“So you’re a swimmer?”
She was blonde, she was beautiful, she was popular. And she was talking to me?!
“Um, yeah… Er…. Uh… I mean yes, yes I am.” I try my very hardest to assert some kind of authority over my words, but I can’t believe “Jenny” is talking to me. I am, for the first time in my life, being noticed, like really noticed. And not for my oily skin, cracking voice, and just plain old awkwardness… But for something I do.
“That’s cool,” she says with the kind of casual elegance you would expect from any one of the 80s movie teenage stars I had ever fantasized about. “We have a good swim team, don’t we?” she continues with a smile, as her hair blows gently in the wind, emanating from some fan I am presently unable to locate.
“Yes, we do have a really good team,” I state with some semblance of authority in my voice. “We won the sectionals last year. We have a really good shot of winning again this year.”
“Why are you saying we’ve won?” She asks. And not in a condescending way, but in a truly inquisitive one. “You’re not on the the Varsity Squad, are you?” This time there is a hint of sarcasm.
“Well, yeah, actually I am. I swim the 200 and 500. I beat out one of this year’s Seniors for the spot.” I am half proud and half scared as I make the announcement. I hang on her every word, as she says…
“Wow! And you are only a Sophomore?! That is really impressive.”
And in that moment, ALL of my self worth becomes tied to my athletic performance. How could it not?! One of the hottest and most popular girls in high school, who just happened to have her locker next to mine, actually spoke to me, actually offered me recognition for my athleticism. She validated me. The feeling is intense… a lusty adrenaline filled pride. I want more. I need more. In this moment, with the words of a popular and beautiful teenage woman, I am empowered.
I now know what I have to do. I have to become the best athlete I possibly can. This is my ticket to inclusion. This is the validation that I had up until this point been unable to acquire. The equation became so clear, so simple… Become a great athlete and people (important people… like Jenny of course, one of the hottest girls at school) will take notice of you, talk to you, accept you…
It is often strange, the things we tie our identity to, isn’t it? It is strange how we choose to define ourselves. Stranger still are the discrepancies in how we view ourselves versus how others view us.
Years after my encounter with Jenny at the lockers, a very close girlfriend of mine turns to me during a conversation about life, existence, and contributions to friendships/relationships/society and says, “You know you have more to offer than just your athletic ability, right?!”
I would look at my friend completely and utterly puzzled. How could anyone see anything in me other than my ability to perform in athletic endeavors? What other qualities do I have? No seriously, I had no idea what she was talking about. Not until many more years after my close friend pointed out that I might have more to offer this world than my athletic prowess, did I ever truly understand what she was getting after. And although I feel I haven’t yet fully figured it out, I have a better understanding that I have the capacity to offer more to this world than my accomplishments.
Going back to that fateful day in high school… All I knew was that in the moment Jenny recognized my ability as a swimmer, she brought me into existence.
And, at that point in my life, that’s all I needed to know. Her validation and acknowledgement years ago made me into someone. Or perhaps better stated, she set me on a path to become someone. Showed me the way. The encounter with Jenny created within me an identity. An identity I clung to for years and years. Because of Jenny, I was no longer, well, a no one. I was no longer the introverted high schooler with acne. I was no longer (as) awkward. Regardless of the “nod” from Jenny, I was still every inch the introvert. That didn’t change instantly. And yet, in my brief encounter with Jenny, with validation on my side, I could feel the tide was shifting.
The desire to express myself, to open up, to unveil myself to the world was in motion. It didn’t happen all at once. It was gradual. From introvert to extrovert… it was a journey. From high school, to college, and beyond. But it was one I eventually completed, in only the way a true overachiever could do. I swung from bashful to confident, from “(PLEASE) don’t look at me” to “HEY EVERYBODY… LOOK AT ME!” Did I swing too far in the direction of confidence, perhaps to a level of over confidence?
You’re damn right I did!
But you know what? It sure as hell beat the non existence I had lived from Kindergarten to Tenth Grade.
Oh Jenny, if you had any idea what a service, and disservice, you did me this day….