At last it’s finally over
Couldn’t take this town much longer
Being half dead wasn’t what I planned to be
Now I’m ready to be free
— “The Taste of Ink” by The Used
A tight-knit community is heaven if you fit in. It’s hell if you don’t.
I know, because I spent the last 7 years seeing the same 100 or so people every day. Before I came to TCNJ, I went to a high school with a total student population of 500; the sole public high school in my humdrum, quiet town.
And I won’t lie: in many ways, I’ve had it easy — many kids did, at this place. Perhaps, it was our privilege, and our comfort in familiarity, that made this place so suffocating. We were sheltered, caught up in our little bubble. At the same time we beat ourselves up, in pursuit of conformity, which we equated with perfection; perfection, with superiority.
Everyone in my graduating class knew one other. Some, for a longer time than another. They all knew who I was — not just my name and face, but also my pasts, my weaknesses, and my vulnerabilities, real or rumored. I bet that most of them didn’t really know me, because my reputation had deterred them. Being an outcast may seem cool on paper, but in reality, it’s humiliating.
My classmates and I got off on the wrong foot, when I began badgering them in sixth grade. Just like any other kid beginning middle school, I was eager to make new friends. But it didn’t go as planned. I was born with a disability, which caused me to lag behind emotionally throughout my childhood and the majority of my adolescence. At that time I was too young to understand; I thought my disability wasn’t that big of a deal, and that I simply needed a long overdue it-girl makeover. All I had to do was act more like the popular girls in movies, then poof! all the obstacles facing me would disappear. And so I swayed my hips, flipped my hair, and started my sentences with “Oh my gosh!” and “Literally” and hoped to God that I was going to make it.
Barring my gawky impersonation of an it-girl, I was anything but. I was a certified goody two-shoes. I knew absolutely nothing about pop culture — other than that Kidz Bop cover of California Gurls I had on my iPod — and my mom bought my clothes from the kids’ section at Old Navy. Cherry on top, I had a unibrow, buck teeth, and a pretty bad speech impediment.
Seventh grade struck some sense in me. I got my head out of the clouds and started to pay more attention to everyday, real-life interactions. I began to come to terms with my disability, and I discovered my passion for writing. My newfound insight was accompanied by the stinging realization that I was being treated differently. I could see that the kids at school, including so-called “friends”, talked down to me, as if I was beneath them — and it was getting worse. I started fighting back. I was done being the stupid, naive, special girl that they could walk over, when they get sick of grudgingly babying. I started saying no, please stop, that’s not cool. I made a lot of enemies because of this. The rising tension culminated in an incident at the end of eighth grade where a girl created a Tumblr account under my name to spread lies about me. My school’s guidance department dropped the ball on me, and I never got to clear my name.
I feel silly for it, but I sometimes wonder if my blemished reputation from seventh grade carried over to ninth grade. High school surely wasn’t any easier when it came to fitting in. Don’t get me wrong — I had a few close friends, and I still keep in touch with many of them. I’ll always be grateful for them. But most of my classmates didn’t know what to do with me. Being a loner made me cling hard onto the few and far between people that were accepting. I ruined friendships, because I was very demanding.
I tried to seize control over my narrative through posting on social media. Desperate to be heard, I would broadcast every minutiae of my daily life and every half-baked opinion I had in my noggin, often using ostentatious words. The next day, I would feel mortified, and I would write aggressively self-deprecating captions, or do a 180 and post the randomest things I could think of, as if that would somehow neutralize my scalding embarrassment. I’m sure everyone found my antics insufferable, exhaustingly so. But I kept digging a deeper and deeper hole for myself. Maybe I wanted to be insufferable instead of inept, like everyone seemed to think I was. But I only became insufferable and inept.
And the funniest part? In junior year, I wrote an op-ed about how social media helped me and submitted it to a contest. Apparently, enough people found my spiel interesting, and I won! In retrospect, I recognize that my editorial reflected what I wished what social media did for me, more than it reflected what social media did for me at that time.
That sums up my late teens, pretty much. I saw life through a split screen: the life I wanted to live and the life I was living at the moment. I’m sure it’s common for a teenager, or any human for that matter, to feel this way… My social woes only compounded the nagging feeling of disconnect.
As graduation approached, I began to mentally prepare myself for a new chapter of my life. I hoped I wasn’t going to totally blow it. Everyone told me not to worry.
“People are more accepting in college,” said my best friend, Kayla, who is 3 years above me.
“I can’t wait for you to go to college,” my therapist murmured.
“Many people find college easier, socially,” my teachers advised.
Then, all of a sudden, COVID-19 struck. In a blink of an eye, everything changed. My school went on lockdown. I wasn’t too upset about staying home; I didn’t particularly enjoy my classes, and I wasn’t planning to attend Prom, or the after-graduation party. This was in 2020 — I didn’t know that the pandemic would last indefinitely.
My freshman year, a.k.a the year of Zoom University, was filled with ambivalence and ambiguity. For the most part, I kept my head down and rode it out. I was a pro at doing that, after all. But sometimes, I would have moments that jolted me out of autopilot and — for a second or an hour — brought my foot back to the ground.
These moments grew in frequency in second semester, when I began my role as publicist for Breaking Down Barriers, a student organization dedicated to disability advocacy. The entire eboard welcomed me with open arms. I really clicked with Natasha, the VP. She was talkative like me, and sassy in the best way. She was also a writer, and she would read my articles and seemed to love it. The next thing we knew, we were signing up to live together, alongside 2 of her friends.
I was ecstatic when I found out that TCNJ was planning to resume in-person learning for the 2021-2022 year. That summer, I was bursting with excitement. I tortured my mom with my incessant back-to-school shopping requests and my new jingle: “I can’t wait to go to school!”
Fast forward to move-in day. I met Natasha’s friends and my new roommates, Emma and Alexis. We were all worried that our interaction would be awkward, since Natasha herself wasn’t there yet due to a flight delay, but our apprehensions melted away as we began to talk. That afternoon, we went to Eick to grab some dinner. Emma and Alexis helped me navigate the busy, crowded cafeteria. We ended up strolling around campus until 11PM.
The next few days, I tried to familiarize myself with the layout of the campus. Often, I had to stop passersby with questions: Which way is Phelps? This is the student mailroom, right? What time does Eick close? They were all glad to help, and I don’t recall a single person who became flustered or annoyed by my question.
On my third or fourth day at TCNJ, I wandered into Eick, pondering whether I should get into a long line for my lunch. I scurried towards the front of the line, trying to get a quick glimpse at the food in the chafer, but I still couldn’t make out what it was. I decided to ask a student standing nearby.
Without hesitation, she swiveled around to look at me.
“It’s pork,” she told me.
“I had it earlier — it’s so good. I definitely recommend it!” she added.
After years of being avoided like a plague, I was enthralled by a total stranger’s willingness to acknowledge me. I have found that these friendly exchanges are the norm, rather than an exception. I regularly make small talk with random people on campus. I sometimes even get their Instagram accounts. 5 weeks into campus life, I’m no longer astonished by the fact that, OMG, people want to see and hear me(!). Nonetheless, these encounters put a smile on my face, no matter what kind of day I’m having.
Conversely, I’ve been able to finally meet my online friends in person. I lost count of how many times I have exclaimed these six words: “It’s so good to see you!” Indeed, I mean it every time, every second of it. I missed talking to other humans, face-to-face. The world lurking inside my imagination so long is now coming to life, immersing me with its lively dimensions and varied hues. I always found it difficult to stay present, but I don’t have to try, when I have my friends by my side.
In my short time on campus, I’ve grown pretty close to the people that I used to sporadically DM when I studied from home. Not to mention, I have the most awesome roommates. We keep things exciting by meeting up at various campus locations, introducing other friends, and going on day trips during the weekend. The quality time I have with my friends makes up for all the sleepovers I wasn’t invited to as a kid.
Now that I’m experiencing campus life for real, I can say for sure that it’s nothing like high school.
I now know what everyone meant when they reassured me that I’ll find “my people” once I get to college. It’s true — there’s more to life than our teenage years and there’s more to the world than the towns we grew up in. Regardless of pop culture’s obsession with youth, teenagers aren’t the only ones who get to live daringly and feel fiercely.
I’m proud to be a Lion. With nearly 7000 undergraduates, over 50 majors, and over 200 organizations, you’ll meet all sorts of people. Every institution has its flaws, but the students here work tirelessly to make our campus a better place for all of us. I personally feel more seen in my differing identities. I’ve met plenty of other people who are openly disabled, by choice or by circumstance, and I no longer feel like I’m talking to a brick wall whenever I bring up this topic; many people are vocal supporters of the LGBTQ community, which gave me the courage to come out as bisexual, after years of silently grappling with my own sexuality. Not only am I able to find other people like me, I feel surrounded by accepting people, all-around. Also, it’s nice to see a wide range of hobbies, interests, and lifestyles. I’m all about bold fashion statements, including pink hair and platform Docs, and I’ve never been complimented so much!
Never for a second do I think that the positive changes in my life could simply be chalked up to meeting the “right” people. I know that I have gone through a transformation of my own.
At twenty, I know lots of things I didn’t know before. I’m kinder to myself and the people around me, no longer confusing humility with weakness, or curiosity with naivete. I began writing more intentionally (and got published on some fabulous websites!) and utilizing social media in a way I had always wished to. I have this new, confident aura, and now I’m seeing the people around me reciprocate my positive energy.
As cliche as this may sound, mindset matters. While I’ll never blame myself for others’ preconceptions or for external circumstances beyond my control, I am also learning to exercise my own agency. Every passing moment, I’m learning and growing. The new faces in college simply gave me the opportunity to leave the past behind and show up as my bettered self. What a blessing a clean slate is. I’m excited to see what else this year has in store for me.