As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”

In my critical thinking class the students and I are getting ready to read some gothic fiction — we’re going to talk about monsters and misfits in some great books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I can’t wait!  But to prepare them for this kind of reading they’re not quite used to, we’ll be starting a little closer to home with our first book, Stephen Chbosky’s acclaimed coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Our research question this quarter is essentially, why here?  why now?  With so many vampire stories and popular TV hits like MTVs Awkward and Lena Dunham’s HBO TMI-fest Girls, popular culture seems engaged in a revenge of the weird, or well, awkward, and is so ready to make monsters sexy and laugh at these most humiliating times in our lives, the times during adolescence and young adulthood when we find ourselves transforming into some kind of creature of the night.  I hope to get the students to see that these kinds of stories, and the gothic horror they love so much, are creative outlets for exploring subversive ideas and values that might make us uncomfortable — sexuality, difference, technological or societal change just to name a few things to make you anxious.  I think one of the things Dunham does so well with her show Girls is lay out there these “awkward” images, images we’re not used to seeing like a not-so-hot girl getting naked in every episode, finding plenty of guys to sleep with, and laughing at herself.  During the first season she argues with her best friend and says, “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself.  OK?  So any mean thing that someone’s gonna think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour.”  I find her comfort with discomfort refreshing and empowering, and despite all the criticism she receives for doing it, I think her show’s a significant game changer.

I’m sure you remember those awkward years, don’t you?  When your teeth were too big or too crooked or covered in metal?  When you still let your mom cut your hair at the kitchen table and dress you in homespun fashions sent from grandma?  When over one summer your face erupted with acne and your body grew up and out or worse, not at all.  You pulled the covers over your head and in the night, Dr. Frankenstein set to work.  You’d wake up from strange dreams and walk onto the school campus feeling more and more like an alien with each passing day.  Simultaneously attracted to and fleeing from blood-thirsty vampires, tripping over zombies . . . oh the horror of it all.  For me, adolescence was a total nightmare because in addition to all these things going on, I didn’t have my mom around to talk to.  It was a tremendously lonely time in my life, but like most people, I got through it once I found my people and together we traversed the apocalyptic landscape of those teenage and early adulthood years.  I’m asking my students to remember their experiences and to write stories about them, and we’re looking over a tumblr site, The Awkward Years Project, to remind us that our stories of transformation are inspiring.  Behind each of the stories on the website I see patience, good humor and a lot of compassion, a man or woman who has emerged from this wicked teenage experiment stronger, wiser, ready to ditch those uncomfortable memories and take on the next phase of the journey.


awkwardyearsMy Awkward Years Project

My grandmother made that dress, and it was floor length with a six-inch ruffled hem!  She would send a package of haute midwestern fashion those first few years of school, and each year the elastic armbands were too tight, the polyester too thick and the lace trims too scratchy.  My mother agreed they were hideous but trotted me down to K-Mart nonetheless to have my portrait taken in front of one of those roll-down backdrops, a smattering of birch trees or field of daisies clashing with the patchwork fabrics.  And if that wasn’t demoralizing enough, she also insisted I wear them on school picture day, I guess so I’d have even more awkward photos to show my kids one day.  Next to Laura Ingalls in her prairie dress would be me brace-faced in 7th grade, self-styling at this point and sporting a thin braided purple headband across my forehead.  I think it even had beads and a dangling purple feather that hung on one side by my ear.  Tragically hip, and with Farrah hair and Final Net to boot.  I look at pictures like these and cringe, recollecting all those times in elementary school without my mom around anymore to dress me.  With my short shaggy mop of red hair and mismatched outfits I endured Orphan Annie taunts, got chased out of my new school’s bathroom for looking like a boy, and wished I had someone to help make me look pretty, like a girl.  I think everyone has pitiful childhood stories like this, times we felt weird, embarrassed, alone.  A few weeks ago when my 7th grader asked to see my middle school yearbooks, I was actually surprised to find I had had a lot of friends.  The inside covers are filled with signatures from my classmates: to a sweet girl, stay sweet, you are a total sweetheart, I’m glad I got to know you.  There are some teasing messages from boys I had crushes on and these notes from my teachers: Rebecca you are a terrific story writer.  Board, I think you’re right things come easy to you, unlike other people in the Spanish B class.  I knew that last year . . . I enjoyed your presence in class, I’m going to miss your smiles and strange looks.  Thank you so much for helping me in the library, you are such a dear and I always enjoy being with you.  I’ll miss your sweet smile . . . .  I read these messages and wonder, um, what about that girl who never got asked to dance?  Did she really smile so much?  People thought she was sweet?!  My ten-year high school reunion was held in a tavern–which seemed fitting for our graduating class–and all the guests wore name tags with their senior pictures on them.  As I was leaving to catch up with my husband and friends in the parking lot afterwards, my name tag had fallen off onto the floor, and who was there to reach down at the same time as me to pick it up but Richie Johnson!  Richie, the all-American nice guy, the baseball and football hero with the vintage car.  We had shared some mutual friends in a wide social circle, but I was certainly never on the inside of that circle like he was.  I never had boyfriends and I think I went to the homecoming dance with my best friend, Lisa, and to the prom with some skater boy who ditched me for the hills of San Francisco.  Well it was just like a scene from a movie.  We both bent down to pick up my name tag but Richie got to it first.  He looked at the picture as he handed it back to me, smiling that smile.  You were so pretty, he said, but you were so shyYou were so pretty, but you were so shy.  I will never forget that moment — granted it was ten years late, but it was as if I had finally arrived!  I ran out to the parking lot and climbed into the car breathless and beaming, Richie Johnson thinks I’m pretty!  Richie Johnson said I was pretty!  As if his saying so suggested I had been all along.  I wish I could say in that moment my transformation from gigantic insect to goddess was complete, but it would take a few more years — years of patience, good humor, and a lot of compassion — before I could comfortably toss my hair back and wave, smiling with self-love, antennas and all.


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  1. Jesus Plascencia says

    I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that my high school years were by far my most awkward. Till this day, when thinking back, I find myself hating high school even more. I didn’t attend my home school, instead I attended Oak Grove High School. At first i was extremely excited about this new journey ahead of me, little did I know what a miserable time I would have. I was never bullied, I was just looked down upon. Oak Grove high school was full of kids who were well off, much more than me. Also, the school at that time, was predominantly white. I never managed to fit in, because I was the wrong material. I was not into sports, I did not have the money to buy the “right” kinds of clothes, and for some reason I could not make lasting friends. People always tell me I am too shy so maybe that was it. I have always been into music, so I thought that by joining the band my problems would be solved, nonetheless nothing changed. I was the only hispanic kid in the band. I was looked at as though I was some sort of outsider. I came from the “wrong” part of town, I was constantly asked why I didn’t go to my home school. The teacher was not a big help either, I was sometimes late to practice because I had to take three buses to get to school, all the other kids had a car or their parents dropped them off. I had no car, and my father worked late. I eventually got fed up with the atmosphere and left my sophomore year. I found a couple of kindred souls and together we roamed the high school campus, each of us anxiously waiting for the day where we would be free of our high school incarceration. I can honestly say that graduating high school was one of the happiest days of my life. I just hated how because of my ethnicity and my social standing, I was never able to fit in. Kids in high school can be some of the cruelest people living on this planet.

  2. Love those pics! Are you sure that first one wasn’t hijacked from another beautiful young girl we know? Sure looks like her!

  3. Umangdeep Gill says

    When I was 4 years old my parents decided to move to South San Jose, which was predominantly a Latino neighborhood. From the time I was born I was always with my cousins and never realized at the time, we were one of the few Indians in the neighborhood at the time. My cousins didn’t stay long and moved to the Evergreen Hills along with the other Indians. I was left alone and got in a lot of fights in elementary school for being different. This led to being unconfident and uncertain about my appearance and capabilities at an early age. After realizing I was different and once my cousins moved and started hanging out with many other rich, spoiled Indians, we became very distant. It then dawned on me that I didn’t fit in with anyone, not even my cousins, or my classmates. I had gone to four elementary schools, but luckily I made some friends at my last school. They wouldn’t be there for long as my parents made me go to a different middle school, and then made me move again to a different High School. I was always trying figure out where I belonged. However, once I got to High School I made all kinds of friends; I had joined the football team, started weight training, and hung out with many different people, with different backgrounds and interest. I was always in search for acceptance and being able to relate to people. These phases continued a little bit after high school, where I continued body building and enjoying the party scene. What’s Ironic is now that I’m older I have learned I am actually comfortable with who I always was from the start. I prefer staying home than going out, I prefer having a smaller circle than a big one, and most importantly I need my alone time.

  4. Susan board says

    Well, I think l can match you blow by blow for awkward, shy, & to up the ante, I’ll throw in chubby as well! We loved your two stories! When I read your awkward story I simultaneously wished I could have been there for you and remembered dressing Kathy in my home sewn outfits not unlike what you described. I think I would like to refer my granddaughter to The Awkward Project. It sounds like a healing endeavor. What you are doing for your students is a wonderful, leveling thing. You have grown up so beautifully. Please keep the stories coming.

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