I was in my car the other day with my family. I’d forgotten my ear buds, and so, while my husband and kids retreated to their own worlds, attached to their media through the wires coming out of the cartilage on the sides of their heads, I listened to my audio book on the car’s stereo system. All good so far. I was enjoying Lover Unbound, book four in JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. This offering is about Vishous, son of the Bloodletter, and doesn’t that name just make you want to run screaming from the room?  On top of that, poor guy had a difficult childhood (his father’s name probably gave you the first clue about that), and he’s got some serious psychological issues and a complicated sexuality. So, here I was, driving in the car, listening to my beloved BDB and knitting a baby blanket for a friend who gave birth five months ago (I knit–and I know—seems totally incongruous with everything you think you know about me. But don’t worry, I also have a hang gliding license, so my street cred should remain intact). Anyway… I’m tooling along when one of JR Ward’s famous, scorching, explicit sex scenes begins—over the stereo system. Oops. As I fumbled to turn the damn volume down, wildly glancing back at my teenaged sons, I realized no one was paying any attention. So, I did what any book addict would do: continued listening while laughing to myself at the ridiculous situation. I decided to file the whole thing in my “Problems I never thought I’d have” drawer.

You probably won’t be surprised to know that all of the above has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of today’s post. I just wanted to share. The subject is about being social, popular and attractive in our youth—or not—and how that experience affects our characters and our lives into adulthood. In Lover Unbound, Vishous’ mate, Jane, is a serious sort—a gifted, human surgeon who is brilliant but somewhat plain. She was definitely not part of the in-crowd as a girl.  I love it when authors make the love interests of spectacular alpha males less that heart-stoppingly beautiful. It gives hope to the rest of us and soothes the tight, hurt places in my inner child who was never in the popular crowd and always wanted to be.

Not being included in the A-group throughout my elementary, middle and high school years definitely left its mark on me and, I have to assume, countless others. Even when we were not bullied, the fact remains that those of us who watched the beautiful people from the outside in were negatively impacted by default. No one likes to feel excluded. Especially when that which we are being excluded from looks so amazingly fun, exciting, vibrant and attractive–as the life it represents pulls us like a moth to a flame—only to have us butt up against the invisible wall that separates us from the popular people—while simultaneously allowing us to see in and understand exactly what we are missing. Bummer all around. 

I know I’m not the only one who felt this way, as I had friends who were in exactly the same boat. And until we all learned to accept ourselves, our friends and our social position in the highly-defined hierarchy that is high school, which would put the most disciplined military unit to shame—no fraternizing there—most of us were left feeling like there was something about ourselves that was inherently insufficient.

So, what to do with all of this angst as a newly minted teenager just learning how to fit into the world? For people like me and Jane in Ms. Ward’s book, we retreated into our fortresses and made sure to bar the doors behind us. For each individual, that fortress is different—it could be one’s art, or a physical gift, like dancing or gymnastics, for example. For me, like Jane, it was my intellect, which never let me down, and which made me powerful and lent me strength to resist the messages of inadequacy that not being popular caused me to play in an endless loop in my head. I retreated to my books and my studies and made sure I was the smartest of them all.

Like Jane with a scalpel in her hand, my brain made me strong and confident, and allowed me to accept that while I wasn’t beautiful, I was worthy in another, more lasting way. And because I am human, I worked hard to talk myself into the proposition that being smart was superior to being pretty. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I ever quite believed my own mental patter when I was younger and it mattered most.

And while the pain of being snubbed was difficult, I can look back now with gratitude that because I had fewer social opportunities, I was able to focus all of my attention on my schoolwork and the development of my cognitive and intellectual skills. These skills have served me well in life, but they are also the bricks I use to wall myself off from people and social situations that represent any danger of taking me back to feeling like that sad teenager who wasn’t going to get asked to the prom by anyone at my school.  But don’t feel too sorry for me—I I took myself right out of the running for the attention of the boys my age—who weren’t interested—and got myself a date with an older gentleman—much older—to escort me to my prom and cause a scandal at the same time—so take THAT, all of you beautiful people!  My date was the only one who could legally buy booze, too, so we were a very popular couple, nah, nah.

So what is my point, beyond a trip down memory lane to a difficult time in my life?  The point is one that Bill Gates made a couple of decades ago. Beauty and physical prowess fade. Intelligence only grows over time and becomes more powerful. It’s not the meek who shall inherit the earth, it’s the freaks and the geeks. I wish I could go back to my teenaged self and tell her, “Don’t worry—it’s all going to be good. Your teenaged nemesis is going to grow up and be a one-hit wonder on the screen, and you’re going to have a life beyond your wildest dreams.”  I might have understood that better if I’d been able to read about Jane and Vishous when I was younger. Unfortunately, Ms. Ward started publishing her amazing novels relatively late in life–hers and mine. But, to all the girls and boys who now have their noses pressed to that invisible wall, I say, take heart. Those folks on the inside will be working for you some day

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