When I was 14 my parents decided to move from California to Utah. It was basically the most devastating thing they could have done in my teenage mind. I was just about to start high school. I finally had friends. I was excited for my life. And then they go and pull it right out from under me.
To make matters worse, many school districts in Utah keep 9th graders in junior high. Yes, I had to go BACK to junior high for another whole year. According to me, it was the end of my life.
I remember going to that claustrophobic building to register. Schools in California are open, the halls are outside instead of boxed-in and drenched in fluorescent light. I sat in the office choosing classes, while a mob of students ate in the dark, cramped commons. I watched them with their weird hair styles and clothing, wondering how I was ever going to fit in. It took me forever just to find my old friends—and now I'd have to do it all over again.
I started school the next week. In each class I had to hand my schedule to the teacher and explain that I was new, which was embarrassing enough. Some teachers then made me introduce myself. I didn't like those teachers.
Fourth period was the strangest because I had Seminary. In California, mormons attended Seminary early in the morning before school, but in Utah there are so many mormons that they have it during school. There was a Seminary building just off the school campus, and as I headed up there I couldn't help but wonder what I'd face.
My teacher was this nice, very tall man named Brother Brown. Instead of introducing me to the class, he did something really weird. To this day I still wonder what he was thinking.
"Gabe," he called.
A guy looked up from his desk, and my stomach went to my toes. He had popular written all over his dimpled smile and fancy clothes. "Yes, Brother Brown?"
"This is Natalie. She's fresh in from California. Will you make sure she feels comfortable here?"
Gabe smiled wide, looking at me in a way I was not accustomed to being looked at by popular boys. "Sure."
Brother Brown pointed me to a desk. "You sit there next to Gabe. He'll take care of you."
I did as I was told, but I couldn't quite grasp what was going on. Was it not obvious that pairing me with Gabe was wrong? Did I not look like the nerd I clearly was in California? Or maybe this was some kind of act of mercy. Maybe Brother Brown could tell I was a huge dork and he was trying to turn me into a charity case.
Gabe leaned over. "So you're from Cali? Bet you spent all day on the beaches."
"Um, I lived in Northern California, surrounded by corn. And I don't like the beach."
"Oh, so what do you like?" he continued.
He gave me this funny look, which I expected. "Like Pokémon?"
"No, well, Pokémon is fine but there's way cooler anime out there. Like Dragonball Z—that's hecca tight."
My cheeks felt too warm. "Oh, never mind."
Obviously I didn't know how to talk to cute guys who were just trying to be nice. All I wanted was for him to turn back to the front, that way I could focus on my notes and stop my heart from frantically fluttering at my ribcage.
This was so stupid. Why did Brother Brown do this to me? And why did I have to totally blow it by sounding like a dork? I hated to admit that part of me wanted to impress Gabe. I wasn't supposed to care about the popular kids—I was an independent, punk anime chick who looked down on popular culture. At least I was in California. I didn't know who I was in Utah. Was I supposed to be popular here?
When the bell rang, I packed up my stuff, dreading lunch. I didn't know where to sit or who I would sit with. I figured maybe I would go by my locker, since I brought my lunch anyway.
"Hey Natalie, do you want to eat lunch with me and my friends?" Gabe said.
I froze. Could this actually be happening? This was starting to sound way too much like a Disney movie. Was I supposed to be the loser Cinderella waiting to transform into someone cool and accepted? "Uh, sure."
Gabe took me to the cafeteria, where he introduced me to some of his friends. The boys were all on the basketball team. And the girls were either dancers or cheerleaders. Or both. They were all beautiful and thin. They talked about sports while the girls ate their salads without dressing.
They were nice to me. They really were, even if they obviously thought my interests were strange. The girls didn't do that evil glare, like I was invading their space. The boys didn't make fun of me. In fact, I'd face worse treatment from other crowds than I ever got from them.
As I sat there, I could see how easy it would be to be like they were. I could start eating salads and learn about sports. I could paint my nails and take off my upper ear clasp. I could dress like them. I could take dance and meld in just fine.
And yet I couldn't. The thought of giving up what I had made me feel sick inside. I couldn't spend the next four years of my life pretending I liked that stuff. Not that it was bad stuff, but it wasn't me. So I stood up early, and they asked where I was going.
"Oh, I need to get something from my locker," I said. "I'll be right back."
I didn't go back. I sat by my locker and finished my lunch by myself. But I didn't feel bad or lonely or crazy from walking away from such a group. I felt like myself again, like I could breathe. I decided that day that I'd wait to find a place I felt like I fit in, a group where I didn't feel like I had to change myself to belong.
As I've grown, I've often wondered if "nerds" are just people who are incapable of being anyone but themselves. I paid for it sometimes, but never having to pretend has been worth it. I know the people who like me actually like the real me, and I never have to wonder if people see through my cover since I don't have one. I've found many kindred spirits over the years, and I'm so glad I waited to find them. I could never hide myself—I never wanted to.