1976 – 1982
The area was full of newly rich people, very status concious and very conservative. At the time the ‘preppy look’ was ‘in’ and it was not just the look – but how much you paid to get it that counted. Only some brands were socially acceptable. Boat shoes were de-riguer, but not just any – they had to be Sperry Topsiders.
Polo shirts were ‘in’ but not just any – they had to be Izod LaCoste or Ralph Lauren or you were not ‘cool’. If yours looked similar but came from a cheap store, you might as well wear a paper bag on your head. Jeans had to be Levis 501 button fly or Calvin Kleins. That was it. Wool Shetland sweaters with turtlenecks or oxford shirts with dumbass designs like small whales or hearts made me want to gag but I wore them in my freshman year in an attempt to fit in.
Girls at my school would actually turn over your collar and check the label on your shirt (if it was not a brand with a logo already pasted on the front) before deciding whether or not to compliment you. Only the expensive name brands. Which were more than we could afford. So I then never fit in with looks, or clothes. I was told that other years were not as bad as my year, and truly my brother and sister did not seem to have the same issues I did.
I had teachers keep me after class to apologize at what I hard time I was having, and to assure me it was not like this everywhere, and that this was the worst class year they’d seen come through. The teachers were great, and the level of education was very good, which was the saving grace of the Forest Hills school district (especially compared to the Delta Mills school in Lansing, which was my first experience of Michigan).
To escape from the lack of social life at school I spent my time on long walks in the woods, reading about Indian ways and survival in nature, obsessively reading about horses and later riding horses (but even then, I could not afford to buy one – I took lessons each Saturday), listening to David Bowie, punk and new wave music, becoming more left-wing and reading books like The Anarchists Cookbook, and constantly, constantly writing stories and making drawing and as well as making up elaborate fantasies in my head of ways to escape from Ada – first as I rode the school bus each day and later as I worked at the first of my many wage-slave jobs – the fabulous Coneland (now no longer in existence). From my job at Coneland I was able to save up to buy a horse, and that was another good escape, but at the same time a hardship as I had to work long hours to pay for the boarding stable and thus had less time to ride.
I also got a job (due to excellence in English) as a student intern at the Grand Rapids Press – my first foray into journalism. I did record reviews and small articles on subjects that affected youth. The record reviews were great, and my chance to really dig into the new music that I loved. I also started to realize just how much control editors had over the content of your news stories, and how they would even change sentences around and manipulate things to change the whole slant of a story – into something it was not. Hmmm. That started me thinking of all the news stories I’d ever read, and how they must have first passed through the filter of the reporter, and secondly through the filter of the editor before seeing the light of day.
In high school I changed the spelling of my first name, so that I would be more memorable since there were already 4 people in my class with the same first name. It hurt my mother’s feelings, but for me it was also a way to separate from the identity that others in school had given me and to re-invent myself and my personae. I briefly tried speed, in an effort to keep up with my two jobs, school and horse riding.
Taking cues from the punk revolution I’d started to follow, I became rebellious and stopped trying to fit in at school, realizing that if I pretended I did not care, it was the same effect as truly not caring. If I pretended to be self-confident, others looked at me as if I was. It was a new found power, and I was able to disarm the girls who’d teased me, even embarassing them in class with my responses to their banter.
Eventually I carved out a personae for myself amongst my peers at school by my unabashed sense of uniqueness and outspoken opinions (it was also 99% Republican and very conservative) as well as by my intelligence (despite the lack of a typical social life, I did very well in school). I graduated wearing green spiked hair and a bright red not quite dress with safety pins for earrings. I still had no true friends, but at least I’d kept my self respect and started to see what kind of power an image could have on those who percieved you.
My senior year of school and the summer after graduation, I managed to find the only haven in Grand Rapids for punks or new wavers. It was very a small scene, and centered around the UICA (Urban Institute for Contemporary Art), The White Rabbit club (which we punks and new wavers shared with the gays in town) and a Polish music hall which the local bands like Nice Lawn and Gina and the Modern Men used as a place to play. For a short time one of the old movie theatres in town started to book concerts, and there I saw X and The Clash.
I was taken under the wing of a girl musician 8 years my senior in a local band whose first words to me were ‘I like you, you’re cool – let’s hang out.’ Which we did for the whole summer. She brought me to visit other local artists and musicians in towns, and we went to rock shows together. And I am still friends with her today. It was in this small scene that I found that I was attractive and found my first friends, and realized that in fact it was simply the boorish new money snobbery of my high school’s families that caused the strange behavior of my peers – that I was in fact perfectly capable of finding others like me and forming friendships. A strange thing to discover finally at the age of 17.