the outer circle, living in the space between newness and recognition, I’ve become the one thing I never thought I’d be. I look around and realize I’ve somehow stumbled into the center of the mix. Now I’m on the inside looking out. Incredibly, I look around and see these fun, amazing people are my people. They make plans to fly into a city just so we can have time together. We make plans to work together and play together. We gravitate towards each other, always anxious to spend a few minutes together when we can. Somehow, Kevin was right, and I finally found my inner peace. Ironically, new people come up to me at conferences and introduce themselves, and compliment my work, and I notice that they are now the ones who hang around, hoping to be accepted, wanting to become a part of the in crowd. I don’t think of it as the in crowd; I think of it as people who are happy doing what they’re doing, and ready to be authentic and open and even vulnerable. I guess the in crowd is really just the crowd I’m in. Unbelievably, Kevin was right. Eventually I’d find my space, my tribe, my passion. Now it’s up to me to take my cues from him and pay it forward, letting people know that they are special and unique and interesting. And believe in yourself, even if you have to fake it till you make it.
As for me, I don’t have to fake it anymore. I finally belong.