Title photo credit: Amy
Was I born too early? I lean toward “no” on that, since my relationship with my wife would be kind of creepy if I was 10-15 years younger. Nevertheless, if I were a teenager today but with the same tastes and interests as when I actually was one, I feel like some parts of life would be easier, particularly in regards to certain aspects of social acceptance.
I was a teenager from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, and just about every natural tendency of mine seemed to be “uncool,” for lack of a better word. Now, I spent most of high school in a place that came down extra hard on anyone who wasn’t a sports-playing sports lover. (Seriously, when I compared notes with people in college, no one else went anywhere as packed with assholes.) On top of that, I spent that time living in an extremely backward rural part of Pennsylvania that had barely evolved from the 1950s, a place where anything unacceptable was described as “gay” or “Jewish” by the local redneck teens. (In truth, it may not be that different there today.)
That socially extra stringent environment stands in stark contrast to trends I see nowadays. Maybe my perceptions are skewed by where I spent most of my teen years, but I’d still say that since the 1990s, there’s been a genuine shift in attitude toward the following things:
4: Being Smart
Photo credit: NASA
This one clearly isn’t true across the board, what with Trump supporters and all, but it does seem like being smart or knowledgeable garners more praise than it used to. A big piece of evidence for this is the popularity of websites like I Fucking Love Science as well as scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. It definitely wasn’t always like this.
As I mentioned way back when I started this blog, I was a smart kid. I knew words that adults didn’t by the time I was six, effortlessly got As in school, and so on. The thing is—aside from teachers, nobody liked a smart kid in the 1990s. I knew to conceal my intellect from an early age. I’d pretend not to know something or that I believed the bullshit some of my relatives would tell me. (The fact that my family likes their kids misinformed might be a sign of some kind of issues.)
Photo credit: pwto
“I swear I don’t know what 2 + 2 is!”
It was impossible to completely hide the fact that I was smart, though. It was inevitable that people would notice all those 100s I got on tests, if nothing else. So I spent most of my childhood being known as “the smart kid” in school. With that label, of course, came a fair amount of scorn and exclusion, except for when tests were coming up. I certainly had a few friends, but I was never going to be the central focus of any yearbook photos; that’s for sure. From what I see on my Facebook feed these days, I can’t help but think that I wouldn’t have felt as strong a need to pretend to know less were I a kid today.
3: Wearing Glasses
Photo credit: Emoji One
Glasses, even pairs with big, thick frames, seem to be fashionable today. Relative to my childhood, this trend has come so far out of left field that no baseball analogy can encompass its unexpectedness.
Photo credit: Ncurses
Like I know anything about baseball…
When I was a kid, having to get glasses was a virtual death sentence, or at least that’s how it seemed on TV. (As smart as I was, I still believed what my longest-running teacher told me.) A kid unfortunate enough to need glasses could expect to constantly be called “four-eyes” and to inevitably be stripped of his eyewear and have it broken. A beating from either bullies, parents, or both would ensue. Of course, the kid would endure all of this while blind as a bat and unable to move more than an inch per minute, having been incapacitated by the loss of their glasses. The fact that these extremely nearsighted kids were always smart like me made the thought of glasses even more horrifying. Luckily, I always had perfect vision when my eyes were tested at the beginning of each school year.
That changed in seventh grade. I certainly wasn’t suffering from severe nearsightedness or bumping into walls, and I could see the chalkboard just fine, but my vision was no longer good enough to pass. They gave me a form letter about my nearsightedness, which I had to take home for my mother to sign.
Needless to say, I was crestfallen. I didn’t want to be marked by glasses. I knew I had to prevent this. The idea of forging my mother’s signature came to mind, but my confidence in my skill as a forger was dashed after a teacher figured out that I’d forged my father’s signature back in fifth grade. I had to move heaven and Earth to keep my parents from finding out about that, but I succeeded. It’s quite a heady feeling for a 10-year-old to pit his wits against a teacher's and win. But I digress.
I decided to trick my mother into thinking that I still had good vision. That evening, when she got home from work, I told her how I failed the yearly vision test and gave her the letter. Then I told her that I didn’t believe it. I said how I wasn’t having any trouble reading signs or stuff on chalkboards at school (which was true). I speculated that the school’s equipment was old and crappy. Then I proved I could still see by reading the small text on an orange juice carton (something about a tradition of using only the best oranges) from across the kitchen. That satisfied my mother, who agreed that the school was full of shit and signed the thing. My mother never stopped to think that I might have simply memorized the text on the carton that afternoon.
Every subsequent year, I failed the vision test, and every year, I again managed to convince my mother that the test was bull. I was finally outed as nearsighted in 11th grade when I was starting the process of getting a driver’s license. I still wasn’t thrilled about getting glasses, but at least by then, it was possible to get frames that weren’t huge and nerdy-looking. (Having taken karate classes since middle school also probably made me feel more secure.) I got LASIK in 2006.
Speaking of nerdiness…
2: Nerdiness / Geekiness
Photo Credit: Amy
When I say “nerdiness” or “geekiness,” I’m referring to having a sizable interest in and liking for things like Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, anime, role playing, etc. Nerds these days don’t know how easy they have it. Nerdiness has become so much more acceptable now than I remember it being in the past. People everywhere are going nuts over the latest Marvel movies, Star Wars movies, and Game of Thrones episodes, and no one seems to be ridiculing them for it. Don’t get me wrong: I think that’s great, but wow, was it different in my formative years.
I had a healthy liking for science fiction as a kid, but my favorite nerdy interest always was and is Transformers. You can bet your ass I kept that a secret. That impulse dies hard. To this day, my two closest friends from high school don’t know I’m a Transformers fan. One time, I saw someone in high school who had sufficient balls to wear an Autobot symbol T-shirt. I wanted so bad to somehow signal that dude, but I was too afraid of exposing what I saw as a vulnerability to be attacked.
Photo credit: Schyler
Gang signs. We needed gang signs.
In 11th grade, I finally worked up the courage to go to school wearing a Decepticon symbol T-shirt. Even then, I was banking on no one even knowing what my shirt meant. After all, no one in the hall seemed to look twice at that other guy’s Autobot shirt. Then, in my science class, a member of my lab group recognized my shirt for what it was. I felt like an animal in a snare. For a moment, I was ready to take him down and choke him out before he could yell to the whole room that I liked Transformers. But then he was like, “That was a cool-ass movie.” (He was referring to the animated movie from 1986, which was the only one in existence at the time.) And then another lab partner said that he liked the old cartoon! I was relieved, but that wasn’t the start of new, Transformers-based friendships. I never wore the shirt again. Old habits really die hard.
1: Liking Older Music
Photo credit: Tony Morelli
Today, it’s not hard to find people of any age or background listening to just about whatever type of music they please. It could be Mozart, Rammstein, or some local group that composes melodies from chicken sounds. Whatever floats your boat. This state of affairs is another that I absolutely would never have anticipated when I was a teenager.
Back in the day (especially in middle school), music was much more generationally stratified. In the late 1990s, it was acceptable for young people to listen to currently popular top-40 stuff, hip hop, parent-scaring metal, and nothing else. (I was fine with the metal.) Country was acceptable among the more redneck-y teens, and even that blew my mind because I’d previously thought of country as the sole province of old people.
Being outed as a listener of any unacceptable music was yet another way to become an instant pariah when I was a kid. I found myself at the receiving end of that.
Photo credit: Karl Gunnarsson
“You will accept Hanson as your Lords and Saviors!”
Until a certain age, I really didn’t have well-developed music tastes of my own. I listened to whatever my parents did. In their case, it was various forms of rock, ranging from stuff like Led Zeppelin to 1990s grunge. As a younger kid in the early 1990s, I occasionally found myself liking the sound of a rap or pop song, but seeing my parents’ disdainful reactions to them always made me feel the need to hide the fact that I liked anything but their stuff. Then I got to middle school, and the rules of acceptable music basically flipped. At least I was already experienced in hiding my actual preferences. And I had an easy guide for pretending to fit in musically—the radio playing on the school bus. Peoples’ reactions to a given song were quite informative.
As I said before, it’s not like that with music today. (At least, it doesn’t seem that way from the perspective of someone who doesn’t really know any teenagers.) So, what happened? The iPod.
In the fall of 2005, I began to notice incoming freshman wearing T-shirts of bands that were popular when my parents were kids, like Led Zeppelin. On top of that, they were listening to songs I remembered hearing all the time as a freaking toddler! I think the advent of digital music destroyed those long-established generational barriers. We ‘90s kids scorned any music more than a few years old, our parents shat upon our grandparents’ oldies, and now, some college student barely old enough to be called a millennial is blasting those oldies somewhere. The future is amazing.