I wasn’t about to get caught short again. Nine months of being the school nerd was all anyone ought to endure in a lifetime. I’d show the other ninth graders at Cherokee Junior High I was hot stuff. After applying an ample amount of makeup to my adolescent face, I practiced glowering in the mirror. A shudder came over me as I remembered that year as a seventh-grade nerd.
That was the year my father transplanted our family of nine from our home in Hawaii to the foreign land of Michigan. While he was enjoying a sabbatical leave at the University of Michigan, I was wearing transparent rubber galoshes, cat glasses, and a second-hand grandma coat to school, and enduring the snubs of my classmates.
I was naive and ignorant about midwest fashion. How was I to know it wasn’t kosher to wear white socks in the winter? In Hawaii we didn’t wear socks. In fact, most of the time we didn’t even wear shoes. Even if I had deciphered the fashion code, I couldn’t have done anything to remedy the problem because my father was earning half salary that year. Without money, fashion was out.
I admit I enjoyed many happy times with my family in Michigan, but nonetheless was greatly relieved when the sabbatical ended and we returned to Hawaii where fashion was largely ignored and I had many friends.
Then one day my father dropped another bombshell. He’d decided to leave BYU—Hawaii to take a position at the University of Wisconsin. My heart began to thud. How could he? How could he be so cruel as to take me to a state only a lake away from Michigan? There wasn’t a dry eye among us when we boarded the plane.
But here I was in Wisconsin—my sobs and pleas had fallen on deaf ears. I shot the mirror another grim glare and turned away resolutely. No, this time I wouldn’t start a new junior high with secondhand clothes and expectant smiles. I’d grown up a lot since Michigan and knew better than that.
My ploy worked. I didn’t look or act like a nerd and found friends instantly—of the wrong variety. This was the crowd who had an ever-present cigarette on their lips and an expletive to fit every occasion. They were happy to draw me into their circle.
“Wanna drag?” became a phrase I was to hear repeatedly that year as someone in the crowd lit up and offered to share their nicotine.
Did I want a drag? Of course I did. More than anything in the world I wanted to fit in and be a part of this crowd. But I couldn’t—I was a Mormon. And that made me mad. It wasn’t cool to be a Mormon. There were only three Mormons at my junior high, including myself and my brother. I was okay, but in my estimation, the other two didn’t have a chance of being accepted. I didn’t want to be connected with either of them in any way. I kept my religion squashed as far under a bushel as I could. When kids offered me a cigarette I didn’t say, “No thanks, I’m a Mormon and we don’t smoke.” I said, “No thanks, I don’t smoke.”
“Why not?” they often asked.
“I don’t know,” I’d mutter uncomfortably. “It’s bad for your health, I guess.”
“You’re smart,” they’d respond thoughtfully, happily continuing to puff. I looked on in misery.
This crowd loved dancing to the music of Jimi Hendrix and “The Doors” and so did I. They also liked having parties in kids’ basements when their parents weren’t home. The lights were dimmed, the cigarettes glowed, and kids paired off. I wandered around pretending to fit in.
How I longed to do what the others were doing so I could truly belong. I clung to the memory of those happy years in Hawaii, marching barefoot down Moana Street to the beach with a slew of friends surrounding me. In Michigan it was different. I hadn’t fit in because my clothes were outdated and I looked like Popeye’s Olive Oyle in cat glasses. But that wasn’t the problem here. Now I was an identical clone of my Wisconsin friends, and I still wasn’t one of them. Outwardly we looked alike, but inside we were miles apart. I was like one of those Idaho Spud candy bars my dad loves so much—dark and rough on the outside, but full of fluffy, white, squishy marshmallow on the inside. I was a good kid trying to look bad. It wasn’t much fun.
I didn’t want to give up my friends, but how was I to fit in when I didn’t smoke, drink, swear, or pair off? Although I wanted to participate, I could never bring myself to that point. Something always stopped me. Still, the daily contact with these friends took its toll.
My parents watched me change from a cheerful, studious eighth grader to a belligerent, hostile ninth grader. I refused to attend early-morning seminary and Mutual activities—when I could get away with it. In our family, missing Sunday meetings wasn’t an option, or I would have done that, too. Because I was exposed to so much crude language, swear words came involuntarily to my mind each time something bad happened.
Like a brand, I carry the memory of the day one of those words found its way out of my mouth. I was strolling home from school with several friends when a male acquaintance snuck up behind me and playfully yanked my long hair. Shocked and angry, I whirled around to face him. The word popped out before I had a chance to think. Everyone used that word in such situations, but my friends stared at me in disbelief. I tried to pass it off, but inside I was terribly ashamed and made sure it never happened again.
My report card suffered when I figured out it wasn’t cool to get good grades. I’d always been very competitive and at the top of my classes. Now it was an embarrassment to admit I’d earned an A on a test. I became lazy and sloppy.
I don’t like to think what might have happened if my father hadn’t dropped another of his now famous bombshells—this time a happy one. He’d taken a position in higher education in the San Francisco Bay area, and we would soon be on our way to California! It wasn’t as good as announcing that we were returning to Hawaii, but the prospect of becoming one of those California girls the Beach Boys were always singing about appealed to me. I had no regrets about leaving Wisconsin. I was growing weary of the pretense. I’m not sure how much longer I could have kept that scowl on my face and in my heart without snapping.
It was a good move, and I found friends both in and out of the Church with solid values and morals. I’ve reflected many times since on that year in Wisconsin. I’m grateful I’ve never again been so sorely tempted and wonder what kept me from becoming as dark and rough on the inside as I was on the outside.
Maybe it was the 15 years of gospel teachings I’d internalized at home and church that I knew deep down were true. Maybe it was knowing how disappointed my parents would be if they found out I’d done something wrong. Maybe it was because I knew they trusted me. Maybe it was their righteous and sincere prayers in my behalf. Maybe it was because somehow I always knew I wasn’t like those kids.
I’m not proud of my behavior and attitude, but in any case, I weathered the year without any terribly serious mistakes.
Meanwhile, I’ve decided that while living the gospel can seem at times a chore and a bore, if I can hang on and trust what I’ve been taught is true, I’ll be grateful—sometimes rather quickly. In my case I’ve found I don’t have to wait until I die (like I used to think) to be glad I made good choices.
A year later, away from the influence of those friends, I was profoundly grateful I hadn’t given up important gospel standards. In fact, I’ve been grateful all my life.
I think I was most grateful when I left California to attend BYU. First of all, I was glad that I had earned the grades necessary to enter college. And although I told my roommates I wasn’t interested in getting married because I was going to be a famous journalist, I really was. And I didn’t want to marry a slouch either. I wanted a man who had lived a righteous life and kept himself clean. I did find Mr. Right, and it was sublime not to have any serious transgressions to hide or confess before we knelt at the altar of the temple.
There’s one more thing I learned. It’s going to sound crazy, and people might not believe me, but I was happier being a nerd in Michigan than a hotshot in Wisconsin. My clothes and glasses may have been outdated, but I loved the Church and had strong friends and leaders there who helped me feel important. And I wasn’t putting on any acts like I did in Wisconsin. My worst fear in ninth grade was that I’d be a nerd twice in my life.
Take it from me, it’s not all that bad. It’s much worse trying to be someone you’re not.