Illustration by Flynn Bryan.
Middle school is a strange time; the confusing purgatory between elementary and high school— where one enters as a doe-eyed child, endures a few years of feeling through a whole new world of social structures and conventions in this bizarre limbo, and stumbles out on the other side a capital-t Teenager.
It is a bridge between early afternoons spent on the playground playing freeze tag and late nights spent smoking your dad’s cigarettes in the back of your friend’s used Camry en route to a basement party— or whatever other respective tropes you may choose to apply to realms of childhood and adolescence.
As with many people, middle school was a very formative part of my life. Over the course of those three crucial years, I tried on identities, aesthetics, and interests; some would stick with me for years to come, and others would either fade or be shamefully buried where (hopefully) nobody will ever see them again.
After five years at a public elementary school (and before four more at a public high school), I attended Catholic school for a strange, almost surreal three years. This brief lull in my time spent in the American public education system added to the hazy liminality of those awkward preteen years. I never felt like I belonged at Catholic school. In fact, I hated it. In hindsight, it could’ve been way worse, but at the time, I was overdramatic, insecure, and determined to distance myself from the upper-middle class and almost entirely white and Christian student body.
As if being one of only a few non-white students in my grade— and, at the time, (probably) the only non-Christian student— wasn’t enough to assert my inflated air of individuality, I was determined to be as counterculture and edgy as I could reasonably get away with.
My generally tolerant parents and access to the internet exposed me to bands like My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy. I was entranced by the dark clothing and edgy makeup, and melodramatic poetics of these musicians. The waning emo subculture of the late 2000’s was the exact opposite of my preppy, Lilly Pulitzer-wearing peers from whom I longed to distance myself. I saw the alternative aesthetic as a jumping-off point for my budding identity. I was infatuated with the sensitive, angsty boys in eyeliner and tight jeans, as well as the quirky, colorful girls with intimidating amounts of piercings and hair teased up like lions’ manes.
They were different, and visually striking. I wanted to be them. I took advantage of loopholes in the strict dress code. I was frequently scolded for donning clumsy raccoon eyes and gaudy drugstore lipstick. At one point, I subtly darkened my already-brunette hair with stolen black dye and wore it cropped short in a shaggy, spiky hairstyle. I found satisfaction in telling myself that this androgynous cut was probably envied by the boys, who couldn’t sport hair longer than about three inches. It seems silly in hindsight, but it made me feel rebellious— like I was going against the ever-present gender roles that we were already learning to succumb to at that tender age.
It’s difficult to feel like you have control over your appearance when every scrap of fabric on your body is meticulously dictated by a rulebook and micromanaging teachers who are on the lookout for contraband patterned socks or wrinkled skirts. When you’re a twelve year old girl and just starting to learn that your worth is often determined by the way you meet conventional beauty standards, control and autonomy are crucial.
I often felt completely powerless over my physical self. I struggled with body image, self harm, and intermittent periods of disordered eating. As trivial as it may sound, the only healthy form of control I ever felt like I had over my appearance was when I would get home from school, swap out my starchy uniform for graphic band shirts and paint my face with Hot Topic glitter eyeliner in the bathroom mirror just to see how it would look.
The aesthetic aspects of the emo subculture were an important early stepping stone in my journey to feeling comfortable with myself, but the music itself had a profound effect on me as a young girl. It was darkness, and an acknowledgement of all the nasty bits of the world I was just learning to deal with as a moody, anxious preteen, but it was also light and energetic in a way. The songs were often punchy and fun to sing along to, but they were also an outlet for negativity, and a discussion of difficult topics like mental illness, death, and loss. There was a certain duality to the music that made me feel like I could accept all the things that troubled me about my family and myself and the world without feeling hopeless.
I stayed up late at night listening to albums like Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge and From Under the Cork Tree, scribbled the lyrics in my notebooks, and obsessively tracked tours and album releases through the fanatical LiveJournal communities I frequented. I was obsessed. I had difficulty paying attention during weekly Mass, and never found much comfort in the prayer services at school, but I think that I found a similar sense of safety and belonging in the bands I fawned over. The music was something larger than myself, something that made my heart flutter with the first few chords of a song.
My interests seemed silly to so many people, like the music I loved so much was nothing more than a petty phase, a grasp at a controversial label to draw attention to myself from wary parents and teachers. But it was important to me. It was what I needed. There were times when I felt lost, dirty, scared, alone, and like I couldn’t see myself living to my freshman year of high school, let alone adulthood and the real world. However saccharine and cringingly melodramatic the lyrics may have been, there was something about scrawling lines like “I know the world’s a broken bone/but melt your headaches, call it home” in my journals that was infinitely reassuring to me.
I’m almost an adult now, and while I still feel butterflies in my chest listening to “Grand Theft Autumn” by Fall Out Boy, I mostly pride myself on maturing and leaving my middle school self behind. The particular genre of music I once found refuge in has started to fade into oblivion, and that counterculture style has become passe and outdated. LiveJournal followed the Myspace route and became an obsolete platform. If knee-high Converse were ever acceptable to wear in any situation, they certainly aren’t now. These days Hot Topic specializes in meme t-shirts and anime paraphernalia. Middle schoolers in 2015 probably have a whole new bands, or TV shows, or books, or celebrities to obsess over while their parents cluck their tongues and tell them they’re wasting their time.
It’s easy to laugh at sixth grade girls planting lipgloss kisses on the Harry Styles posters on their walls, or those nerdy kids who’ve happily read the entire Hunger Games series three times over, but it’s important to remember that middle school can be hellish. When you’re twelve years old and find yourself being hurled into the terrifying world of adolescence, having something that makes you feel excited to be alive, no matter how small it may seem, is a saving grace for so many kids. I’m happy that those awkward years are long behind me, but I can’t help but look back fondly on my beautifully cringeworthy middle school self, misguided fashion choices and all.