A very good question

The most poignant question me and Scott were asked at BookPeople was the following:

What advice do you have for middle school “uglies”?

We rambled on about how middle school/high school (if you’re Australian) doesn’t last forever etc etc. How we too were unhappy in 6th, 7th, 8th grade.1 But I’m not sure our answers were satisfying. And we didn’t really suggest any survival techniques.

I have been thinking about this question ever since. Do any of you have any ideas for how to survive the dark days of primary and secondary education? If so, do please share.

  1. Actually I hated all of school from kindergarten all the way to year 12. []


  1. Brent on #

    The one thing I WISH I had figured out back then was that I was basically ok. But I spent most of my junior high (7-9th) wishing I was older, better at sports, less ugly, richer, younger, from somewhere else, etc. On the plus side, it stirred my creativity since most of my stories involved guys like me that were secretly really cool. 🙂

    When I give advice to middle-schoolers, it’s basically to just be yourself. If you’re “ugly” or “weird” or whatever, revel in it. Go find others that are the same way and get to know them. Chances are they’re a darn site more interesting than the socialites.

  2. Miriam on #

    I would say, just don’t give up on yourself. I basically hid for most of my school career, (In books, under tables, etc.) but I turned out all right in the end. The worst thing you can do is go out of your way to be rude and obnoxious because you’re afraid people will leave you out anyway. (I had a friend who did that.)

    Also, develop a sense of humor as quickly as possible.

  3. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    Agree with Brent and Miriam. High school, particularly, wasn’t my favourite activity at the time, but, even at the time, I was sometimes surprised to discover that people thought better of me/others than I suspected.

    I think it’s necessary to realise that everybody is feeling just as left out and trying to hide it in different ways. Notice how often does the perceived “most popular kid in school” turns out to be fairly insecure if the friends aren’t around, for example. You understand yourself way better than anybody else, so your perception is slanted. Everybody else is just as worried as your are.

    Looking back, high school is a weird period. It’s the most significant thing we do up to that point and completely dominates our life, at the same as our bodies and brains are conspiring to bring us undone. But, a few years later on, it turns out that high school really isn’t that different from real life, we just get better at it and realise it isn’t all downside. It’s really, really hard to use that perspective somehow usefully at the time, though.

  4. Kathleen on #

    Hang out in the library so much they make you a library monitor. You will be queen of all you survey and not only morally but legally entitled – no, encouraged! – to tell annoying people to shut up. Also, you get a cool vertical watering can and can demagnetise security strips. All win.

    Also, if you can parley your way into a gifted and talented course and the teacher says, “What would you like to do?” the correct answer appeared to have been (1) “use the internet” (it was 1996 but I’d done my schooling by radio up until then, okay?) and (2)”Watch Star Wars”.

    Alternatively, see if you can get your parents to let you do school by radio. This is especially effective when your father buys you potato chips and encourages you to crackle the packet in front of the microphone and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you miss!”

  5. Bill Gathen on #

    Find one person who understands you. You only need one, because then it’s “we” instead of just “me”, and man, is that a lot better.

    Besides, nothing’s sadder than peaking in high school and ending up that guy from Napoleon Dynamite going on about the state championship football game when you’re 30. All hail the late-bloomers!

  6. lisa on #

    I don’t really consider myself a ‘survivor’ of high school. I was definitely marginalised, but I loved my books so much and was so bored with my schoolmates that I never really noticed or cared how I was perceived. As a result, I was largely left alone – ocassionally teased, occasionally admired – and spent high school feeling (relatively) content. (‘Relatively’ because as a teenager I was as angsty as they next kid.)

    Moral tale – being yourself and not worrying what other people think is the best way to survive/be happy!

  7. Lauren on #

    One of the most useful life skills a person can develop is the ability to turn off the need for approval. No matter who you are, what you look like, or how talented you are, there will be people who like you and people who don’t. You can’t change that. But you can stop needing their approval. If you are kind and decent, you will find people who are kind and decent to you. Don’t worry about the rest. You don’t need them. As for how one goes about turning off the need for approval? I say use the “fake it ’til you make it” trick. Start behaving like someone who doesn’t care what others think and eventually you will become that person. It worked for me.

  8. Justine on #

    I can vouch for Lauren having achieved this. Her zen calmness and lack of neediness is legendary. I strive to emulate her. We all should. But it is hard. I came no where near not needing approval when I was in school.

  9. Steve Buchheit on #

    Humor. Learn how to make fun of the pretty people in such a way that they also laugh (well, it was more disguising my critiquing of them, those of us “out” knew exactly what I was saying, those “in” remained clueless in the main). Also requires making fun of lots of other things to maintain cover.

  10. Stacy on #

    I survived by building an identity for myself outside of school, one that was more interesting and engaging than the dull daily grind of classes and cliques. If school is the biggest thing in your life, then the failures and pressures you experience there will also be huge.

    An activity which provides a social group outside of your school peers can be a huge help: the people you meet at a writing group, community center, film club, non-school sports team or wherever can help give some perspective on how you fit in with your school peers. Being treated well by the twenty-somethings in my dance troupe made it much easier to cope with being harassed by my classmates, because I had ongoing proof that people didn’t always treat each other so badly.

  11. AlisonG on #

    My solution was to get the heck out of school. (I was a geeky glasses-wearing introvert bookworm, which didn’t go over well in my peer group.) My parents taught me at home for those normally miserable years: Grade 6, 7 and 8. I was so thankful to be able to study what I wanted, take dance and piano lessons, and read like crazy without worrying about social yuckiness.

    When I returned to school, we picked a small high school that was much easier to handle socially than my public elementary school.

    Was I copping out? I don’t think so. I don’t believe in suffering for suffering’s sake. I was able to learn how to be friendly and self-accepting in a much more positive environment.

  12. AdrienneMV on #

    I totally agree with Stacy – having a life outside of school saved me. Sure, during school hours I was a lonely dork. But AFTER school I was a lonely dork that worked at a barn in exchange for riding lessons on an ancient horse named Woodstock who had no teeth but loved me just the way I was. Wait! That sounds a lot sadder than it actually was. At the barn, in my boots and my dad’s old coat, I was a barn rat – the only clique I ever really wanted to be a part of.

  13. Mali on #

    Try to make some friends that you have a lot in common with. That way, even if you’re doing something really nerdy – like writing a ridiculous novel involving porch swings, high heels and mysterious dark alleys during chemistry – at least you’ll have someone to share it with.

    While Lauren’s advice is excellent, and worked for me too, while you’re ‘faking it’ you need friends so that you can all be angsty together. And so that you can get SOME approval while on the path to independent thinking.

  14. Desdemona on #

    I agree with Lauren to a point. Fake it till you make it is all well and good if you’re good at acting. If you’re not, you come off as trying to hard and people talk bad about you. For me, elementary school was the epitome of suck. I had one good friend and a few others that came and went, but even she didn’t truely get me all the way. When I went to high school, I was scared because it was so much bigger, etc. but I loved it. With the new diversity, I realized that there were other people just like me. I still fake a smile, laugh at a joke I didn’t think was funny, or defend a friend even though I don’t agree with them totally because that’s what friends do for each other. So just find people you connect with and be yourself. If you try to be someone else, you’ll never be really happy.

  15. Liset on #

    I think middle school is all about finding out who you are. So my best advice would be to be fearless. Buy clothes that you think are cool, even if no one else is wearing them. Listen to all the music you can get your hands on. Read everything, and watch everything. Reinvent yourself every day!
    I know every one says you’re suppose to be “just you,” but I think that’s hard to figure out when you’re 13. So you might as well try on all kinds of crazy costumes until you have a better understanding of who you are.

  16. J on #

    I have niche advice. Not global advice, but, a fair sized group of people NEED to hear it:

    If you think you might be gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered, or anything else, even if you’re just questioning, GO FIND AN OLDER GAY PERSON. We’ve done this before. If you’re in middle school its harder, but, if you’re in early high school, trust me, we exist, and every time we look at you we think “I wish that person had someone to help him through what is, invariably, an extremely difficult realization and coming out process, but, telling them that we have suspicions of their sexuality would probably only make it worse.” We’re usually really nice people. I’ll admit, the out gays at my school when I was a freshman/sophomore were not exactly people I’d want to hang around with, but, looking at the current crop of outs at my school, we’re all people who would be happy to give help to anyone, even if we don’t know them at all or they’re only in middle school. Find someone who you trust, or might gain trust for, and let them help you through this. Even if it does turn out just to be a period of questioning (hey! guess what! lots of kids seriously question their sexuality only to turn out straight! it’s normal!), we’re proud and honored to help younger members of our community. We’ve done this before. We can help you work through your feelings, and, ultimately, help you come out and live out.

  17. Hillary! on #

    What got me through school was having at least one friend who was there for me. For a really long time I had no one, but then I had one, then two, then three, and now I have five friends who I know will always be just a phone call away. Before that, all I had was my cousin Marie, she got me through my freshman year, just by letting me complain, and complaining with me. I guess whay I am saying is get yourself an outlet. Reading helped a lot.

  18. Patrick on #

    I think the best advice is to eat plenty of grapes. Seedless are better.
    And if you are full, you may fling the extra ones at Lauren.

  19. rockinlibrarian on #

    Everyone has good advice, but one thing I want to add is particularly pertinent for a YA author blog– BOOKS. Books can keep you from going over the edge. Books let you know that you really aren’t alone, that even though you can’t find anybody right-now-where-you-are who seems to understand and/or appreciate You for Who You Are, you are NOT the only one in the history of the universe who’s felt the way you do… so MAYBE it’s POSSIBLE that you’ll find someone else like that in real life someday too after all. they’re like a glimmer of hope until that happens.

    All through elementary school and middle school and early in high school I used to study the homeroom assignment lists looking for new girls who might turn out to be my Very Kindred Best Friend since I had no one close to that; but it was once I stopped looking (and started looking for new BOYS instead) that she suddenly turned up in my life (although she in fact had been at my school all along, in the grade below me). So it’ll definitely happen someday.

  20. C on #

    I don’t usually comment here, but this is such a great question. My first thought is that there are no uglies. There are people who haven’t grown into themselves yet, or don’t know how to dress, or maybe have some hair problems (to use my middle grade self as an example) but those things are fairly easy to fix or hide, or whatever. More important is to work on the inside of yourself (no, not your intestines). Beauty is not in the face; Beauty is a light in the heart (Kahlil Gibran). Learn stuff and be nice to people. That be said, if your worried about the outside… Read a fashion magazine or three. Find an attractive and friendly 20 something woman, and ask if she will give you a make over. Even if you are a guy. Seriously (I mean, what woman *wouldn’t* be flattered?). Also, IT GETS BETTER, I PROMISE!

  21. pixelfish on #

    I always think of my junior high and high school years as periods of “If I only knew then what I know now…” Then one day it hit me that there will be points in my future where I will think the same thing about things that happened in my twenties and thirties and so on. So sometimes it helps for me to try and imagine how I could change for the better and be a stronger and up to the challenges that will be coming up, from the point of view of the future me that’s already been through them.

    The thing I take away from that is: You survive, and things that once scared you, become commonplace or solvable. Also, everything changes, including you.

    re: Beauty and being ugly. That changes too. There are points where I thought I was OMG hidjeous and forty pounds later and fifteen years in the future, I’m all, “Girl, you were hot shit back then.” And again, thinking about that makes me think, “Hey, if I was hot shit then, I might not be so bad now.” (Certainly the boyfriend seems to think I am nice and curvy.)

    Perspective is lovely. If it’s hard to find, imagine the place you could go to get it, and figure out what you need to do to go there. (Also, if you have other goals in mind, it’s hard to obsess about your own flaws.)

  22. Tim on #

    I think an important skill is also being able to move on from past mistakes and being able to laugh at oneself. Otherwise, we just spend our time dwelling on that Really Embarrassing Thing we did at the school dance in grade 8, or when our voice cracked when speaking in front of the whole class, or that time we said that mind-numbingly dumb thing to that really cute girl/boy.

    If we can look back and say something like “Yeah, that was stupid… but actually quite hilarious! I’ve learned from it and won’t do it again” then I think we’d all be a lot happier.

  23. Caroline on #

    Oooh such a fascinating question that it has actually turned me from a lurker to a commenter.
    1. You’re not as ugly as you think you are.
    2. Everyone looks relatively weird around then because you are either experimenting with your look, hiding yourself away under hoodies, boots and an angry expression (um, me) or dealing with acne, etc. And you get to have fun laughing at the fashions in a few years time.
    3. Even if things suck right now, know that it does get better. I feel pretty sad for people who peaked in primary or secondary school, there are so many more interesting experiences out there.

  24. Leahr on #

    Find friends and interests that are important to you outside school, if you are not an academic-type person. If you are, appreciate it and try to include others in your friendship circles.

  25. sylvia_rachel on #

    I was lucky: high school was a wonderful time for me in most ways. Junior high school, on the other hand … well, the less said about those three years, the better 😛 And grades 5 and 6 were pretty crappy, too, come to think of it.

    One of the things that salvaged life for me during that period was being involved in out-of-school activities (Guides, choir, USY, summer music camp, music lessons) through which I met lots of people my age who (a) didn’t know that I was considered funny-looking and terminally uncool and was bullied at school and (b) shared some common interests with me, and who therefore were perfectly willing to give me a try as a friend. Having access to an alternative peer group can be a lifesaver — and these kinds of activities remind you that school isn’t all there is to life, or all there is to you.

    I also, B”H, had one very good friend at school throughout those years, and we were able to stick together and sometimes even muster the chutzpah to tell the mean kids to eff off. It’s tempting sometimes, when there’s an opportunity to ride on the cool kids’ coattails for a while, to drop those less-cool friends. Don’t do it! They are worth hanging onto. (That friend and I are still friends; we first met in 1983.)

    If you’re academically inclined, or if you’re good at sport or music or art or whatever, don’t let anyone tell you that the thing you’re good at isn’t worth your effort. Something you love is always worth the effort. And the love can get you through some bad sh*t.

  26. Becky on #

    I had my classes of high school students list their most memorable school moments from grades 1-9 this week. They’ve begun the process of taking one of those items from their list and telling the story of that event. In order to model the process (and to let them know that I wasn’t always the totally “cool” person I am now), I made my own list, and let them choose the story they wanted me to tell. Of course they chose my most humiliating moment from 7th grade, when the love of my existence saw my underpants due to my complete inability to run up a flight of stairs…

    My advice would be this: EVERYONE is ugly in middle school. Even the pretties are ugly in some way. Many of us are ugly and awkward on the oustide, as we go through puberty. Some of us who are pretties on the outside can be ugly on the inside, putting others down, as we learn social skills. The best you can do is survive that stage of life, and find something you’re passionate about and get involved.

    For me, it was theater. I threw myself into acting, writing, directing, lighting and running the sound board–in other words, all aspects of theater. In the process of being passionate and involved, I forged some long-lasting friendships and built some self-esteem. I learned that while I wasn’t the best looking person in a school of 1800 students, I had some worthwhile qualities and talents, and a fabulous smile that ensured I wasn’t boyfriendless for long. 🙂

    When you discover your passions and talents, you gain confidence, pride and good feelings about who you are. Those traits (when used to develop yourself and not put down others) are always “pretty”. 🙂

  27. ClareSnow on #

    i would love it if every teenager knew these things that everyone’s written – if only growing up was easy.

    re: J’s niche advice, i think it’s good advice for all. we’re all different in some way but if we find that older person who is similarly diff, they can remind us that we’re only “ugly” if we think we are, the day from hell always becomes tomorrow, and school ends and you go onto something else – bigger and better, or perhaps just different again.

    what i liked most about the uglies/pretties world was uglies could think and pretties were brainless – sounds like high school to me 😛

  28. Jay-wa on #

    These are really heplful (I agree with the brain-missing pretty comment) seeing as I’m in high school. I read most of them, (I have to leave though) and what I have to say is that so far High school has been odd. But finding friends and people like you is important. The halls are too small, don’t expect them to be big enough to fit eveyone in them. And totally read books, do your best, ignore people who are mean to you, vent to your mother and just remember that you are not alone.

    Always be positive, even if the day is totally sucky, it could get wayy worse. And if you give off a postive vibe, it’ll lighten up everyone else.

    Also, I personally wouldn’t date anyone, because then there’s rumours and drama. All of which are totally bogus.

  29. Zyanas on #

    First of all, be unashamed. If you are ashamed of something, there is a problem. Either it was wrong, and you need to admit that and fix it, or it was right, and you need to get up the guts to be open with it. Don’t try to learn the difference by yourself, but don’t just adopt the first philosophy you come across. If you don’t get it right at first it’s not a huge deal. Either way, don’t keep big secrets. There are things we don’t want to hear, and things you don’t have to tell us, sure. But don’t lie about your passions. Don’t lie about your background. Don’t lie about your body. Don’t lie about your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t lie about why you choose to do things. Don’t expect others to lie about them, either.

    Secondly, be nice. Be nice to everyone. Be kind and polite and pleasant even to the people you avoid. You don’t need to be their friend, and you don’t have to smile at them (though it helps). But you do need to think of them as people. Be especially kind and pleasant to your friends. Sometimes we are so cruel to those closest to us. We don’t think about what we say, and we don’t apologize. Help out your family, and spend time with them, and do it the first time you’re asked. It’s very hard at first, but you wont regret it.

    Third, optimism in all things. This is the hardest thing on the list, but it is also the one that will help you survive the worst scenarios life can through at you. Find silver linings, all those things that you get as benifit, as solace, that you learn. Carry the things you love with you- usually metaphorically, but on days you come under fire, literally take them with you. Yes, you will be asked questions and looked at funny, but if you are unashamed, this isn’t a problem. As a last resort, find ways it could be worse.

    Last, getting it wrong at first is not a huge deal. It seems like it and it feels like it, but it’s not- AS LONG AS YOU HAVE LEARNED SOMETHING. In fact, it’s the same way with getting it right. In either loss or in victory, learn something. Life is about what we learn, have learned and are learning. It doesn’t have to be something about why you lost or won, though that’s preferable most of the time. Then TEST YOUR LEARNING. This part is important. It helps you see if you’ve got it right this time. Then comes the last, most important part of learning something: USE IT. Apply it to your life. So many people forget to do this part, but if you ever want life to improve, you have to do this.

    There you have it. The four tools I use most to deal with life and be a generally happy, healthy, loved individual.

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