The other day I found out that I graduated high school with a woman who is now a famous mommy-blogger with a recent New York Times Best Seller.
I felt a bit conflicted when I heard about this. And by “conflicted” I mean “in a bit of a crisis.”
My clearest memory of this particular classmate is from our tenth-grade biology class. We were studying genetics. The teacher had the whole class stand up and then she read off recessive traits. If we didn’t have the trait, we sat down, and if we had it, we stayed standing. As the teacher called out traits, I kept standing. Soon I realized that it was only me and one of the popular girls left standing. She looked around the room and saw me. I gave her a meek little smile and she gave that popular-girl half-smile, half-sneer thing that made it clear she was not happy about being in this recessive club with me.
I hoped that the next trait would force one of us to sit down. I even considered sitting down whether I had the next trait or not, but as it turned out, I got to sit down without being forced to lie. My ring finger is longer than my index finger and apparently hers are the same length. Or at least I think that’s the difference between us; it’s been more than twenty years, and my diaries from that time are in Ohio in the rafters of my mom’s garage so I can’t sift through the teenage angst to find that one detail. Regardless, I felt relieved to take my seat.
And now she’s famous and my friends (who’ve never met her) are quoting her and sharing links from her on Facebook.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d been assured by parents, fellow outcasts, and teen movies that the kids who were popular in high school would be relegated to obscurity afterward while the nerds would inherit the Earth. I’d comforted myself with this thought for years, thinking that maybe its effects for me were diluted because I wasn’t even a very successful nerd; I only got 1320 on my SATs, attended Renaissance Festivals but didn’t dress up, and although I joined Model UN, I never could figure out the point. But now, it seems, it wasn’t true at all.
Hoping for compassion, I told my husband the high school biology story.
“Wow, so that’s why our kids look so much like me!” he exclaimed.
“What?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Because you’re so recessive. My genes are dominant. That’s why our kids look like me and not like you.”
“Have I met you?” I thought but didn’t say.
Then I had a fun time with another friend of mine doing the “sour grapes” thing.
“You don’t want to be on the New York Times Best Seller list,” she assured me. “It’s just a popularity contest. I mean, look how often John Grisham is on it.” And then we laughed, and that helped for a little while.
Then I made the mistake of mentioning the situation to my minister. I said I was having some trouble knowing what to do with this new information.
“You just feel happy for her,” she directed. Of course. What did I expect? She’s my minister. She’s professionally obligated to see the good in everyone.
And none of it helps because that’s exactly the problem: I know I should just feel happy for her. I feel ashamed that I’m not. I mean, I do feel happy for her, but not “just” happy. I keep thinking about that tenth-grade sneer and about how her blog—while occasionally very funny—just isn’t my cup of tea, and how her book—although I’ve not read it—appears to be just the type of feel-good overly optimistic rah-rah self-help book that I read only when I want to feel awful about myself.
And she keeps showing up, probably because she’s got great publicity people who can reach into my no-tv, no-mainstream-media life and still make me aware of her stardom or semi-stardom or whatever.
And just like in high school, half of me wants to hate her and half of me wants to be her.
Then I tell myself, “You know? Really, this isn’t about you at all. What’s the harm in feeling happy for her? Sure, it’s luck of the draw. Sure, it’s a popularity contest. But she’s also got a compelling story, and she tells it in a way that resonates with a lot of people. So, good for her.”
Next year, it will be twenty years since we graduated high school. People can change, and based on her story, she was going through quite a bit of her own crap when we knew each other. Maybe after all these years she’d not be scandalized to know she shares all but one recessive trait with me. Or maybe I’m grown-up enough not to care if she is.
Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe part of me really is trapped back in tenth grade, feeling doomed to obscurity and belittled on the basis of things outside my control, always comparing unfavorably to the people around me, wanting to opt out of the popularity contest at the same time that I secretly want to win at it.
Although it’s not even this particular popularity contest I want to win at. I don’t want to write a best-selling self-help book. I don’t want to be a mommy-blogger guru. I’d like to publish a book, but the party I want to be invited to is the one with Lionel Shriver and Marilynne Robinson and Jennifer Egan. So, no need for jealousy, right?
It’s been a few days now since I started writing this post. I’ve talked it through with a few more people and mulled it over while just living my life, and I realize that this is actually a unique opportunity for me. It’s given me a chance to revisit that unpleasant popular girl/unpopular girl dynamic from when I was fifteen and to react to it differently. Looking at it as a chance to see how I’ve grown over the past two-plus decades and reframe that old hurt, I really appreciate this opportunity. It threw me for a loop at first, but now that the dust is settling, I think I have more perspective. Despite what my minister says, I don’t think I need to feel anything in particular about the success of someone else, I just need to accept it as reality and move on. We each get what we get. If I’m happy for her, great, but the key is to not feel unhappy about myself.
The real test, however, will be how I feel if I see her at our 20th reunion next year. But then, I doubt she’ll be the only test at that reunion. There’s a reason I’ve been avoiding my reunions for 20 years. But, maybe it’s time to jump in. Chances are, it won’t be as scary as I expect.