Before I went to law school, I worked as an intervention counselor at a public high school. It was hilarious and heart breaking and endlessly entertaining. My favorite student was an edgy sophomore who reminded me of myself, in college. She was smart and sophisticated and mostly had her act together. She was an outlier in the distribution of my blatant favoritism.
Because I’ve always had a soft spot for a complete mess.
For months, I’d been hearing about a girl with a rolling backpack. She wears a floor-length black cape with white clouds on it. At the end of each period, as soon as the bell rings, she busts through the classroom door and sprints, at top speed, to her next class.
She’s infamous. A campus legend.
One day I get a referral for a freshman named “Sarah,” I recognize her last name because her older brother is already one of my most-loved disasters.
Promptly at 11:15, a tiny, curly-haired girl in a giant black robe stands in my doorway.
“My teacher says I’m here now,” she tells me, then abruptly takes a seat. She insists I call her “tight” because that’s her name, today.
I ask a few preliminary questions to make sure she’s comfortable, but her demeanor and facial expression is unchanging, so I switch to a direct approach.
“So, tight, do you feel like you’re making friends at school this year?”
“Not really,” she responds casually. “Most people think I’m totally weird,” she continues.”I carry a rolling backpack and I wear this big cape and I sprint from class to class. People just point and laugh about it, they think I’m a freak.”
I’m stammering. Completely caught off guard and unable to handle her pure honesty, her genuine and precise insight.
“Does it bother you that they think you’re a freak?”
“Of course not. This is just who I am. If they don’t get it, they probably wouldn’t be a good friend for me anyway.”
Now, I’m speechless.
She is some sort of adolescent outcast guru. She’s pure wisdom and no ego. The most self-aware person I’ve ever met.
Eventually, I get to know Sarah pretty well. She joins one of my support groups that the pretty, popular girls take to get out of class once a week. One morning their ring leader plugs in her straightener in the corner of the room. We get to talking about some pretty deep stuff. She gives her well-adjusted, socially appropriate opinion while she carefully styles Sarah’s characteristically unruly hair. She’s calm and focused, like she’s been doing it at a sleepover for the last ten Friday nights. When the bell rings, they all pose for a picture together, then exchange phone numbers and authentic, girl-friendy hugs.
Sarah says “peace out” and darts for the door. She disappears into a sea of teenagers, before the other girls take a single step outside.
Later in the year, Sarah repeatedly gets in trouble with her grandmother for bringing her scary, stuffed doll to school. It has a bloody face and black x where each of the eyes should be. Grandma is concerned the doll is alienating the other students, but Sarah keeps sneaking it in her backpack each morning.
When, at Grandma’s request, I try to intervene, Sarah tells me simply, that she doesn’t get it. “He’s a part of me. I’m not myself without him. I have to be myself, especially at school.”
I want to tell Sarah that she’s a revolutionary. That, especially in high school, her unrelenting adherence to “being herself” is nothing short of extraordinary. That I talk to a hundred kids each week and they’re all trying desperately to be exactly like everyone else. They all wear neon hoodies and skinny jeans and fix their hair the same way. They all walk at the same pace, from place to place. I want to invite her to my yoga studio where I practice, every night, in a room of sixty grown-ups who are there, at least in part, to learn how to be themselves.
I want her to know she is teaching me a powerful, important lesson, every time she runs through the halls.
I was never a social outcast and have always made friends with ease. I only use a rolling bag at the airport and save my cape collection for special occasions. But when I question whether my eccentricity is holding me back, I need a reminder to celebrate my uniqueness. To silence the voice that wonders whether I’d be happier or better off, if I fit in better with everyone else. If I wore a sexy witch costume instead of a muscly ninja turtle, out on Halloween. If I spent more time with my peers and less time with my mom. If I drank modern, fancy cocktails or listened to hip, indie bands. If I wanted pretty engagement photos, a big wedding and a house I owned in the suburbs with a manicured front lawn.
Maybe I could even land a boyfriend, if I’d just stash the freak flag away, for a while.
But then again, “it’s so important to be myself.”
And anyone who can’t understand why I am the way I am,
“probably isn’t a good friend for me, anyway.”
*I changed “Sarah’s” name, because, well, you never know.