The Consequences of Not Being a Wallflower

There are moments that predict everything important about your life. A mix of the good and the bad and the weird and the coincidental that’ll repeat in various quantities and ratios until you keel over dead and people go back through your blog to find funny anecdotes to repeat at your wake. A prototype of who you’ll become.

It started with the PSATs. Not with the actual SATs, but with the practice ones that guidance counselors tell you to take so that when you get to the real thing you’ll be burnt out. I was so concerned about the meaningless waste of time and money that I went to a rock festival the night before, and stumbled into the test center on five hours of sleep and zero preparation.

That’s why I was only a little insulted when the head of the gifted program called the College Board to challenge my completely implausible perfect verbal score. Hell, I expected her to find out it was a mistake. My English grades were sliding into the danger zone, and if I was going to fly my nerd flag, I figured it’d be in math. The score checked out, but it didn’t matter. The PSAT was a pointless practice test. Even my parents couldn’t pretend was important.

And that’s why, when I got called to the principal’s office to be told that my PSAT score qualified me (along with two other students) as a semifinalist for an academic scholarship competition, I decided the universe was having a bit of fun. Sure, I was in the smart kid classes, but I was the kid in the smart classes that did exactly the amount of work necessary to stay in those classes. Not a shred more. I barely did homework, I forced myself through assigned readings at lunch, and I was happy with whatever grade kept my parents from looking at me cross-eyed. I was a model Just Get By student. I was not national competition material.

And that’s why, when I was told I needed to write an essay on something that had profoundly influenced my life, I didn’t bother writing it until the period before it was due. I didn’t care about winning, only avoiding disqualification and subsequent cross-eyed parental anger. Surviving that would be way more work than pounding out an essay on how music influenced my life. I did the bare minimum and freed myself of obligation.

So, of course, a couple of months later, I ended up back in the principal’s office. I’d made it through. I was a National Merit Scholar. This was, apparently, a Big Deal to my principal, who proudly informed me our school hadn’t produced one in years. I thought: Fine. I’m smartish. A nonsense academic award was going to happen sooner or later. Now let me out of this office so I can go back to grinding out middling grades. I kept thinking that – that I was having a moment I’d forget by freshman year of college – until I stepped out of the principal’s office and came face to face with my English teacher/nemesis, C.

She grimaced. And she frowned.

And she forced out the word, “Congratulations.”

Waaaait a second, I thought.  I’ve stumbled into revenge. C. – who’d done everything in her power to burn me, who a year earlier had dragged me to the principal to humiliate me – had to congratulate me outside that same office. The head of the gifted program – who hadn’t known I existed until the PSATs – was so embarrassed that someone outside her silly club had won, she inducted me immediately. Overachieving jerks – you know, the mean-yet-smart popular kids that high school movies pretend don’t exist – were going off in class, within earshot of me, about how I didn’t deserve it. And they were right! I didn’t deserve it! I took a test half-asleep, and wrote my essay in 42 minutes. This was absurd. This was insanity. This was fun.

It stopped being fun all at once. The principal asked for a copy of my senior portrait. They wanted to stick it on a plaque and hang it up in the school lobby. There was no stopping them. The plaque was going up, and it was going up with my picture on it.

It was still there 16 years later, waiting, when a friend returned to our alma mater. She wasn’t the first to see it. Horrifyingly, she won’t be the last. She was the first to pull out her cell phone, snap a picture, and send it to me. To share the horror of being back in that building. I’d almost forgotten how humiliating it is when you get what you thought you wanted: to be noticed. If you have my luck, you’re only going to get noticed when you have hair like this…


…and that hair is going to keep get noticed. For the rest of your life.

Procrastination, annoying the crap out of people, and an ignored sign that writing, not science, might be where I belong? All of it followed by years of humiliation? Yep, that’s my life in a nutshell.

Thanks, PSATs.

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28 Responses to The Consequences of Not Being a Wallflower

  1. aby says:

    Aw this is adorable.

  2. Renee says:

    Your story reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years — in about the 4th grade, we were asked to write a poem, so I did. Turns out that it was so good that they called up my mom to see if she had helped me or I had cribbed it some somewhere (this was pre-internet days, pretty sure i didnt know how to find books of poetry).I wasn’t that manipulative then, nor would my parents have helped me. I was mad and ashamed.

    Never written any poetry worth a damn since then.

    Teachers, use your power for good.

  3. Tracy says:

    I love this. I knew we had lots of stuff in common.
    Best regards,
    The Girl Who Did All Projects, Essays and Homework at the Last Minute, Including Her Science Fair Project, With Back Up Data to Support Her Theory, Which Was Done the Night Before and She Got First Place Anyway at a Gosh Darn GT School and Still To This Day Wonders How She Managed to Fool So Many People Because She Bites in Science With Her Right-Brained Self.

  4. nypinta says:

    Wow. That really sucks, Renee. :(

    I know that there are some amazing teachers out there that have done great work, but it is true that things they do and say can really stick. Doubting a kid is one of the biggies.

  5. Rachel McDermott says:

    I got to give you that award at graduation : ) remember that? I never knew you got a perfect score on your language! Lol Also I believe you would’ve been an excellent scientist too…you were my favorite lab partner, no fuss no mess…we got it done. I think your motivation was so you could read more, I wanted to do the homework due in the next class…always!

  6. Catherine says:

    Hee, lovely story and wonderful photo :). And on an only semi-related note, I think you have a fantastic short story (or novel?) title there. I mean, it’s a great blog-post title too, just imagining seeing that title on a book. I’d pick it up!

  7. samatwitch says:

    Great story, Eric. I can identify. I too was in the top class of my grade but usually in the middle, marks-wise, because I didn’t do much more work than I needed to. (I blame it on an over-achieving older sister!) And yet, I scored a 98 percentile on my reading speed, 89 percentile on comprehension and high on math when I took my university entrance exam. (We didn’t have PSATs or any other kind of SATs then.) I also won a fairly prestigious scholarship and enough other scholarships and bursaries to pay my tuition, books and dorm fees for my first year.

    I did, however, work much harder when I took my last two years of university at night while working full-time!

  8. Marcy says:

    Loved your story, and as the mom of both a high-achiever and an under-achiever it was an interesting peek into your mindset.

  9. Omigosh! This is great! I love it on every level. As a former English teacher, I know students just like you. I used to call them “trimmers.” Students who did just enough to do the minimum — but they had the smarts. Soooo funny that the picture is still hanging there. What a great way to weave a tale.

    I’m here from Yeah Write.

    It’s my first time.

  10. Mels says:

    we’re like nerd twins.

    “Not with the actual SATs, but with the practice ones that guidance counselors tell you to take so that when you get to the real thing you’ll be burnt out.” Right?!?! My PSAT score, which is SUPPOSED to be lower than your eventual SAT score, was like 150 points higher. NOT COOL, UNIVERSE.

    “Sure, I was in the smart kid classes, but I was the kid in the smart classes that did exactly the amount of work necessary to stay in those classes. Not a shred more. ” see?? nerd twins.

    “you know, the mean-yet-smart popular kids that high school movies pretend don’t exist”
    so you’re saying not only does my high school experience not conform to tv and movie versions of the high school experience, it continues not to resemble that of real people, either.

    also: doofy hair, dude :) <3

  11. I can relate to this so much. Thankfully my senior picture is not sitting in a glass case at my school, though it is plastered all over the yearbook. I would have been mortified!

    Also, for what it’s worth, I think your hair looks better now.

  12. christie says:

    Oh How I love this story and also? WHERE YA BEEN? Missed you on the grid lo these bazillions weeks. Anyway, I am nowhere near as smart as you and my hair was way worse, but no one will see my picture so we are both winners.

  13. Eric says:

    @aby – Your definition of “adorable” is strange but reassuring.

    @renee & @nypinta – The horrible thing about those kinds of messages is, years later, you’ve forgotten *why* you feel that way, just that you do. It’s not until you search back and realize that it wasn’t that you actually sucked at something, it was that someone went out of their way to tell you it. Teachers reeeaaally need to use their powers for good, or at the least remember the *extent* of their power and act responsibly.

    @Tracy – Your litany of titles pleases and amuses me. I feel like I’m in the presence of nobility.

    @rachel – I’d completely forgotten it was you that gave this to me at graduation! Wow, did I *completely* block out graduation? You were *also* my favorite lab partner, for exactly the same reasons.

    @Catherine – I burn all the good parody titles on my blog posts. Stupid me.

    @samatwich – Just like me, with the working and finishing college and actually doing better at school while working at the same time! What’s up with that? We just need the motivation of actual things, don’t we?

    @Marcy – You have one of each? Good lord, how do they get along? I was an only child, so there was no one to over-achieve anywhere near me. I set a bad example for myself without anyone to contradict it.

    @Renee Schuls-Jacobson – Trimmers! Love it! Welcome to Yeah Write! It’s my first time back after a looooong while away. I can’t wait to read your piece!

    @Mels – I did the same thing on the SATs! I got that lovely perfect verbal score on the PSATs and then a Meh, Okay score on the SATs. Stupid waste of time PSATs, doing nothing but maybe pushing a hair crime on the world. (And what the hell was in the water at your school? I feel like someone should do sociological research there.)

    @Michelle Longo – I don’t know how it could look *worse*, that’s for sure.

    @christie – Thank you! I’ve been swamped with the writing of the book thing and – as my blog archive will attest – have been writing little to nothing else. I missed you all fiercely, though, and am so excited to be back and on the grid! As for your hair being words: Pics or the Humiliation Didn’t Happen. ;)

  14. As I was reading this, I felt like you were writing about me…
    I was not asked back to our school’s “Gifted and Talented” group because I didn’t want to actually do EXTRA SCHOOL WORK. That’s CRAZY TALK.
    At least there is no bad photo of me hanging in the hallway – because my hair was pretty bad in high school.

  15. Jen says:

    I know from whence you came, but I was so determined to not achieve that I got myself “removed” from my AP math classes. I showed them.

  16. My thirteen year old son is a lot like this. ;)

  17. Ugh if my picture was put up in the hallways of my high school for all to see I would definitely have staged a break-in at some point to remove the offending portrait. I am in love with this story, and have missed you on the grid. Welcome back, friend.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Yay! So happy to see you on the grid, Eric.

    I loved this post on so many levels:
    a) Because I was the “gifted” student who put forth as little effort as possible and still managed to pull decent grades.
    b) Because you finally got your revenge on C (I remember that post!).
    c) Because that picture is priceless (although I must say, I prefer your current hairstyle just a little).

  19. I get this – I was one of the students most likely to sleep through class. Teachers don’t like it when you do that and still pull a good grade. I’m still waiting for my sign though – the one that says this is what you were meant to do.

    I don’t think the hair is so bad.

  20. Jared Karol says:

    Very cool story. Having never read your blog before, I didn’t know until the end that you weren’t still in high school, or maybe just out. I really enjoyed the twist in the end. . .the humor of it all. . .

  21. IASoupMama says:

    Loved this! My pic isn’t on the wall, but my name is on a dozen plaques between high school and undergrad. I was also a procrastinator of gigundous proportion.

  22. I love your version of revenge! And I’m horrified that people will scour my blog for my eulogy.
    Loved this post and your writing – stylish, witty and engaging. And very smart. You done good, bad haired boy! ;-)

  23. Jester Queen says:

    It is awesome that you were a National Merit Scholar on a just-getting-by kind of essay. Here’s my PSAT story. By the time I got to high school “senior” I was also a college sophomore, because our state had a program that allowed you to attend college instead of high school and get credit for both. (Life achievement: My associate’s degree is dated two weeks BEFORE my high school diploma, even though they had to give me a decoy diploma at graduation until the high school diploma was finalized.) Anyway.

    I fucking hated fucking high school. They picked on me, the teachers were OK but didn’t protect me, and the guidance counselor suggested I go to trade school because girls shouldn’t go to college unless they, like she, had to do it just to get by.

    So when they mandated that I come back to take the PSATS (read – come back and raise the school’s scores along with one or two other people), I came back and deliberately tanked them. I’m not great at math, but I made myself worse. I’m awesome at reading, but I fucked up deliberately. I’m sure they did not mandate that any more of their future postsecondary enrollment students return for meaningless exams.

  24. Ericamos says:

    I am so jealous, ’cause I was one of those nerds who worked my ass off to scrape for my A’s and B’s. I don’t remember my PSAT scores, but my SATs were horrid! I’m going to be marrying a “you”, so even though I can’t personally relate, I relate. I felt like I was reading about his time in high school. Good story!

  25. Ken says:

    The only thing that I was really good at in high school was blending in and not being conspicuous. And as far as I know, the only photographic evidence, on the wall of my school of me being there, is in the giant photos they have of each graduating class since way back when bow ties were in.

    Also, I graduated in the mid 80’s, so everybody had bad hair.

  26. So you are such a genius that the school has you on their walls for an eternity?? I think that’s amazing!! I’m jealous.

  27. Carrie says:

    An English writing genius… nah… who would have thought ;) I’m glad you got your revenge though. Oh that must have felt so good! She sounded like a real wench!

    PS Your hair was amazing.

  28. Peach says:

    Ah, vindication. Jealousy. Meanness. Apathy. Procrastination. High school is NOT an experience worth repeating. But perhaps your hairstyle is. ;) Great piece, as always.

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