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OFF THE SHELF

Off the Shelf: Fear and Loathing in High School

As she sets a story in the world of high school, a writer wonders: Should it be based on her own experience or something else entirely?

November 29, 2009|By Taffy Brodesser-Akner

If you went to my high school and weren't in attendance on the first day back from summer break -- say, you had been on vacation with your parents an extra day, or you had come down with the flu -- a rumor that you were pregnant and out getting an abortion went hastily through the locker-lined halls. In 10th grade, it happened to me (I had been sick), and, from then on, I wanted to write about a popular girl who is mistaken for pregnant by her schoolmates. The girl must hand in her homecoming crown, withdraw from student government, where she is president, and give up her football-captain/quarterback boyfriend.

Years went by, and I did become a writer -- a screenwriter, not a novelist. I wrote this story to mixed reviews. "Interesting premise," said one agent. "But not much story there." I chalked it up to the particular necessities of those who buy and produce screenplays: They need shocking, cinematic events. They need things to blow up.

I decided to write the story as a young adult novel. I have always loved and admired YA novels, as much for their alternate themes of devastation and lightheartedness as for how influential they can be in their readers' lives. I sat down to write the story and finished it in a couple of months. But before I sent it to an agent who was interested, I did something I never thought I could do: I deleted it.

See, my novel was about a popular high school girl, a vocation at which I have no experience. To describe me as unpopular is an insult to those who were chess geeks and 98-pound weaklings. I was friendless; I was hated. I spent four years eating lunch alone, sitting by myself, feeling alienated. All this time later, I am still unsure of the subtlety that separates the girls who attract from those who repel. But anyone who has experienced the narrowed eyes of someone regarding you with contempt, or understood that the two girls whispering nearby were talking about you, knows when a cause is lost. My social status was assessed immediately. From my first day at school, nobody greeted me. Nobody offered to show me around. When I asked a preppy-looking girl where chemistry was, she said, "Up your ass, loser."

The school in my screenplay and subsequent novel was not based on my school. Rather, it was inspired by high schools I had seen on TV: "My So-Called Life," where even if you weren't popular, you still had friends; "Beverly Hills, 90210," in which you were in or you were out, but you were never alone. Popular kids were at the top of the mountain, surely, but the unpopular kids at least had one another. These schools on TV were so big that, like a city, there were endless people to befriend. The drama kids don't like you? Go hang out with the field hockey team. Banished from student government? The newspaper always has openings.

In my story, the girl who is shunned ends up isolated, and she goes through school, cut off at the knees, looking for a place to integrate. In the high school I invented, there was opportunity for forgiveness, for reinvention.

My own school lacked these opportunities. There were only 91 of us, and we were long on memory and short on humor. Girls like me got the Carrie treatment: There was the shy girl who found someone else's used tampon in her purse. There was the fat girl who learned that someone had put oil into her Slim-Fast shake only after she had ingested it. But unlike in popular entertainment, where the nerds band together, we losers avoided each other. The only thing worse than being loathed was confirming your lack of stature by hanging out with those who shared your social reflection in the mirror.

In my novel, I envisioned that my popular alter ego would fall from grace and find that she had one true friend. In real life, I didn't have one friend. I didn't go on school trips, because I had no one to sit with; I lived in fear and anxiety of where I would sit the moment the bus set in motion. At times like that, even those who were as reviled as I was would pretend someone else was sitting in their seats so that they wouldn't suffer the humiliation of my sitting next to them.

There was not a day I didn't count how many minutes were left until college. There was not a moment I didn't want to be swallowed up by my desk. Going home offered no relief. I developed stomach problems, and I would sit in the bathroom for hours each evening. Summers weren't a help, either; they were backward-counting clocks to the first day of school.

There was one thing in my novel that rang true. In it, the mother of the popular girl says, "Kids can be cruel. They say that girls will be girls." When I wrote that, I was besieged by a memory: I am 14, sitting on the toilet, writhing in pain from a nervous stomach that won't relent. My mother has just told me the same thing. As I hunched over, I made a promise: No matter what, I would never ever forget how bad this was.

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