Mad Science

From Joanie:

This summer, I’ve been having incredible success professionally and personally. The kind of success that I should be enjoying, but because I am familiar with the phrase “pride comes before a fall” I know that unless I temper my elation at things like a good review (link to shameless plug for my career) I know that a fall might be coming soon enough.

So today’s post is an effort to balance that happiness at adult success with a humiliating story from junior high!

We all have such stories, and I hope that you will see mine with the gallon of ice cream good humor that I do now.

When I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I participated in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science. Students who participated were to conduct an experiment following the scientific method, and then do a presentation on it. Using an overhead projector and slides on this clear plastic paper. Power point did not yet exist for the masses. Hey, it was the 90s.

You presented your research at a regional competition, held in a classroom at a local college. If it was deemed good enough, you went on to the STATE level. If your project passed the judgement of the science teachers there, you received a certificate, and a tiny blue bar for first, and red bar for second, which, if you continued competitions yearly until graduating from high school, meant you could make a bracelet out of your tiny bars, and that no boy would ever look at you ever.

Now that you’re asleep, I’ll wake you up with a hideous charming picture of me in seventh grade:

I tried to burn all of these, but my mom is crafty and likes to preserve all stages of my life. Even the embarrassing ones.

As you can probably see from my iridescent glasses, fashion was not my strong suit. It continues to elude me to this day, but my preference for classic lines and plain block colors keeps most people from noticing how fashion-challenged I am.

In the seventh grade, I loved science. I still do, and enjoy reading non-fiction studies of all sorts. But at the age of 12, I had no idea that I was terrified of blood and that my sense of adventure and love for learning was geared towards a musical career, not a medical one. I honestly had no thought that PJAS would look good on a college application, nor did I care.

I was a mad scientist, like Dexter on Cartoon Network, and I wanted to complete my mad experiments. Mwahahahaha.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what my projects were back then. I just plain don’t remember. That’s what those note cards were for when I did my presentations.

What I do remember is that I passed on to the state level, along with three other girls from my junior high.

What going to the state level meant, though I didn’t understand it at the time, was:
1) Missing a day of school
2) a free trip to Penn State University’s main campus in State College, PA
3) staying in a dorm for a three day weekend, and most importantly, with little to no adult supervision

This would sound like a great time to most twelve through eighteen year olds. And it did. Especially because there were museums I could visit there—FOR FREE.

Needless to say, my goals for the weekend (present well and win a award and see rocks with neatly organized labels) were somewhat different from my peers.

Not different from my roommate, Eileen, who, incidentally, also became a music professional. She and I were friends because we were interested in many of the same things, most notably good books and learning new and interesting things.

Yes, I was a nerd. Did you not see the picture above?

At the time, I was just barely aware of how different I was from the majority of my peers. Differences that, as an adult, have made me  (here comes the pride part) compelling as both a performer and an educator, and personable enough to discuss a wide range of topics with diverse groups of people: a skill set that enhances my ability to talk to donors and the press without saying “um” a lot.

As a pre-teen, it made me unusual and awkward around anyone under the age of 35. It also led to constant frustration that typically ended with me sobbing and telling my cat about the unfairness of my life or burying myself in work or science fiction novels.

I hoped, as most adolescents do, to avoid such frustration, even if it meant giving up the things about me that, according to that guy I married, make me really “cool.”

Which leads to the truly humiliating part of the story.

Pride in check, here we come!

There was a dance. As is typical with large groups of 12-18 year olds, even smart ones who do science, life without structured activities leads to trouble. So the PJAS adults running this shindig planned a dance for us one of the nights.

Attendance was optional, but since State College was, at the time, the biggest place I’d ever been without my parents, my attendance was mandatory. I couldn’t just wander about on my own. Especially at night.

So my roommate and I prepared to go. As did the two girls in the room next to us. They were both “cool.” They smoked, one was a cheerleader, they had strings of boyfriends they picked up and tossed aside like paper towels and they had tongues like knives and could manage to pick at every insecurity you ever had. I don’t remember their names, because, other than this incident, our paths didn’t really cross as life rolled along.

I had no desire to be like these girls, but for some strange reason, I wanted to be accepted by them. Remember, I was twelve.

So I let them do my hair.

And my makeup.

And when they deemed my current outfit “not sexy enough” (as if I, at twelve, would be considered “sexy” to anyone but the most vile of child molesters) I let them dress me in one of their outfits.

I don’t have a picture of this. Honestly, I wish I did, just to show the readers how ridiculous I looked.

My hair was curled, and I was wearing blue eye shadow and brown lipstick. I was also wearing a mid-riff revealing polo-style shirt. By mid-riff revealing, I mean that the shirt cut off slightly below where my bra ended. It was like a sports bra with a collar. The kind of top my mother would have looked at with disdain and said, “that looks tacky.”

It did look tacky. It was paired with children’s jeans and the heels I was to wear with my little suit the next day for my presentation. I looked like a Bratz doll.

Now, I was very careful not to let the girls know I was wearing children’s pants, because that would have been embarrassing then. Now, as I still wear a size 14 kids, I brag about it and receive everything from wry grins to “I hate you” stares because I’m still so tiny. But at the time, my lack of body development was one of my sorest points.

And then we come to the bra. I brought a recently purchased in a department store, no less, bra that was quite expensive. It was my first bra that wasn’t specifically made for pre-teens, and it had a fair amount of padding to give the illusion of an A-cup. It was my nicest undergarment, in part because it hadn’t come in a plastic pack of 10.

I couldn’t find it as we got ready to go, so I had to settle for one of my other bras. I was very upset about the loss, and turned the room upside down to find it. No bra. Keep this in mind, as this is an important part of the story later.

To top off the ridiculous prosti-tot outfit, the “cool” girls convinced me that I’d look better without my glasses, so I left them in my room as we headed to the dance in a gaggle.

I can’t see particularly well without glasses or contacts. I’m not legally blind, but pretty close. So everyone was a ball of color, and I had to get uncomfortably close if I wanted to read anyone’s facial expression. What a perfect way to be even more awkward with a group of my peers!

We arrived at the dance, and my roommate and I ended up in a corner. The “cool” girls met up with some boys they’d met earlier. I had no idea how to “meet” a boy, let alone convince him it would be a good idea to talk to me a second time.

So I sat with my roommate in the corner, unwilling to dance, unable to see, and wearing a stupid outfit.

How I wish that I’d known at that age that most of the boys in that room read the same books as me, liked the same music, and were just as nerdy. But what would we have talked about? The new versions of Battlestar Gallactica and Dr. Who hadn’t come out yet, and Joss Whedon was still writing Buffy, so there was no Firefly to spark conversation either.

So I left. I was too embarrassed to be in that outfit, embarrassed to be in that room, distressed that I could not see.

And then I found my saving grace for the weekend. The only thing I would remember as a positive from the entire experience, as my research and presentation were filed in the unimportant to emotional development parts of my brain. The Penn State Creamery.

If you’ve not had Penn State Creamery ice cream, you’ve not lived. I say that a lot in this blog, don’t I?

Side note: Ben and Jerry got a C in Ice Cream making class. The Creamery is A level ice cream.

I got a giant cone of butter pecan and walked back to my dorm room. I finished it before I even arrived. After I washed off the makeup and changed, I went to bed.

I politely returned the skanky top the next morning, and the “cool” girls asked coyly if I’d ever found my bra. I said I had no idea where it was.

It wasn’t until a week later that I found out that late at night, after the dance, they took my bra, which they’d stolen, out of their freezer, covered it in silly string, and threw it away.

I found out from a boy in band class.

I still burn with humiliation when I think of the circumstances of finding out that something nice, something special that my mom had bought for me as part of my growing up, was destroyed and thrown away with such carelessness.

When I told my mom, she said, it’s just a bra. We can get another one.

So nonchalant, so forgiving of the whole situation—I wanted revenge at the time (I’d watched too many Charlton Heston movies), and she dismissed their cruelty by reminding me that it was just a thing.

She also said to tell them she found it when she did my laundry, and never let them know they’d hurt me—to pretend that it never happened, and that if they’d done anything, I hadn’t noticed. “It’ll only encourage them,” she said.

Props to my mom.

And that is why I:
1) never prank anyone’s belongings, no matter how funny it might seem
2) don’t bother with super-fashionable clothing
3) try to remember that whatever success I had that weekend was not the thing I remembered most; it was the people who cared about me and wouldn’t let someone mean hurt me again

And most importantly:
4) eat Penn State Creamery ice cream any chance I can.