The summer before 9th grade, I decided to be popular. Just saying something so absurd probably illustrates how dire were my social straits. Nevertheless, some other examples will make the situation more vivid.
My brother, whom I love and respect, was quintessentially uncool eight years before me. I wore his hand-me-downs, so I was both uncool and passé. My growth had stalled in that terrible phase with feet, hands, and head too large for the rest of me. Throw in acne and glasses, and you probably can summon a reasonably telling mental image. I also had no social skills: in elementary school I was the kid who mocked others for thinking Santa Clause was real; I did not improve with age.
But I was tired of not having friends. I figured that High School was a fresh start, I needed to make the most of it. If only I had known how….
On the first day of school, one of the teachers surprised us with an ice-breaker to help us get to know one another. She assigned partners, handed out questionnaires, and told us each to interview our partner so that we could introduce him or her to the class. My partner was a girl named Shannon.
Let me unpack that a little: the teacher partnered me with a girl. I didn’t really know how to interact with high school boys, but at least I wasn’t desperately attracted to all of them. Extreme nervousness does not help one become cool. Neither do sweating and mumbling, as it turns out, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of our interview topics was favorite foods. Since I was trying to be popular, I needed to answer with some food that would indicate my coolness. That probably sounds about as ridiculous as it actually was, but at the time I felt like I had been given a very important opportunity.
After some thought I chose pizza, because it seemed like a safe candidate. Unfortunately, all of my careful deliberations couldn’t make me suave. The same cumbersome inability to know when to stop talking, which had always anchored me in uncoolness, weighed me down again. I was determined to make sure that other people got all of the details correct. I didn’t just say that I liked pizza. I was specific; I was emphatic. I only liked plain cheese pizza, plain cheese.
I probably should have guessed that my quest for popularity had hit a rough patch. I’ve never really experienced high school girls’ behavior when they talk to popular boys, but I’m pretty certain that pity and disgust play a smaller role. (If I’m wrong about that, then I was some sort of campus star.) Shannon looked like she wanted to get away from me as soon as possible.
Ironically, I felt the same way about myself, which is what sparked the entire ordeal. Ah… retrospect. (More on that in a moment.)
Either way, when our turn came to make introductions, we went to the front of the class. I immediately started sweating through my out of date clothes. I wanted to impress everyone with my hip interview ability, but they were all looking at me, which didn’t help. And I wanted to hide my pimply face, but my unfathomably large head made it impossible.
Thankfully I don’t remember most of it. I do remember when we got to the part about food.
Shannon laughed awkwardly, the way people laugh when they’re uncomfortable around someone they think is crazy, and read her notes about my favorite food. Unfortunately, perhaps because I had mumbled, perhaps because I had been too emphatic about one part, perhaps because she had been too busy trying to scoot away from me, she had only written down one thing.
She said that my favorite food was cheese. Just cheese. She introduced the sweaty, pimply, poorly dressed, bespectacled, and disproportioned teenage me as the boy who liked to eat cheese. Naturally I wanted to die. Naturally I didn’t in fact die. I thought a lot of mean things about Shannon however, and held a grudge for years.
Right up until I realized, about eight years later, that I did actually like to eat cheese. I was digging through my refrigerator, trying to find my block of sharp cheddar because I wanted something to munch, when it struck me: cheese is good. Moreover, I was content to like it without needing approval.
As a teenager I always figured that the hardest part of growing up was getting my parents to let me be my own person. Eventually I realized that my parents weren’t trying to stop me. The real hard part was learning to tell my friends that I was going to be my own person. My parents are going to love me no matter what–I can understand that because I feel the same way about my daughter–but friends can reject you. It’s only natural, I suppose, that I tried to beat them to the punch. I rejected myself by trying to be someone acceptable instead.
Eventually I married a woman who likes to eat cheese. (Especially when she’s pregnant, but that’s a story for another time.) We have a daughter who can’t get enough of the stuff. It was one of the first things she learned how to sign and say. It’s her favorite treat. Frankly, it’s mine too.
So if Shannon is reading this, I want to say to her that I’m sorry I ever doubted her. My family and I, we’re cheese people, and I’m not ashamed of that.