Do you remember your first day of school?
I do. I was 17 years old.
I recall clutching the navy blue backpack secured around my shoulders like a life vest. Before that day, I’d been homeschooled my entire life. I hadn’t even attended the first grade.
As a Homeschooler, I was curious about traditional school and sometimes wondered if I was “missing out.” School was a rite of passage, I’d heard people say. My neighborhood friends all went to school, and they seemed to be part of a special club. I wanted in. As a Homeschooler, I was different. I stood out. At 17, I wanted what all teenagers want: to fit in.
After months of working to persuade them, I finally convinced my parents to enroll me in a public high school. I enrolled in five classes in the high school’s honors program for the last semester of senior year. I stepped into a public school at 17 years old for the first time in my life.
I was going to be a “Schooler,” as we Homeschoolers called them — a title shared by most American kids but one that was strange and unfamiliar to me and my family. I had a mother who authored books on the subject of homeschooling, and two sisters who had never set foot in a public school, either. My family could not fathom why I would trade in my unschooling life of travel, adventure and following my passions so I could sit in a classroom every day and be inundated with standardized tests and required reading. To them, I was doing the unthinkable.
While most teenagers rebelled against their parents by partying or misbehaving, my form of rebellion was insisting I go to school.
Winning at the conformity game (but losing at life)
My first day of school was a blur of new faces and new rules. I aimed to fit in, to get the entire high school experience. I felt that by homeschooling me, my parents were determined that I be different from all my peers. I was determined to be the same. I became a typical schooler. I complained about tests and the material I was forced to learn. I went to parties. I went to prom. I became friends with the people who threw the ‘cool’ parties, the people who the other kids deemed cool — those, I later realized, who succeeded best at conformity. Yet I noticed that whether labeled ‘cool’ or not, everyone around me tried on some level to be liked. I wasn’t the only one: everyone at school was worried about fitting in.
By the end of my brief semester, I had accomplished what I’d set out to do: I fit in. While in the beginning I was known to most of my classmates simply as “The Homeschooled Girl” (as if I had walked right out of the Mean Girls script), by graduation I was one of them.
At our high school graduation I was surrounded by friends and clothed in the same red cap and gown as the rest of them. I had successfully conformed. I no longer felt different or like the weird kid out. In fact, someone I knew joked I’d made more friends in four months of high school than most kids do in four years. It had been so easy to get everything I thought I wanted out of high school. But when I threw my graduation cap off along with everyone else, I realized something:
I was miserable. I had lost myself.
High school inherently creates a culture of conformity, a game of “who can be most liked,” and I had played to win. I had focused so much on going along with the crowd that I hadn’t bothered to stop and ask, “Who am I really? And more importantly, should I even care if people don’t like who that is?”
My brief, single semester of public high school ended up teaching me the most valuable thing I now know: never try to fit in. Strive to not fit in. Don’t be anyone but yourself. As humans, we have a deep desire to connect, to belong, and this is natural. But too often we try to fit in so much that we lose ourselves in the process.
What really matters
Today I have the opposite outlook I did at 17. I know that I hardly ever fit in.
I embrace this. I love this about myself. I’ve seen myself consciously conform to other people’s norms — now I consciously try to be me. I fight fiercely against anyone or anything that attempts to alter me or make me anything besides me. In my teenage years when I was told that I was different from everyone else, I hated it. Now when I’m told this I take it as the compliment it is.
When I say never fit in, I don’t mean to aim to stand out. Just aim to be you. And inevitably, when you are utterly yourself, you will stand out. You notice that sometimes everyone else says yes to something when you say no, or vice versa. You realize that what other people say, do and think is their truth, but not yours. At 17, I was looking for answers in everything outside of myself — at school or otherwise — while now I know the answers I needed have been here all along, within me.
By homeschooling me, my parents gave me a gift: a haven in which I was free to grow and fearlessly discover who I was without the judgement or influence of my peers. Freed from societal norms and unencumbered by the pressure to conform, homeschooling gives young people a nurturing place to allow them to explore and find their true selves.
Long past are the days when I wondered whether I was missing out on something everyone else is doing. By making myself a Schooler, I learned the only experience we should fear missing out on is the experience of discovering who we really are.
I love not fitting in.
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