My junior year of high school was filled with indifference and apathy.
I was coming off of the thrills of a great sophomore year: I played several minor parts in our high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, but I wouldn’t get cast in the school’s fall play. Performing, which had been a big part my first two years of high school, was out.
I had a great time in cross country that fall, but because of developing Osgood-Schlatter, an affliction of the knee, running for the cross country and track teams was out of the question. Running, which is on its own a fine activity, is also critical to the two other sports I’d loved and played since I was a kid – basketball and soccer – so another big part of my daily routine was out.
Quite a way to begin the year.
As such, I became kind of an asshole. I talked back to teachers and challenged their lectures on a daily basis. I was critical of friends. Having little structure to my schedule beyond school allowed this attitude to ferment, and I frittered away many afternoons designing websites, posting on forums, and talking about projects, while at the same time finding myself frustrated with friends who weren’t putting in the same amount of effort I was.
As fortune would have it, this is also Year 1 of my Gmail account, so much of this angst is documented in typo-ridden messages to friends, parents, and several unfortunate ladies.
So for a 15-year-old who couldn’t yet drive and who had to busy himself with other means, the e-mails over the first year, approximately 560 conversations, are a glimpse into collaborations and frustrations, cutesy advances, emotional swings, and petulant teenagerdom.
I have pulled together some examples of the best of the best (or worst of the worst, as they case may be), so let’s dive in.
In 2004, text messages cost 10 cents to send and 2 cents to receive. When you were as prodigious a note passer as I was in junior high, the transition from note passing to text messaging meant big bills.
So, as a substitute, I e-mailed. Now, not everyone had an e-mail account, or checked it often enough for my carefully worded masterpieces to be worthwhile, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
At this point I should mention I’ll be using first initials for those ensnared by my more awkward correspondences. While I’m laying all of my immature business out there, I don’t expect most people want their past dredged up, as cute as it may seem.
Over the summer of 2004, I had hoped to get to know a friend I’d met in musical theatre better. A “friend.” The kind of friend whose kiss on my cheek as the curtain rose on our last performance caused my heart to skip several beats, and never quite recover.
I played phone and e-mail tag all summer long. As much as she was open to hanging out, I couldn’t take the hints, or take action.
I was still too much a boy to be the “guy in the relationship.”
This year, suffice to say, was not a successful year with ladies. Of the two “relationships” I had, I didn’t e-mail either of them. At all.
The e-mails instead went to people it never quite worked out with, in no small part due to the cutesy style of flirting I had adapted.
When it came down to laying out the details – and there are a half-dozen planning e-mails for this bowling date – it was far easier for me to hide behind my e-mail and negotiate the best night for bowling than to actually make something happen. I never pulled the trigger.
One recurring theme for the year: the haunting pains of too many hugs. Early into the year, I rejoiced after getting…
THE BEST HUG EVER.
Is there anything women like more in a potential man than the way he celebrates her hugs?
At the time, I thought not, because one week later…
Ambush hugs and a proficiency in beginning Spanish – the groundwork for any romantic pairing.
It’s at this point I’d like to mention some of the sign offs I was using in my early days of Gmail. Here is a random sampling:
- Much Love, My Dizzle Dawhg
- Write me back.
- Luv Heaps
- I’m outta here.
- Call me though, seriously!
- Your wittle Awex
The photo at the top of this post shows me at three different date dances during my junior year.
I never e-mailed any of those girls ‘luv heaps.’ Correlation? Causation?
We’ll never know.
E-mail in 2004 wasn’t widely used by my friends. Because of that, I didn’t email everyone. So to communicate about them, it either meant talking to people face-to-face, or e-mailing other people about my problems.
One particularly tragic series of events unfolded during the fall. I had kept up correspondence with another friend who’d graduated and we talked about life in college, life in our hometown, and things were great.
Then, I met her younger sister, and got to know her younger sister, and things seemed romantic with her younger sister until, suddenly, dramatically, things were not romantic any longer.
She just wanted to be friends.
Now – I recall all this not in vivid detail because of the pain of young heartbreak (though I certainly have memories of throwing my phone on the floor and jumping on my bed in a fit of sorrow). I recall it in such detail because I e-mailed her older sister updates at each moment, and asked for her insight and advice at every turn.
I tried to hide in these e-mails my desperation by asking cool questions about college parties (“study those beer bottles good!”), but I didn’t hide my anxieties very well, because I mentioned her younger sister in Every. Single. Email.
What follows is a condensed version of the most emotional two weeks of my young life.
And still – I was shocked, weeks later, when we remained just friends, despite hugging every day!
Clearly hugging had a lot of significance to me.
How much more serious could two people get than hugging regularly in the passing periods of public school?
Being 15 is hard.
One uncomfortable takeaway from my e-mails to friends is how much I tied up friendship with productivity and creativity. There are very few messages to high school friends that are concerned with their well-being or scheduling some non-project (“fun”) activity.
While I maintained that relationship with some friends in college, the more local friendships are filled with plotting, nagging, and a desire for feedback.
Mildly Dangerous was this very clever idea I had about a series of filmed sketches that were all mildly dangerous, like riding a bike over a small ramp, or jumping into the pool backwards.
I wanted nothing more than to work on these ideas, and I did not empathize with the poor friend who had this misfortune of being my partner on the project.
After only a month of prodding about scheduling film dates, he snapped.
My demanding nature – especially over e-mail – earned me my first recorded rebukes, of being called ‘a complete dick’ and being told I was too serious.
Maybe I was being too serious.
Maybe I was trying too hard to make something happen.
Maybe I was using that friend more as a body, as someone who was there, than actually listening to what he wanted to do or the spirit he wanted to do it in.
What I’m certain about is while I said I was using e-mail in the name of collaboration, it’s clear I was out for my own interests.
Orthodox Films was a film group that a set of friends ran – they produced sketch comedy and feature-length parody films, and did it with such a professional air that I couldn’t help but be jealous. They also had a line on their website that essentially said “stop asking to join us – start your own thing” and I was trying to do that – hence, Mildly Dangerous.
At 15, I was comparing myself to other 15- and 16-year-olds and feeling left behind in terms of skill, creativity, and accomplishment.
The honesty in this e-mail is striking. I would be hard-pressed to find examples of other, more recent exchanges of such bare envy of someone else’s success. I did what I could to turn it into motivation, but it wasn’t a useful fuel, as many of my early projects flamed out.
As I move forward with My Archived Life, correspondence with teachers will become more and more regular. During this year, there is only one main example, and it’s an example that I fought with my family over, that nearly kept me from getting into journalism, and that I would write about in college essays the following fall.
One of the longest e-mails I wrote that year was to my junior English teacher, in response to a class we’d had that day about propaganda our government uses (she’d shown these “Patriotism Means No Questions” on slides in class). I brought it up at dinner, and my dad challenged me on the images. I looked them up online, and he was proved right.
So, I assumed our teacher was either being ignorant, or worse, liberal (I’ve since learned what liberal means), and told her as much over the course of 10 paragraphs.
A few are excerpted below.
I felt empowered and cool and smart writing this e-mail late into the evening. I had caught a teacher! I was building an argument against her!
I was so full of Thoughts from all the thinking I did.
Before we had ‘MIC DROP’, I used the dreaded ‘Hm.’ to similarly devastating effects. She replied with an apology and said this amounted to a sincere misunderstanding. I must not have believed her and kept on with an air of arrogance, because when I returned later that spring to ask her for a letter of recommendation to become an editor for the school paper, she denied my request.
From the very first e-mail I sent from my Gmail account, I have pursued creative endeavors. Some have been with others, and many have been on my own.
In those first few months, I wrote to friends about short films, feature films, mini-documentaries, building guitars, coding web forums, comics (I think I have my New Yorker rejections somewhere), a parody newspaper, and making Flash animations.
As much as I pushed my friends to create, I was equally merciless on myself.
Here, just a week after opening my e-mail, I take myself to task on how I can be more productive.
I wanted to have these projects, but I did not always want to put the time into developing the skills necessary for the projects to succeed.
“Would appreciate having someone to write to” = a quiet cry for help and/or MORE E-MAILS PLEASE.
Having e-mail must have also created a sense of intimacy with other people on the internet. Rather than look up information on video compression online, I just asked other, likely busier people, and many responses included some form of “couldn’t you just google that?”
His advice on putting in time, research, and learning is totally spot-on, but it didn’t speak to any shortcuts that would help me get any of my half-dozen projects up and running any faster.
In addition to producing and editing short videos, I also fancied myself a writer. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I wrote my first ballad, “The Untimely Fall of the Gingerbread Man” and promptly sent it to everyone I knew.
I craved feedback, until I got it. Much of it was harsh – the rhymes were off, the lines were uneven – but it was all accurate and necessary. But once you Give An Alex a Feedback, He’s Going to Want Some More…
The ballads are a format that have haunted and mesmerized me for years. I still tinker with them to this day. So to see the kernel of an idea I developed at 16 persist until today is pretty awesome, especially when considering just how many ideas I’ve had that died quick, often public deaths.
Fun side note on my unrestrained ambition: I also sent an excerpt of ‘Untimely Fall’ straight to a Simon & Schuster e-mail account, which I believe is the correct way to be considered for publication.
I am still waiting to hear back.
I wrote stories about the hijinks and happenings of our teenage years, often loosely fictionalized so I wouldn’t get in “trouble.”
I posted these stories online, and in return, I got my first first hate e-mail. Though it stung, it wasn’t inaccurate. The stories were bad.
The stories were bad, but for the most part, I kept going. This was the cycle for much of the winter and spring of my junior year – time spent online, working on websites, writing e-mails to friends about our ideas.
In the real world – outside the inbox – though, life kept happening.
Despite previous reservations, I had started to take college preparation seriously, I had been getting involved in some school activities, and I had begun dating someone.
All of these things were happening, and yet, there are so few e-mails about them.
Could I have been so consumed by life and love that I forgot to e-mail?
Toward the Future
While there will be much more said about college in year 2, this response to my mom’s request that I balance my computer time with other things is very telling about my priorities as a 15-year-old.
Didn’t she understand I’d only had Gmail for a MONTH?
Lots of “fine” and “whatever” and “I don’t care” and “I don’t really care.”
As mentioned in the beginning of this post, my school year started off with me at Maximum Indifference. I was in neutral, unimpressed with teachers, unsatisfied with friends, and unhappy with myself.
Which is why, I believe, the transition to who I was and how I acted just eight months later is so surprising. An e-mail to a friend – written with remarkable zest – outlines the recent flurry of activity.
Rather than being indifferent, like the kind of person who would skip out on school rallies, a good friend and I were up for election to be Spirit Commissioners. Now, it is quite difficult to lead rallies – shouting in front of 2,000 people, cracking jokes, staging sumo battles between teachers, encouraging “spirit” – and also be the kind of person who skips out on rallies. Instead, I saw it an opportunity to write scripts, to perform, and to be rambunctious.
Also, my knee was getting better, and I could play basketball well enough to “school all the homies” (SPOILER ALERT: we lost every game in the tournament).
Being in a real relationship, not one that I’d constructed over e-mail, or via note-passing, or anything else, was encouraging.
In just this one e-mail, I see the positive effects of building a life outside of the internet.
With that, I headed into my senior year of high school with a modest amount of steam: I was set to be the pep rally commissioner and involved with student government, I’d end up on the varsity cross country team, and I could finally drive myself wherever I need to go.
With the upcoming joys of college applications, my first long-term relationship, and the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of thousands of teenagers on a regular basis, what could go wrong?
Also published on Medium.