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The chip on my shoulder

Re-encountering the mean girls of her freaky, outcast adolescence and waiting for the day when it just won't matter anymore

I’ve been told that I have a chip on my shoulder. Not once, but many, many times. Most recently I was pontificating to my mom if I should blog about the mean girls who bullied me in Jewish day school: “Get over it already, Corinne, you can’t still have a chip on your shoulder about those girls.” Granted it was about a millennium ago, but the truth is that those days of being a social outcast, taunted, teased and left out of all things rad (it was the early 90’s, people), seriously impacted me. The scars left by those catty scratches have never completely faded and remain a constant reminder of my freakness. Although now I can happily raise my glass to being wrong in all the right ways, for too many years being different was more a source of shame than pride.

Now back in my hometown for the summer, the memories of profound loneliness and isolation that marked my school years sneak in. I can’t help it. I just haven’t been able to shake off that old chip. The funny thing is that now when I visit for the summer, my kids go to the exclusive summer camp that many of my former classmates went to, the one strictly reserved for families with lakefront summer homes. Being a token scholarship student, I grew up looking at this world from the outside in like a chubby, Jewish Alice bad-tripping on the wrong side of the looking glass. I was always painfully aware of my plebian status, and I am unbelievably grateful that my parents rent a lake house in the summer and have given my kids the opportunity to water ski and kayak and tie-dye along with all the other precious mommy’s little angels. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and my kids look forward to summers at the lake all year long. They come home tanned like little brown nuts, their hair streaked with blonde and dread locked from lake swimming. They learn how to do the dougie and chant color war songs and braid friendship bracelets. Still, I can’t help but think: “Oh, so this is what everyone was doing while I was reading Rand and Camus…”

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy and confident and fulfilled, and I did go to a nice reasonably subsidized summer camp. Just not THE camp. And even now when I pull up to the Range Rover-filled parking lot to drop off my girls, my stomach instinctively tightens just a little bit. The yummy mummies behind the wheels of those gas-guzzlers are the grown-up versions of the mean girls who tortured me mercilessly. They did go to this camp. They did grow up with lakefront summer homes. They married local boys who have since gone bald and come up on the weekends with their golf clubs and five-figure speed bikes and Blackberries. They have spawned little mini-thems who go to the same private schools that I couldn’t wait to get out of and who will grow up to become exactly like their mothers. The privileged life is familiar to them, and they are familiar to one another. I know that generalizations are unfair, and I’m sure that each of these women harbor untold depths behind the toned, manicured, highlighted, yoga pant clad exteriors. But the fact remains that this is one epically bitchy clique that I have never been a part of and am still not a part of. Every morning I roll up in my mom’s sedan, blaring Radiohead, sporting beat-up flip-flops and a conspicuous hair-covering. Every morning they roll up in their pimped out rides, a carefully coordinated chorus of overpriced, activity appropriate Lululemon spandex. I am Ally Sheedy, they are Molly Ringwald.

I remember once reading an article about the low rate of eating disorders among African American women. The author believed that because the predominant Western standard of beauty is thin, white, blond and blue-eyed, African American women simply never bothered forcing themselves into a mold so far removed from their reality. The ideal is so impossible and exclusionary that they became immune to it. I have no clue if this is factually true, but the spirit of the article resonated with me. I was always an odd duck and mean girls don’t dig diversity. I was too darkly poetic, too nerdy, too poor, from the wrong neighborhood, with the wrong family structure, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong clothes. There was no point in trying. It didn’t take long before I gave up on ever fitting in and embraced being an outcast.

Ironically, the surrender to strangeness is what liberated me to freely pursue the things that have made me a happy, confident and fulfilled adult. In fact, being a freak is so constitutive of my identity that I honestly cannot imagine ever having been or ever being a popular, in-crowd kind of girl. I just don’t roll like that. My dearest friends are similarly strange, each in their own way. It’s what makes us wonderful, irreplaceable and invaluable to one other. I can’t remember us ever dressing alike, speaking alike, listening to the same music (unless the musicians were our friends) or having the same interests. Actually, we have almost nothing in common aside from shared history and loving each other. I am an Orthodox Jew, married with many children, living in Israel and an insufferable ivory tower academic. My old hometown crew takes that in stride, never blinking at my unconventional life choices. They are accommodating, supportive, unquestioning, and I am grateful to be a freak among friends. When I come back for the summer, it’s like we have never been apart. The years and distance and baby weight melt away, and we are the same seventeen year olds who met at a Violent Femmes concert so many moons ago. I am lucky to have found equally amazing friends in Israel. Women who are strong and beautiful and strange. Women who aren’t petty and don’t compete. Women who are honest and different and respect me despite my awkwardness and complete lack of verbal filtration. Women I can confide in and lean on and who let me care for them when they need the same.

So why can’t I shrug off that stubborn chip? If the cruelty of those girls is what convinced me that I would never fit in, and that certainty gave me the space to explore the boundaries of my own self, then I should be thankful for the nastiness… right? I know it’s silly to cling to the angst and hurt, and I’m sure those girls don’t even remember telling me that I was so unbearably ugly that even my own father left me, so on Monday morning when I pull up to camp, un-toned, un-manicured and un-highlighted, I will swallow that lingering bitterness caught in my throat, slap a smile on my face and tell my girls to have fun and make friends. There is no reason to make them shoulder the weight of my old lingering scars. I only hope that one morning I’ll pull up and feel no ugly tug in my belly, taste no copper flavored pain in my mouth. Until then, Chip and I will just keep flying our freak flag high. We’re in good company.

About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.