As much as I hate to admit it, fitting in matters to me. It always has. Ironically, though, I've never felt like I have — fit in, that is.
As a toe-headed, eager 5-year-old, I remember showing up for first grade stylishly dressed in crisp new Garanimals — remember those? — and stiff new leather shoes that my mother had picked out for me. She kept telling me how handsome I looked. And I, of course, believed her until I walked into my new classroom to find I was the only boy who wasn't wearing sneakers and jeans.
I didn't mind, though. I kind of liked dressing up for school. And besides, I didn't really like to do things like play in the sand box and get dirty at recess.
Somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, I broke my mother's will. And, for the first time, I headed off to school wearing the coveted jeans and sneakers. But it was an empty victory, because I quickly found that dressing just like everyone else didn't give me a feeling of fitting in.
By the time I made it to high school, I had resolved my wardrobe issues. Since preppy was my thing, jeans and sneakers rarely entered the picture. And that made me a hit with the girls, which confused the hell out of me. I always seemed to be able to strike up close friendships with popular girls — so close that many people, including the young women themselves, assumed there was a romantic link between us.
At times, though it was strained, there was. But it didn't satisfy me or any of them.
While I didn't appear to have girl problems, my lack of male friends was a real sticking point with my parents, some of my friends' parents, a few teachers and many of my peers. Not that I didn't want to have more guy friends. It was just that, for me, it was hard to be friends with guys my own age. It brought up complicated feelings that I now know I wasn't ready to face at the time. So once again, I found myself unable to shake the uneasy feeling of not fitting in.
College, I thought, had to be a different situation. Surely my painstakingly chosen, small, liberal arts university would be the perfect place for me. It just had to be. And so I quickly set about the task of fitting in. I met a girl, rushed fraternities, hit the party circuit.
But instead of ending up with the perfect close-knit group of friends — à la St. Elmo's Fire — I ended up with bad grades and the freshman 15. So much for my idea of fitting in.
Years later, as a wide-eyed 22-year-old, I came out of the closet and heaved a huge sigh of relief. I was ready to accept myself — sexuality included. I would finally feel like I fit in, I thought. But you know what? The feeling never came.
It still hasn't. And I am beginning to think I probably won't. And that's OK.
Each year it becomes increasingly clear to me that what really matters is being true to myself — not trying to fit into categories created by the people around me. Committing myself to the search for true self-understanding, though not always as easy as "fitting in," is what's really worth pursuing. And that's a resolution that should be at the top of my list every month of every new year.
Eric Hunter's column appears here monthly. Write him at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati OH 45202 or e-mail him at [email protected]