Fitting In and Why We Love Losers

Everybody has their own personal horror story from high school. In Hollywood and in literature, "geek" is almost its own genre. Contributors to the new book, When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School share their stories of desperately trying to fit in.

Guests:

John McNally writer, most recent novel is America's Report Card; editor of the book When I was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School

Julianna Baggott, writer, author of the best-selling novel Girl Talk; co-author most recently of the book Which Brings Me To You: A Novel of Confessions contributed essay for the book, "When I Was a Loser"

Paul Weitz, director of films including American Pie and About a Boy

Excerpt: 'When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School'

I knew a kid in high school — let's call him Bill — who couldn't catch a break. At the annual high school theater festival, Bill ran up behind a girl he thought he knew and put his hands over her eyes, only to realize (too late) that she wasn't the girl he thought she was. The girl — this perfect stranger whose eyes he covered — took offense, and so her boyfriend, who'd been standing nearby, decided to do what dumb guys do best: He pummeled Bill.

Another time, while Bill and I trailed behind a cute girl in our high school, Bill decided to imitate the quirky way she walked. What he failed to notice was that she was facing a large plate-glass window that reflected everything happening behind her. She saw Bill, quickly spun around, and flipped him the bird. "S—- head!" she yelled.

Yet another time, Bill sent a cassette tape to my girlfriend, in which he confessed a variety of mushy feelings he had for her. My girlfriend brought it over to my house one night and played it for me. Instead of letting it be — I was the one with the girlfriend, after all — I decided to remix the tape, using my crude stereo equipment, so that Bill would stop speaking in the middle of sentences to repeat the sappy things he'd said, sometimes repeating them three or four times in a row, sometimes even stuttering them (my doing, of course). Oh, yes, I was a hilarious guy all right. My girlfriend didn't think so, but my friends did.

My point? For starters, "loserdom" is a moveable feast. Bill, who already had a long and glorious history as a loser, appears to be the obvious loser when he sends the cheesy tape to my girlfriend. But then my girlfriend exhibits some loser qualities of her own by playing the tape for me. By story's end, however, the biggest loser turns out to be yours truly. I took this poor kid's heartfelt sentiment and turned it into a personal (and cruel) joke. As fate would have it, though, I got my comeuppance. A few months later, after breaking up with me, my girlfriend attended the next big dance with Bill, leaving me alone with my cleverly edited cassette tape, a tape that was curiously no longer all that funny. The joke was on me. And it was a good joke, too. There's nothing like love's reversal of fortunes to really drive the stake through one's heart.

My other point? We've all been losers. Come on, admit it: You were a loser. You wouldn't be reading this book if you weren't. But you also probably know the truth, that everyone has been a loser at one time or another — a loser in love, a loser in fashion, a loser in social skills.

It's not so bad when you're an adult. You come to accept your loser qualities, whatever they may be. And the loser moments aren't quite as horrific as they would have been when you were a teenager. One of the reasons it's not so bad is because you've found other losers to commiserate with. The only adults who cling to the idea that such a thing as cool actually exists are those middle-ages guys with toupees who drive convertibles, and we all know what

those guys really are, right? Losers!

High school, however, is different. Cool isn't an illusion. Cool is the Holy Grail. Cool is what everyone is trying (but failing) to attain. And it's inside that bubble of adolescence — where everyone holds up their magnifying glass to you — that being a loser takes on a whole new meaning. Every perceived defect, every blemish, every wrong word ... it's all being monitored and analyzed by everyone at all times. Adolescence is the first Homeland Security: Big Brother (in the form of your classmates and, perhaps, your actual big brother) keeps a never-blinking eye trained on you. In response, you're always looking at yourself in the mirror; you're always self-conscious to the point of paranoia. That's high school.

The irony is that we love our losers in literature and film. Holden Caulfield? Loser! Napoleon Dynamite? Big Loser! Why do we love them so? Maybe we see bits and pieces of ourselves in them, even if they're more charming, more daring, or funnier than we'll ever be. It's probably for this reason that we love to see celebrities' yearbook photos. We look for their zits, their bad teeth, their terrible hairdos. The photos don't lie: What they reveal is that famous people are no different than us. And so these grainy high school mugshots confirm what we have suspected all along, that all the beautiful people were once losers, too! (Or so we'd like to believe, anyway.)

The long and short of it is that loserdom is perfectly fine so long as we're not the brunt of it. If we have some distance, we may even be able to laugh at our own former loser selves. Maybe. But we can certainly laugh at, or feel empathy with, or cry for other people who've gone through (and survived) those days. Hence, this book. I gave this sample directive to a handful of writers: Write a personal essay about being a loser in high school. I didn't set any other parameters for the subject. I didn't restrict their definition of "loser." What I got back was a rich selection of essays that stretch across the emotional spectrum. Many are quite funny — a few, in fact, are howlingly funny — but some are heartbreaking. You'll read about crushes, cliques, ditching school, bad hair, being an outsider, summer vacations, and religious epiphanies. Will Clarke gives us a peek into his use of subliminal advertising when he ran for student council treasurer. Julianna Baggott suffers the ultimate humiliation in front of her boyfriend at the hands of her sister. Hell, even Zza Zza Gabor makes an appearance, showing up unexpectedly at Tod Goldberg's house. (No, really, she does.)

This book is a testament to our will to survive, to keep on chugging despite having suffered the worst of humiliations, some of which may now seem downright ridiculous, some of which are as serious as they come. And so I dedicate this book to all losers everywhere, past and present. Take comfort, I say. You're not alone!

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