Ack! I don’t have a social template! I might be anything!

These days, I’ve been hanging out with some seriously cool girls. Girls who have clearly always been really pretty. Girls who have probably always had a lot of friends. Girls who may or may not have been mean. OK, a few of them have admitted it: they were mean girls. And then a few of them have that classic dork —> cool girl story, and they’re sticking to it.

I did not grow up around a lot of girls my own age. I grew up around plenty of people. I feel like I always need a disclaimer. Like, “I WAS SOCIAL, DON’T WORRY.” I was social, don’t worry. I mean, I liked people, I was fine around them. Sometimes I liked them less or wanted to be by myself more and so I did that, but in general, being around people was fine. It was fun. They were not all same-aged girls. None of them were particularly mean. It wasn’t at all clear who was the prettiest, or who was trend-setting. We all looked different in some ways and similar in others. We all liked different kinds of clothes, but sometimes we wore similar ones.

I don’t have a conveniently simple narrative about my social past. Sometimes I can’t remember who I was. And then it makes me a little uncertain about who I’m supposed to be now.

My history doesn’t have a template. It’s all over the place. Is “crazy weird homeschooler” a template yet? Yeah, maybe.

I had friends my own age, and I felt pretty popular, but there wasn’t a real context for popularity. I felt pretty and potent and funny and outgoing.

And then later I went to college, and I was pretty sure I was nerdy, since I studied a lot and wanted to do well and liked talking with professors.

At that point, it became apparent that nerdiness was still, tragically, somewhat separate from pretty-popular-girlness. I mean, really. Just like a movie. Just like a stereotype.

And then I went to grad school in Manhattan, and I started to think that I wasn’t nerdy enough, because I couldn’t keep up with the genius boys in their sweatpants who had long ago mastered formal logic and memorized Descartes. But I also wasn’t girly enough, because I suddenly had no fashionable clothes at all and I was wandering the streets, looking for just one pair of cute affordable boots. Just one, please. They started at $200. (I didn’t know the city very well back then. There’s a DSW in Union Square).

And now here I am— a writer. I have a few cute outfits. I have a new group of friends. And my friends have many more than a few cute outfits.

Sometimes I am abruptly awkward around them. I stumble over my words. I realize that I have not spent very much time in a group of girls my age. I realize that this might be the in-crowd. I feel a little like an imposter. Sometimes I am funny. I put on heels. I am outgoing. I feel a little like I belong.

“God,” says someone, “Remember middle school? So stupid. I was part of this group of girls…”

I don’t remember. There was no group of girls. I didn’t learn what being a girl was about from a group of other girls. Which might be why I’m still not sure.

Yesterday, one of my new friends said, “You seem sort of feral sometimes— like you’re fine doing things differently.” She added, “That’s a compliment. Are you taking that as a compliment?”

I was. But I was surprised. Am I doing things differently? Sometimes I don’t notice. I’m just doing things. I don’t think I ever learned very well what things I was supposed to be doing instead.

(I thought this was an incredibly cool look, at 17. Not sure my peers would’ve agreed. Or, um, anyone.)

18 comments to Ack! I don’t have a social template! I might be anything!

  • I’ve been wondering about the whole unschooling idea. Why is it that many unschoolers reject the idea of preschool, primary school, middle school, and high school and then jump right back into the system by going to college and grad school? I’ve been toying with the idea of unschooling my kids but I’ve wondered how to reconcile disliking a system and then sending them off to college, which is the epitome of that system.

    • kate

      Good question. You should ask my parents!
      But my guess is that it’s harder to get a job without a college degree, so while not doing the rest of school doesn’t have any negative impact and plenty of positive ones, not doing college isn’t the same. Of course, people can be successful in a zillion ways without college, but in general, the world is set up so that there are a lot of barriers to entry without college.

    • Marina

      When I was 16 and supposed to be taking the PSAT, I spent a lot of time asking myself (and my parents) that question. And it wasn’t right for me to go to college until I found my own personal answer to that, four years later.

      I never did take the PSAT. Or the SAT. I did pretty well on the GRE, though.

    • Cary

      @Christopher– I unschool with my three children and by the time they are of traditional college age I don’t assume I’ll be doing much of “sending” them anywhere. :o) I suspect they’ll be “sending” themselves wherever their hearts and minds take them and I hope I’ll trust that their choices are good and right for them. That’s what deschooling is giving me: trust in my children that they know themselves. I’m there to help out if they ask and bring into their view things that they don’t know about that they might enjoy. College is their choice and it doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not, think it’s good or not.

    • Gary

      My 11 year old son has been home schooled though for the past year he’s been taking classes at the local community college. This week he was accepted full time, meaning there’s no limit on the number of classes he can take even though he’s not matriculating (no GED). Next semester it will be a full course load because that’s what he wants. His grandmother is concerned that this means he’ll never go to college (“real college”).
      We consider it the major point of home schooling (or unschooling) that you follow your interests and do what you want, even if that means taking classes at a school.
      I don’t know what percentage of adults end up working in a career that requires a degree (versus an education). Based on people I know personally it’s not that many.

  • kate

    Also, I’m not college is exactly the epitome of that system. There’s a lot autonomy involved in college, and a lot more opportunity to find mentors, learn outside of the traditional classroom, and get involved in activities outside of the institution.

    (That said, I thought college was pretty lame for the most part)

  • Feral! HA! I love that your friend used that as a compliment, and that you took it as one.

  • Val

    Oh gosh, Lydia aka Kari could relate to this right now.

    She spends most of her social time with adults–me, her dad, her adult siblings.

    Kids her own age annoy her. She wants to fit in and be part of it, but they’re so loud and overly dramatic and she finds them so obnoxious and tiring.

    She was going to a kids club and finally quit because the only person she liked was Judy, who is almost 60 years old, who is in charge of the kids.

    Sigh. It’s fine. It’s part of it. She’s socialized, so nobody need worry. She can talk to people and has nice manners–just not groups of other 11 year old girls at the moment, lol.

    It’s a different way to grow up, Kate, and it’s good. The kids are more self-aware than I was until I was in my 30s.

    love, late on a Monday night, Val

  • College is a choice and less of an imposition on a given student. No one HAS to go to college. A preschooler does not get to choose her school, her classes, her schedule, or her area of focus. Most kids have one choice: the local public school. By the time a kid reaches college age, she has been formed by her earlier years which comprise her foundation for future learning and living. Hopefully, this foundation was NOT filled with rigidity, narrow-mindedness, busy work, boredom, cliques, and a mediocre curriculum. Families who choose to homeschool for all or part of those foundation years hope to give their child an educational experience that is stimulating, flexible, meaningful and individualized. Unschoolers in particular strive to make every day life and interests part of the daily “curriculum”. Once the child is ready for college, she will hopefully find the right match from the thousands there are to choose from which will allow the student to reach her educational, social, and career goals.

  • “I didn’t learn what being a girl was about from a group of other girls. Which might be why I’m still not sure.”

    Nah. Nobody really knows what being a girl (or a boy) is. We make it up as we go along. Then we become who we want to be, by trying to be that person, and who cares whether that person is boy or girl.

    But the point is, you’re already way ahead because you’ve never had a social template to try to fit yourself into, so you’ve already had opportunities to explore who you really are. And yeah, you might be anything. Which is awesome.

  • Joanne

    Maybe Australia doesn’t have such clearly defined stereo-typical ‘groupings’ in school; I can’t relate so much to this post as I have to previous ones. State schools here generally have uniforms so the obvious dress-based distinctions don’t apply in the schoolyard anyway. My boys are happy homeschoolers- I was fully schooled. I drifted in and out of ‘groups’ at school and sometimes hung out with only one friend and occasionally, was between friends. I find that I’m still considered ‘different’ by many of my friends, and probably a little feral by some because of lifestyle choices I make today.
    I like to think that everyone is ‘different’- personality, circumstances, upbringing, experiences, preferences. Even those who can be easily ‘grouped’ by some outward representation. At the same time, everyone is the same- needing respect, affirmation, hope and love.
    Perhaps the true advantage you have had is being comfortable in being different a lot younger- many of us come to it a little later in life. Unschooling no doubt contributed to that but part of what makes you ‘you’ and me ‘me’ is our uniqueness as individuals and we all have that- some just haven’t been willing to embrace the fact yet.

  • Melissa

    Great article. I am a new homeschooler, and one of the many reasons my husband and I decided to pull our kids out of school was this very one. I saw a social system among my kids’ peers at school that seemed to be pushing them to become something that was generally accepted as what a boy or a girl is “supposed to” be rather than becoming what they wanted to be. I don’t want my daughter to “learn what being a girl [is] about from a group of other girls” at school. The same goes for my sons and other boys. When it come to the issue of socialization for homeschoolers, I feel that the socialization at school is not the kind I want for my kids.

    That line from this post really resonated with me. I went to public schools and I remember trying to fit the mold and be what I saw around me and thought I was “supposed to” be. It wasn’t until college and beyond that I started to become more comfortable with myself and defining myself on my own terms.

    I see a spark in my kids that I want to keep alive, tend, feed, and allow to grow and burn and follow whatever direction they choose.

  • Mariela

    Be thankful you never had to live through the prototypical American middle school experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I’m 40 and I still cringe when I think about what it was like.

  • Mary

    I was public schooled (currently homeschooling my three children) and I went through all the things you describe. I don’t think being homeschooled played a huge part in that – that was probably personality based. I had those same questions in college and I am exactly as you describe yourself today (even on down to the outfit “drama”). It was actually a relief reading it and realizing I was/am like this – if I wasn’t, I would worry about how my children (when they are older) would feel about not fitting in or having a mold.

  • Sophia

    This was so great to read for me as a 16 year old girl who was homeschooled/unschooled until high school. I started going through the same experiences you recount when I started taking part time classes at my local middle school in 8th grade, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to carry myself around people my age. It’s like being stuck between the desire to fit in and the desire to be yourself at all costs, although you aren’t totally sure who you are in the first place. It’s very reassuring to know that other people have the exact same experience as me. Thanks so much!

  • Cathie

    I’m so glad I found you! Please, don’t worry about “not learning how to be a girl in middle school.” I went to public school and (as of right now) so are both of my girls. Middle school cliques and “how you’re supposed to be” are ripping my oldest apart. She was happy last year in 5th grade. This year she’s cutting herself & seeing a therapist. And I actually first started to consider home school as an option for her younger, dyslexic sister who I now hope never sees the inside of middle school. I would like to home school both, but my oldest doesn’t want to yet. Here’s to hoping that once she sees that little sister won’t be “non-social” she agrees to try. I’d love to have my happy girl back.

  • Dear Kate,
    Just wanted to let you know that I am still enjoying this blog, reading every single post as I find time, printing up some of them to have my children read. You are making a difference for me, as a public-schooled homeschooling mom and for my nonschooled children.

    W/a Smile, Tiana

    PS- I can’t even remember where I read that you were expecting a baby. I hope everything is well with that new adventure!

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