A Nobody: An honest take on my experience in high school
It's that time of the blogging cycle again: time to talk about me! Although I don't particularly enjoy talking about myself online, I heard from other bloggers (that are actually big-time bloggers) that it's a great way to build connection and trust with your readers.
Today I'm going to talk about my experience with an infamously hated yet popular topic. It's something that every person and his dog has an opinion on. No, I'm not talking about gun rights or universal healthcare; you're probably sick of hearing about that by now. I'm going to talk about... high school!
As the Joker would say:
But first, the fine print
Maybe not quite yet Mr. Joker.
Before I start, I need to stress a few boring logistical details that are necessary to avoid confusion in my story. First of all, I grew up in the Netherlands (NL) where one goes to primary school until +/- 12 years old and then attends high school for the next 6 years* of his/her life. I bring this up because I know that the American educational system distinguishes between middle- and high school, which might confuse my American readers. Hence, I perceive/define high school as my academic "career" from age 12 till age 18.
The second detail is a bit more interesting. Given that I moved to the U.S. when I was 16, I only completed 4 years of high school in NL and the last 2 in the States. My 4 years in NL were honestly fantastic for me and I have genuinely no complaints about those years. Unfortunately, that makes for completely uninteresting reading. As a result, I'm not going to discuss my high school time in NL at all. Instead, I will focus exclusively on the 2 years I spent at my high school in the U.S.
Now let's really get started.
Once upon a time...
It was a warm, humid day in late August 2009 as I stepped foot on campus for the first day of school. I looked around as I welcomed the beginning of a new...
Ah fuck that, let's just cut to the chase.
Those 2 years were an absolutely miserable, depressing, terrible, unbearable hell for me.
Yep, that actually was my train of thought as I began this new experience. No wonder then that almost every aspect of my 2 high school years in the U.S. backfired to spectacular effect. My social life, academics (to a small extent), sports; everything that could go wrong did as I spectacularly imploded with the force of an intergalactic energy blast. Those two years were the lowest, loneliest, most helpless, most hopeless, and most powerless I've ever felt in my life. But before I turn this into some meaningless pity party*, let me deconstruct what went wrong and why I think it all happened the way it did. I'll do my best to sprinkle in a few anecdotes along the way for your entertainment.
Social Life and environment
As I said before, I walked into this new adventure thinking that it was just going to be a rinse-and-repeat from my high school experience in NL. New place, old tactics. Clearly, that was a very bad way to go.
The first component of this awful saga is related to the nature of my personality. Back then I was a very subdued, withdrawn, and quiet character (to an extent, I still am today but it really depends on the people I'm with). This, combined with the fact that I was a foreigner, meant that I expected people to be interested in me. I was supposed to be the exotic foreigner from across the Atlantic that spoke a few languages. I was (almost) the Englishman in New York. How could they not be interested in me? I wouldn't need to be socially proactive because on paper I would prove far too irresistible and interesting.
My social life was doomed before it ever even began. People expressed mild interest in the beginning but eventually moved on with their own lives given that I wasn't very (socially) proactive. I remember one girl in particular being extremely kind and welcoming to me, actually expressing genuine interest (non-romantic, as far as I could tell) in me as well. But I was too nonchalant and complacent and thought that I wouldn't need to do anything to make her keep demonstrating interest in me. Obviously, she had her own shit to do and realized that it was a waste of time putting energy into an interaction that was evidently very one-sided.
On the other hand, it didn't help that some/frustratingly many of my classmates either didn't know the Netherlands existed or only about the fact that weed is legal there. (No, I do not bloody smoke.) Nevertheless, if nobody talks to you and you yourself are a bit socially inept/ignorant, your value in the "social food chain" is a handsome zero.
That said, I'm not suggesting that I was super popular at my high school but I was of respectable social value such that I was invited to events and could hang out with people without any fuss. In America, on the other hand, I was nobody. And nobodies, as a wise man once said, 'do not truly exist at all'.
As I alluded to earlier, what I thought would be my greatest strength turned out to be my greatest weakness: I was the only international (non-American) in my class. The reason that this was so salient is because it was a complete 180 from the social environment that I grew up in. Except for primary school – I went to a Dutch one – and sports activities, I was almost exclusively around people of an international background. We were all different so there were rarely social cliques. However, being the only foreign person in my American high school was an unexpectedly and painfully alienating experience because nobody could relate to my life experiences. As I discussed in an earlier post of mine, it can be depressingly lonely if people do not understand or relate to your inner world.
The second issue was the seemingly trivial but actually crucial issue of transportation. The Netherlands is a notoriously bicycle-friendly country which means that regular people (especially young people without a spouse and children) can easily survive by cycling everywhere. Not only that, but public transportation is also of very high quality and is reasonably affordable; if you can't cycle, then a train/bus/metro ride is perfectly feasible. As a kid that meant that I could comfortably live my own life on my own terms and, most importantly, independently as the barriers to movement were very low. I cannot emphasize enough how empowering this is.
Cast your eye across the Atlantic, however, and the story was not so upbeat.
Although some big American cities like Washington D.C. have quality public transportation, the city I lived in is not one of them. Hence, I couldn't do a damn thing without my own car or without my parents driving me around (who were obviously busy with their own chores most of the time).
Going from the freedom of cycling to school, sports, the houses of my friends, or just the grocery store whenever I so fancied it and on my own accord to having to negotiate with and constantly be dependent on other people to provide me with transportation was a fundamental shock for me. As I alluded to earlier, this robbed me even further of my independence which was, and still very much is, a huge part of my identity. Rob me of my independence and you "steal away" much of my identity. And what is a man without an identity but an empty vessel?
That high school was SO.FREAKIN.MASSIVE that I'm still amazed that I only got lost there a few times during my two years there (at least I got great daily exercise). This was yet another complete 180 from what I was used to in NL where my high school (and the town I grew up and lived in) was, in comparison, tiny. It was yet another sharp and overwhelming contrast from the life I was used to and liked so much.
As you should know by now, I'm a huge football (soccer) fan. The sport has been a massive part of my life since I was about 9 or 10 years old, which is also when I started playing for my hometown club. I was pretty well established and comfortable in my team and really enjoyed playing there. More importantly, though, playing football was, and absolutely still is, a very important emotional release for me. Hence, it's something that I value tremendously on a deeper personal and emotional level. Based on the overall tone of this blog post so far though, you can probably guess how this part of my life at my new high school turned out: another failure.
Here's the full story: I arrived +/- 2 weeks late for tryouts for the high school Varsity team so I emailed the coach to ask (i.e. beg) him if I could be a late entry for tryouts. He was extremely kind about it and made an exception to allow me to join tryouts late (note: this is an important detail of the story). I had a great first two days where I thought I played well and felt in good shape, despite the absolutely sweltering heat. Playing in such extraordinarily high temperatures was also a first for me but thankfully that went well. The third day, however, is where things went off the rails.
For some reason, there was some kind of a scheduling mismatch for the third day which nobody told me about, meaning that I showed up to an empty pitch. I waited and waited as 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, and then the full 60 minutes passed by... but nobody showed up. Just me.
This is the part of the story that, till this day, I have never truly understood emotionally even though I understand it rationally, if that makes any sense. Anyway...
I fuck-ing lost it. I absolutely fucking flipped.
I struggle to remember a time in my life where I felt so humiliated, embarrassed, and boiling with rage all at the same time. So what was my reaction? I sent the coach the most petulant, passive-aggressive, rude, and snobbish text message you can ever imagine. It's a shame I don't have that phone anymore because I would have liked to read and share the exact words that I sent. Nevertheless, he was obviously not having any of it; some 16 year old kid sending him this passive-aggressive shit just because of one miscommunication after he had made an exception to even allow me to join tryouts 2 weeks late? He called me a few minutes later (which actually caught me completely off-guard) and, after a brief chat, politely told me to, well, piss off.
So why did I lose my shit? Who knows. I understand the entire experience rationally because, looking back at it, I think it was the accumulation of a lot of frustration and anger at how the reality of my experience was so unexpectedly different from how my prior expectations. But I do not understand it emotionally because I am not and, barring a brief period when I was a toddler, never was that person. That impulsiveness and lack of restraint that I displayed that day was absolutely one of the most out-of-character things I've ever done in my life. So emotionally speaking, I don't think I'll ever understand why I did it.
Did I ever manage to play any soccer then, you ask? I was unceremoniously demoted to the high school's Junior Varsity team, where I was basically a non-entity benchwarmer and played maybe 3 or 4 matches all season. Although it was better than nothing, it was yet another humiliating destruction/implosion of my identity. How comforting to know that it was largely self-inflicted too...
A Touchy topic: Parents
Last but not least, a delicate subject: my relationship with my parents. Given the obvious need to be respectful to my parents and family, I will just briefly mention how our relationship affected my transition to life in the States. I know that many people are emotionally very close to their parents such that they can open up and discuss any and every intimate subject with them. Well, that's not the case with my parents and I. While we are obviously on friendly terms and get along well enough, our relationship is nowhere near close enough to allow for deeply personal or intimate conversations.
I highlight this issue not to bitch and moan about it but to explain how it affected my experience. Given that I basically had no friends in my new school, my closest friends were 6,700 km and 6 hours time difference away, and I had no emotionally intimate relationship with my parents, I had effectively nobody to talk and/or open up to about everything I was going through in my new life. As much as I am grateful for Skype and Facebook Messenger for granting me options to maintain communication between me and my friends abroad, we all know that it's just not the same as being together in person. Loneliness is a bitch, as I've written about before.
The Better Man
Before I wrap up this blog post, I need to make one point very, very clear: I did not write this post to garner pity. What would be the point? C'mon, this is something that happened almost 10 years ago. Begging for pity would also be completely illogical for a few simple reasons: this experience shaped and molded me. It taught me more emotional resilience and gave me more character than I could have ever imagined. It made me a better man.
Perhaps that is subconsciously the bigger point of this elaborate tale. That is, there really is no better creator of character than adversity. It created and shaped the character within me that today defines me. Without that, this blog post and this entire blog would never have existed. Don't kid yourself though; I'm not (and never will be) happy that I had to experience all this emotional turmoil.
I am, however, damn proud of the consequences.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
See you, Space Cowboy.
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