What does “coolness” (as a concept to describe a person) mean to you? As a single word, “cool” makes me think of someone composed, comfortable with themselves, easygoing, and also, more generally, great or awesome. It could, of course, sometimes be used in a derogatory way, denoting indifference or arrogance, but for the most part, the trait has positive connotations. So what type of behaviour makes someone truly cool?
How (not) to be cool – pt. 1
Up until about the age of 16, when I switched schools and made some actual friends, I was among the unfortunate few unpopular kids at school. I was the one who got voted last for a team in gym class (meaning I was the only one not being chosen at all, basically unwittingly forcing someone to pick me so we’d have even numbers), and this wasn’t for any physical reasons. It was simply that no one liked me, perhaps because I was shy and quiet and had not yet become my own person. Well, OK, I admit I’ve also never been the sportiest.
I was a lonely kid who often found herself standing in the schoolyard by herself, eating my avocado and getting asked what the fuck I was eating (I was ahead of my time – or rather, my mum was; she was buying the avocados). One time this smug couple laughed at me, asking what those pinkish-white blotches in my face were – turns out the concealer I had used on my spots was several shades too light. Had I been able to see myself in the daylight and given less of a shit about my spots, I would have been pretty amused myself. The mean couple would probably be quite surprised (and delighted) to hear that the same thing still happens to me from time to time (well, it can vary in that sometimes the concealer/make-up I choose is too dark, not too light), which makes one wonder: 1. why the hell I still get spots in my thirties, and 2. how after so many years of covering up spots, I still don’t manage to do a fantastic job of it.
Anyway, back to my teenage years: the most uncool thing about me was the fact that I tried desperately to make friends with people I didn’t even like – well, there were a couple of people I liked, and they were nice to me, but aside from them, there weren’t really any decent human beings in my classroom (though I accept that at that age most of us are either jerks or morons, or both). Unfortunately, being a sweet, accommodating person wasn’t something that won you a popularity contest. Confidence and boldness, that’s what ‘coolness’ was all about. I’m still not 100% sure why I tried so hard to get everyone to like me. A part of it was definitely the fact that I was too afraid to hang out by myself during lunch breaks and risk getting stares of pity, another was that I always admired the popular kids, no matter how brainless or cruel they actually were. I admired them for their popularity, and for the fact that everything seemed to go smoothly for them at school. I also admired them for their extreme confidence and (seeming) oblivion regarding their own flaws. I guess to me this seemed like something amazing because I have always been acutely aware of my own flaws (of which, don’t get me wrong, I still have many to count, despite all my dwelling and self-criticism).
So here is the worst part: I was well aware that the right thing for me to do would be to be sincere, do my own thing, and stop being a pushover. After all, I was continuously reminded of the dangers and inherent immorality of cowardly behaviour in German history classes and discussions at home, where the German guilt complex was still strong, and a ‘Mitläufer’ (blind follower) was the most revolting and shameful thing you could be. So I knew that those who followed the mass and neglected to defend themselves and others when treated with disrespect, those too anxious to please the popular kids, could be described as ‘Mitläufer’ – and that I was one of them. But I simply wasn’t strong or autonomous enough to withstand the immense pressure I felt to be accepted and included. It wasn’t until I switched schools at the age of 16 that I swore myself never to chase people again just because they were popular, and not to hang out with anyone whose company wasn’t actually enjoyable, and I stayed (largely) true to my promise, and in turn learned to respect myself a little more.
I guess most of us know the urge to be accepted, to be appreciated, to be seen. Our Facebook and Instagram accounts offer enough proof of that. But why is that? Just why do we continue to strive so hard to be liked, admired, and respected by others well into adulthood? Why do we keep feeling the need for others’ approval before we allow ourselves to be OK with ourselves? After all, how could we possibly find external evidence for something that no one but ourselves can ever truly know and understand?
So should we really feel cooler and prouder of ourselves when we post a new picture or status update and manage to get a certain number of likes, or do we not instead become way too dependent on acknowledgement and approval from the outside world? I still remember all too well what it felt like to be ignored and disliked at school, and sometimes Facebook overuse stirs those feelings back up in me. Even though I’m aware that most of my closest friends don’t make much use of it (one of my best friends doesn’t even have a Facebook account, and another only set one up recently), the lack of responses I used to get for posts on a page I have since deleted used to leave me a little heartbroken. Again, I was being ignored and excluded; again, I felt stupid and insignificant; again, I felt like there must be something inherently, acutely wrong with me, though I wasn’t sure what. So now whenever I’m in a vulnerable place, in order not to drown in those kinds of feelings, I just know to stay away from social media.
There are advantages to knowing what it’s like to grow up lonely and uncool. No, I’ll never know what it’s like to be Miss Popular when I’m in a class/group/social media situation, but I’m also not trying to be loved by everyone anymore. I have made several very close friends in each of the five countries I’ve lived in, friends I can count on and who love me the way I am (even though they know me very well), and that means more to me than most things in this world. I’ve learned to appreciate friendships a lot, arguably more than anyone who grew up popular ever could. I also seem to form deeper connections faster because I hate anonymous small talk and am not afraid of opening up about vulnerabilities and weaknesses way before the other person would normally begin to feel comfortable to do so. Real, honest friendships: you can’t get them on Facebook. In real life you definitely can, if you manage to drop those ridiculous, flawless facades, and you’re willing to open up, not only about the stuff that makes you look awesome and cool, but also the stuff that makes you look incredibly sad and stupid and ugly and vulnerable. Because we all have more than enough of that stuff.
Nowadays, when I watch movies and TV shows with geeky, unpopular characters, it’s often those characters I see as the coolest (I’m thinking of two of my favourite TV series, Stranger Things and Freaks & Geeks). I no longer believe it’s popularity that makes you cool – it’s sincerity and the courage to accept and stay true to yourself even when you feel that everyone is against you. Which is not a quality a lot of people have, and I’m certainly not saying I have perfected that skill. The people I admire the most are the ones who don’t follow the path laid out by the people around them, but who question everything society tells them to be, who don’t stop trying to change into a better person, and who don’t chase others in an effort to avoid solitude or receive validation. Because they have stopped caring about what others may or may not think of them.
Whether it means being relaxed, at ease with yourself, generally awesome, or detached – in no sense of the word was I ever cool at school. But I guess I’ve grown a little cooler over the past decades, at least in some ways; because I have begun to treat myself with the respect that I, like everyone else, deserve.
4 thoughts on “Uncool for School”
It took a lot of courage to write this as you had to trace back some obviously painful experiences during your adolescence. It was beautifully written and a very honest depiction of the cruelty and isolation many experience at this particularly vulnerable stage of their lives. I could certainly relate to the anguish of wanting to fit in and receive acceptance and feeling different and inadequate and strange and self conscious and all of the other crippling emotions. I think many of us have scars from those formative years of searching for our identity and trying to figure out who we are. In some ways, I would imagine it is worse now with the availability of social media and ‘cyber bullying’.
I could certainly identify in my own experience who might have been in the cool group but honestly over time one tends to lose clarity over which people were actually cool at school. I think what passes for cool in that brief passage of time has no enduring quality, that is, if we were to gather everyone during our teenage years, including the ones that were thought of as cool and put them in a giant theatre room and made all of them watch their adolescence play out in front of a big screen, you would struggle to find a single person that loved the person they were back then. Sadly, it was or is generally a Darwinian environment where those who can bluff their way with an aura of confidence and self worth are the ones that tend to be backed backed up by others who covet that security in a dominant tribe context and reap the rewards of social status… while the rest of us look on in longing admiration or disgust, depending on different factors. There really is no rhyme or reason for it. I knew a kid at school who was extremely popular despite having a face full of acne. Generally, those who excel at sport tend to do well but again, probably depends on the sport. I don’t think badminton players did that well socially in my school.
I agree completely that as we mature and learn to accept ourselves, we embrace many of the things that made and continue to make us a little different. Our peculiarities and unusual pursuits at least on paper might make us interesting people to be around and to converse with. There is probably no one rule or one size fits all with this as some strange people might be just…well, strange…and not that cool. For my two cents, I think part of what makes a person cool is a humility and a willingness to admit not knowing much but at the same time wanting to find out more about themselves and other people in a sincere way.
Anyway, enough of my rant. It was a really great blog post and I hope you continue to share these thoughts in written form. You’re proving to be a cool person.
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Thanks, Elias! 🙂 The standards of what or who is considered ‘cool’ vs. ‘uncool’ really are quite arbitrary, I agree. I guess we all have to figure out what we ourselves define as ‘cool’ and then try our best to live according to that ideal, instead of blindly adhering to the roles imposed upon us either by society at large, or by the groups or cliques we find ourselves in- or outside of, be they at home, at school, or in a workplace.
I can totally relate to what you wrote, apart from the spots; I luckily never had a tendency for those 😉
Jokes aside, what I consider cool now is definitely different from what I believed as a teen.
To me, being cool is swimming against the current and, as Lisa Jakub, a former child actress turned into writer, said “embracing your weird”.
So let’s embrace our weird and not trying hard to be someone we’re not just to fit in or to be liked. If someone doesn’t accept you the way you are, they will most certainly not make a difference in your life anyway.
Ha ha, glad to hear you didn’t have any skin issues 😉 Yes, accepting yourself and appreciating all of your unique qualities, including those that seem odd or uncool to others, is definitely a reasonable approach! And I agree, a person who expects you to change is not worth worrying about.