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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