The first time I hugged my fifth-grade teacher at the end of the school day, I stretched out my arms and looked up at her with the wide-eyed expectancy of a little girl who hadn’t yet learned that adults aren’t always to be trusted. In turn, she gave me a perfunctory squeeze and a disapproving grunt. My dubious classmates joined in collective protest, asking her, “Why aren’t we allowed to hug you?” Our teacher responded simply: “Laura’s allowed to because she doesn’t know any better. She’s from the Midwest.”
I was, indeed, from a small town in Middle America—where blonde, blue-eyed, pigtailed little girls in overalls with Republican Party endorsements decorating their tidy yards were the rule rather than the exception, and “Oh, yah, can’t complain, don’tcha know?” was an acceptable answer to a question rather than a Sarah Palin imitation. But this became more important than I could have possibly anticipated when I first learned I was moving to the East Coast. While I certainly don’t claim that life there was all butterflies and rainbows, it did make for a rather idyllic childhood—in a Norman Rockwell, state-fairs-and-apple-pies sense.
At my little parochial school, nestled in the heart of a solidly middle-class town with a solidly middle-class world view, there weren’t any Ivy League aspirations, but there were most definitely fishing ponds. And a lot of backyard baseball games. And families with 13 children, all of whom worked as altar servers each Sunday and held free arts and crafts workshops in their barns—yes, their barns.
In other words, we were all wholesome as hell—and we liked it that way. The very worst thing you could be called—besides, perhaps, a Democrat—was not ugly, or stupid, or boring, or even lazy: It was “mean.” Popularity was determined by relative kindness, at the expense of everything else. This was both the blessing and the curse of my upbringing.
My well-meaning parents, concerned about the potential culture shock our move would inflict on me (the elderly nun from whom I took piano lessons had tearily promised to pray for us in our “time of crisis”), came up with what they considered to be the perfect compromise between our admittedly quaint background and this new, unfamiliar territory: Catholic school. But while we indeed sported the requisite uniforms and said the rosary each morning, this Catholic school was not my Catholic school. This was an old-money, Harvard-legacy, Catholic prep school. It was there that I learned about the allure of rebellion.
Being “nice” was all right, but it also got you nowhere fast. I was fascinated by the other girls who, even with their gangly seventh-grade limbs and bracketed teeth, knew how to attract attention—a fact made all the more evident by the number of my peers’ pregnancies that were surreptitiously swept under the rug before I’d figured out that I could, in fact, be an object of desire to the opposite sex—and how to get exactly what they wanted. In between summers at Martha’s Vineyard, they had learned how to name-drop, how to sit, how to smudge their eyeliner to post-coital-just-rolled-out-of-his-bed perfection, and why you should never, ever hug the teacher. They effortlessly toed the line between the barely-perceptible rolling of their pleated skirts just above the knees and demerit-worthy dress code infractions. The fact that mandatory morning prayer services and weekly confessions left them with much more to rebel against than the average well-to-do teenager rendered their carefully constructed “edginess” even sexier. This was something they seemed to have known since birth.
For most of my adolescence, I was fairly impermeable to the allure of alcohol-soaked weekends down the Shore and reckless romps with the cocky sons of Wall Street gurus from local all-male prep schools. I observed their world from a distance, like a scientist studying a poisonous plant species: I was fascinated, but I never got too close. But I couldn’t help noticing that I was evidently lacking in an area that I had apparently overlooked my entire life. “You’re just too… nice,” one classmate admitted to me. “You have no edge.” And what on earth, I wondered, was an “edge,” why was it so significant, and most important, where could I get one? In Minnesota and in my family, we were not “rebellious.” We were not “edgy.” We were ladies. We were respectable. We were… well, “nice.”
And then, as I began to contemplate what my upcoming college years would be like, it hit me: I was boring. This was the problem, and it was a problem that needed immediate and drastic attention. After all, this was Columbia University, and more important, New York City: a place where (as popular consensus would have us believe) warmth was a sort of bizarre afterthought in the midst of a whole lot of self-serving, where you could walk smack in the middle of thousands of people for hours and never make eye contact with a living human being, and where liking someone as a person was not necessarily a prerequisite for having copious amounts of sex with them. I was not going to spend my college years as the annoyingly peppy “nice” girl from the Midwest.
And so I learned to navigate the waters of that particular brand of indifference and rebellion that seems to be reserved for big-city college students, as my zeal for conformity—ironic in a world of skinny-jeaned, self-proclaimed “nonconformists”—grew. I developed the art of aloofness, retired my usual array of colorful dresses, and eliminated most emotions and exclamations from my vocabulary. I didn’t tiptoe around others’ feelings, and I didn’t burden anybody else with my own. Burgeoning attachments were discarded quickly; everything was anonymous and excruciatingly, carefully, deliberately casual, so as to never give the impression of vulnerability. I joined the masses who slunk carelessly in and out of parties and leggings and ill-fated flings. I took care to build a protective wall around my heart, and I was, so to speak, rewarded. No one called me “innocent” anymore, or a pushover, or “too nice.” It made me feel powerful. It made me feel like I couldn’t get hurt, like I’d finally gotten it.
It made me feel like a bitch. And I was, to be honest, pretty bad at it. When the makeshift wall shattered and the remnants swept away as swiftly as it had been constructed, I realized that I liked forming attachments; I liked it when things were a bit boring sometimes. Moreover, as in my Catholic schoolgirl days, the boys I generally lusted after were sweet and shy rather than obnoxiously perfect (or, as is unfortunately often the case, perfectly obnoxious), which made for admittedly lackluster romances but much less angst-ridden ones as well. I grappled with whether or not this superficial, cutthroat world that had made so many glittering promises of invulnerability and success was really the source of my struggle, or whether I’d simply lost my innocence altogether. But my own personal Achilles heel, the main problem, what it all came down to, was that—I cared. I cared a lot. I was still, at heart, wholesome as hell. Love live the pastel-colored rebellion.