My high school experience was not unlike many others throughout the country. Except that I went to a private, all-boys, Orthodox Jewish school, housed in a decrepit, run-down former public school from the turn of the 20th century, in the middle of Nowhere, New Jersey. Well technically, girls went there too, just, they were on a different floor and we weren’t allowed to be in any classes together. Outside of the bus to and from school, you could go from mandatory prayers at 8am to dismissal at 5pm without seeing the opposite sex. Like I said, my high school experience was probably just like yours.
I moved around to a few different schools throughout childhood, and lived outside of the neighborhood where most of the high school kids were. Since I was coming into a new environment where many of my classmates already knew each other from elementary, I just wanted to be agreeable and well-liked, down for anything and willing to conform to the interests of the kids around me. I was just trying to fit in, saying and doing what I thought other people wanted me to say or do. High school is a lot like trying on different Halloween costumes for size, seeing what fits best. You wear personalities like cloaks, masking who you really are deep down. At its Platonic ideal, it’s a place where you can find yourself, start becoming the person you’re destined to be. In reality, if something that in hindsight can seem so immaterial doesn’t go according to plan, it can feel like the whole world is crumbling around you – high school is a pretty unforgiving place.
So, I tried to leave a mark early, forge an identity for myself, perception be damned. During freshman year, I jammed a yarmulke clip into the electrical socket in the Biology Lab and pretended to get electrocuted just to get a rise out of my teacher and a laugh out of the kids around me. I was immediately and forcibly removed from the classroom, yanked by my ear and dragged outside kicking and screaming. Just one time, trying Troublemaker on for size; it wouldn’t be the last.
You’re crazy. You’re ridiculous, they’d say. Little did they know that they were adding fuel to the fire, fanning the flames of my id and giving me the strength to create an alter ego. I would need to own the adjectives people used to describe me, lest the adjectives owned me. I realize now, that even at 15, I had the innate sense to control the narrative others would use to define my high school experience. You can’t be everything to everyone, else you’ll lose the essence of yourself.
And so, one late night, in 10th grade, as I lay in bed, it came to me; from then on, I would go by a new name…
“You have reached…” the automated welcome voicemail message started, before going silent for a few ticks until my high-pitched voice cracked through…