Think back to when you were a kid— skipping your way through childhood, the awkward preteen years, and the thrilling high school years. If you’re like most people, all you wanted was to be exactly like all your friends. If you looked different, talked different, walked different, there was a good chance you’d be ridiculed, or at least be the object of hushed whispers behind cupped hands—sometimes even by your close friends. I don’t mean that to sound overly harsh about the fishbowl of preteen and teen years. It’s just that it’s hard being a kid, especially a teenager in high school when the objective is to be just like everyone else.
This is a subconscious thing of course. There are plenty of preteens and teenagers who want to be different from the crowds around them. But chances are, they have friends who are like them in their desire to be different. Eventually, each person in this group that collectively wants to be different ends up looking just like all the others in that particular group, whether they’re the cheerleaders, the skaters, the jocks or the science whiz kids. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that things change as you get older, but try telling that to a teenager in high school. Try telling him/her that all this striving to be so different, or struggling to fit in and be like everyone else doesn’t really matter—that you don’t learn who you really are until later in life anyway. They’d look at you like you were crazy because to them it’s everything. The way they talk, wear their hair, their shoes, their backpacks; the shows they watch, the music they listen to—every little thing is scrutinized when you’re that age. It matters whether they’ve achieved a look that’s different enough to be hip and cool or identical enough to everyone else to actually fit in and maybe … shh … be popular.
And whatever you do, you don’t want to be embarrassed.
When I was little, I went to a small elementary school where we pretty much knew everyone else. Even at such a young age of 7, I wanted people to like me; I wanted to fit in. I remember there was a boy in my second grade class who was overweight. That’s the type of embarrassment you don’t want to have to deal with when you’re a kid. We all struggled in our own way to fit in and to be liked, but he had the additional struggle of being bigger than everyone else. One day this boy was trying to squeeze behind my desk chair and he knocked my book bag off the back of my chair. I remember turning around and saying, “Watch out, fatso.” Immediately a heavy sense of shame and guilt washed over me and I knew I had crushed him. I don’t know why I reacted the way I did, even back then I didn’t know, but it was the first time I realized that by my words and actions, I had the potential to be unkind, cruel even. He wanted to fit in and be liked as badly as I did, and with three little words, I had knocked him down several pegs on the ladder of cool. I was embarrassed that I caused such a commotion around me, but more importantly, I was sorry and shamed for having hurt him.
A few years later in fifth grade, I got a perm. I had beautiful board straight hair, but I desperately wanted curls. (Fourteen years later, I have naturally curly hair and am just now beginning to make peace with it. Go figure!). I was also just beginning to see boys as “the other.” Unfortunately, my coveted perm turned out rather poorly, and my skinny knobby-kneed legs and thin arms didn’t help the picture very much. I’m sure my parents would attest to the fact that I was the cutest thing around, but this perm was quite a doozy. I didn’t care as much then as I would have if this had occurred in high school— in the thick of having to have perfect appearances— but even at the tender age of 11, I knew that I wanted to look pretty.
That year brought the arrival of a boy named Jack. All the girls got giggly whenever he was around. He was new to the school and immediately he stirred up the recess playground, the P.E. gym and everywhere else he went. One day Jack informed me and two other girls that he liked one of us, but he wouldn’t tell us which one. The three of us were friends, but you better believe we cast many sideways glances at each other that day trying to decide who was prettiest, who had the best clothes, the coolest stickers on their desk, the best snack in their lunch bags. When it was all said and done, Jack didn’t pick me and I was convinced it was because I didn’t measure up to the other girls’ pretty blond hair and athletic prowess on the playground. This desire to fit in and be what someone else wanted me to be was pretty powerful, even to a young fifth grader.
High school came years later, and with it came a new sense of freedom, excitement, many highs and many lows. The pressure to be just right was also pretty strong. I attended a private high school, mainly kids of fairly wealthy families—or at least families who didn’t have trouble paying the bills. Most everyone had the right car, the right vacation destination and the right clothes. For some, it was a breeding ground for low self-esteem, when even the smallest thing could set you apart from everyone else. In the current point of my life, I like to be set apart from my friends, but in high school, being set apart from the rest of the pack isn’t really what you’re going for. My friends were wonderful, and I’d say we were a bit on the different side. We weren’t the cheerleaders, not really the jocks, not the computer whizzes either, but something in between. I actually enjoyed high school more than college to tell you the truth, but there’s no denying that those four years were hard. The desire to fit in can override everything else so much that it clouds your vision of what you truly want, and who you truly are.
The years kept trucking along. I made it through high school, and finally headed off to college. During my junior year, something clicked. It was a slow process, but I realized that I didn’t care so much whether or not I was just like the people I was around. Before, I was never consciously thinking, “I must fit in.” It was more of an undercurrent that led me to not want to stick out too much. But after spending two and a half years at a tiny liberal arts college, then transferring to a large state university and having to start over with new friends and routines, I was starting to like standing out a bit, even within my own new circle of friends. The catch was that I wasn’t trying to be different; I was just learning to be me. Maybe all those years of trying on different hats and playing different roles paid off because having exhausted all those possibilities, I was finally coming into the person I was meant to be, maybe the person I had been deep down all along.
Through the years in my quest to find out who I was and to, admittedly, fit in, I went from a childlike “Suzie Youth Group” to an innocent high schooler faced for the first time with a new world of scary things like alcohol and nicotine. The process continued from the “good girl” who’d cover for all her wilder friends, to the not-so-naive college freshman, to Widespread Panic fan, to Nanci Griffith fan. Put that all in a bottle and give it a good shake and you’ve got me—a 25-year-old reverted naiveté who came out of the chaos and joys of a magical childhood, a comfortable four years of high school, and a transforming college career with her faith more intact, her love for family and friends strong, and her desire to live life to the fullest constantly thriving.
At the age of 25 I feel more comfortable in my skin, my hair, my body size and my personality than ever before. And I imagine it only gets better. Friends who are several years older than me tell me that as the years pass, you continue to feel more and more comfortable and confident in who you are as a person, regardless of the company you keep. That excites me because the years definitely aren’t slowing down, and I look forward to learning more about the intricacies of life. I’m not finished yet, and none of us will ever be completely “there” on this side of heaven. We’re all works in progress.
The big realization I’ve come to in all this is that God really did know what He was doing when He created our inmost being and knit us together in our mother’s womb. He made us exactly as He wanted us to be—physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. He knew what our struggles were going to be, our trials, our joys, our highs and lows. He knew it’d take us a little while before we accepted that the way in which He made us is really our best self. Thankfully though, He sticks by us as we try on all our different hats, as we fumble through learning who we are, and He continually whispers in our ear that we truly are, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”[Lauren Koffler is a 25-year-old life-long Alabamian who’s ecstatic that summer is almost here. She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up.]
READ MORE LIFE | POST COMMENTS BELOW