This week: Spring 1993. I was 11.
Middle school haunts many of us, I imagine. But there's a particular moment that haunts me more frequently than others, because the very emotion of that interaction washes over me every time I go to a conference for work, like last week's Calvin Festival. I've been traveling a lot since getting back into book acquisitions last fall, and these events where my goal is to mix and mingle and meet potential authors are an introvert's nightmare.
Beyond the feeling of "please get me away from all these people and back to the isolation of my hotel room!" is the feeling of social awkwardness that plagues me. And a single moment from a sixth grade skating party replays in my mind as I navigate those crowds of strangers.
"Who'd you come with?"
This question was posed to me by a cooler classmate as we hung around the perimeter of our local rollerskating rink, Champs Rollerdrome. The walls were lined with carpet to ease the pain of impact for less skilled skaters, and above the carpeted portion were oversized pennants featuring the names of many area middle schools. (Champs knew its role as a "safe" drop-off spot for preteens who longed to socialize away from parents' watchful eyes.) I don't remember if our school was featured on one of those neon pennants, but I know there was one with the name of the private school to which I would transfer a blessed sixteen months later—a smaller school, at which a quiet, dorky girl like me could still end up as class president and editor of the yearbook.
|My 8th birthday party at Champs. Amazingly, my experiences there could get more awkward than that super-eighties crimped side ponytail.|
It was a birthday party for two or three classmates, one of whom I'd been in Brownies with years before and saw fit to invite me even though my place on the social ladder of sixth grade society was a few rungs below her, and even further below her co-birthday-girls.
"Who'd you come with?" another girl asked me.
"Jenny invited me," I said.
"No, who'd you ride here with?"
"My parents brought me," I said, suddenly realizing that apparently it wasn't enough to be included on a guest list. If you really fit in, you would have met up with other friends beforehand and been dropped off together by one kid's parent.
Who makes these rules?
My sense of awkwardness and not-belonging reached a whole new level after that conversation. What a strange society that sees making out on a carpeted bench by a carpeted wall, surrounded by staring classmates (as one girl and boy did, later in the party) less a source of oddity than arriving alone to the party? (I can still picture that girl, with her permed, dirty-blond hair, opening her eyes to see the circle of gawkers while she sucked face with that boy.)
Silly as it is, that question, "Who'd you come with?" runs on repeat in my head whenever 32-year-old, professional me navigates the down time between plenaries and breakout sessions at any conference where pastors, Christian writers, angsty ex-fundamentalists—anyone who might make a good author for us—gather. People walk and chat in groups of two or three, and I wonder if I'm the only one who came to the conference alone. Probably not, but could be. Pastors have colleagues that benefit from the same continuing ed events they do. Maybe they caravan and carpool to the convention center or church hosting the conference. Last week's Festival of Faith and Writing draws many non-professional writers and avid readers, friends who make a getaway of coming to hear poetry readings and insights for getting that novel you've secretly been working on for twenty years out of the drawer and into the hands of an editor who doesn't care that you don't have a platform. (Platform doesn't matter as much in fiction, after all.)
Anne Lamott delivered one of the plenaries last week, and referred to a "toxic self-consciousness" from which many of us suffer, comparing our insides to everyone else's outsides. She called out the two uninvited voices in her head: one that says "You're so much better than everyone else," and the other that says "You are a total loser." (After all, self-consciousness is a double-edged sword. Insecurity and superiority are not mutually exclusive.) Her advice was to acknowledge those unwanted guests and move on with a simple, "Thank you for sharing." Those voices don't need to be considered the truth.
"You look so cute today in your new dress, Jessica. You're so much more put-together than that lady in her mom jeans and fanny pack."
"Thank you for sharing. The Gap outlet clearance rack has some good finds, and I'm sure that lady is comfortable and well-equipped."
"You look hopelessly awkward standing there, twiddling your thumbs, waiting to talk to that speaker. Everybody must be thinking what a dork you are."
"Thank you for sharing. I'm doing my job, and there's a long line. Everybody else is probably more worried about what people are thinking of them than about whether I have self-confidence and an active social life."
I fake confidence and even extroversion fairly well, people tell me. But inside, I'm not too much different than that awkward sixth-grade girl being informed of yet another thing to feel awkward about.
"Who'd you come with?"
Just the voices in my head. But don't worry. I'm learning how to shut them up.