Notes from 20 years of life online #52essays2017

"Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." -Flannery O'Connor

It’s 2017, 20 years since I graduated from high school this June. A lifetime achievement, perhaps, or just another one of time’s mile markers, depending on your outlook.

So I guess this is an appropriate time to look back on my youth, since I was just added to a Facebook group of the folks I graduated with, back in 1997. The ones that are still with us, anyway. I know at least two of my classmates have already crossed over, into the Great Beyond. One died of cancer (and under 40, too…), another from a sudden aneurysm. A stranger, a friend. Both male, both white, both married – or almost. It’s such a strange, sad feeling to know they are already gone. It’s only been 20 years. Aren’t we all still so full of life, so ready for our lives to simply begin?

Time flies.

I guess pondering the distance of 20 years should make me feel old, but mostly I have to wonder why it seems like half our graduating class now sells real estate for a living. Is this the default or the fallback option for upper-middle-class white kids who used to be cheerleaders and football stars?

Good thing I was never a cheerleader, nor a football star. My varsity letters were for bowling and badminton. (They were excellent ways to get out of gym class. Less so, marching band, as I never could figure out how to play music from memory and march in time.)

Everyone likes to say that in high school, they never fit in. I suspect that’s both true and false. Plenty of people were adept at fitting in. The cheerleaders and jocks, for instance, are easily categorized as such. Anyone you can put into a category and label, certainly. And surely these people had their own problems, underneath the façade – we all do. But what about those of us you couldn’t easily categorize? The ones that refused to be labeled?

In high school, I took on many labels. I was a good student, a band nerd, a quiet kid, but never really a writer. I did not submit to the school’s arts magazine, nor did I join the newspaper or yearbook as I had in middle school. I did not want to be judged by my fellow students. I did not consider most of them to be true peers. I had grown self-conscious, wary of these people – especially the ones that attended the Sunday School at my church, acting pious when the instructors were around, and whipping insults and items at one another once they stepped out of the room. I would watch them each play the part of “good kid” whenever authority figures were in earshot, then shape-shift into their true forms once the threat had passed.

Their hypocrisy disgusted me. I would not bare my soul to such people. They did not deserve anything I hid inside. And so I kept these thoughts and feelings to myself, hidden away in my diary.

That is, until I discovered The Internet.

Somewhere around 1993, my father installed some software on our home computer for a system named Prodigy. An apt name for a group of nerds who considered themselves superior to others, gathering online to discuss everything from sports to literature on an early version of the internet known as the bulletin board system (BBS).

If you’ve ever gone to an online forum to discuss something with folks, through a series of posts, you’ve used a modern-day version of the BBS. But back in 1993, that was all the internet was. You couldn’t communicate in real-time with someone. So you could either post a note to them on the bulletin boards, or you could send them an email. Reply times might range from a day or two to several weeks, depending on how often someone could use their phone to access the system, as dial-up was the only option, and load times were painfully slow.

Sometimes, if you really liked and trusted a person, you might exchange real-life addresses and send each other snail-mail. This is how I became “pen pals” with many different people across the U.S., and how my writing first found an outlet.

Writing to strangers was my escape from what felt like a suffocating small town. In truth, my hometown is a bona fide city (with a current population of about 45,000 people), but when you’re in high school, everyone always knows your business. I did not want to be pigeonholed as “the nerd,” as I knew my life would be bigger and better than anything my classmates were planning for themselves – if, indeed, they had anything planned at all. (The only person I knew would be a success and leave our hometown for sure was the classmate who asked us, once, in a History class, “Where will you go when you finally have the chance to get out of this hellhole?” He’s also, unfortunately, one of the two who have already left us too soon.)

I wrote about everything that was happening in my life: school, teachers I liked or hated, fights with friends, drama between my fellow nerds, crushes I had on older boys, music, movies, books and philosophical pondering on the larger world. I made friends with phone phreaks in California, supposed government spooks in Canada, Mormons in Idaho, skydivers in Wisconsin, gun nuts in South Carolina, philosophers in Baton Rouge, Jesuits-in-training in NYC.

I wish I still had copies of our letters. They are surely fodder for hundreds of stories.

Online, I was fearless. I created my own persona, instead of being forced to accept a label. Sometime I was “the kid” – the skydivers were shocked to discover they’d been arguing with a 13-year-old about whether or not their favorite pastime was really a sport or just a hobby. They mailed me a VHS tape of their largest formations, jumping out of planes and soaring over farmland to create multicolored rings with their parachutes. I’m sure my parents wondered how I had connected with these much-older men and their dangerous activity. Thankfully this was a time before anyone had ever considered doxxing to be a fun and easy way to ruin a person’s life; the skydivers were just genuinely curious about why I was on a bulletin board asking them questions and arguing semantics. They told me, “Call us when you’re 18! We’ll take you out for your first jump!”

At other times, I was the friend, the fighter, the freak. Even, to some extent, the lover. (Can one truly be in a relationship, if every bit of it is lived only through words on paper or screens? That’s up to you to decide, dear reader…)

I contained multitudes. And online, I was the prodigal prodigy, embracing each in turn.

The internet was much different, then. Sometimes I still mourn for that lost world, where people really could get along, despite their differences. Before block buttons, reporting stalkers and garden-variety assholes, instant access to someone’s home address, GPS to locate them and show up on their doorstep to do them harm. Before Trump tweeting every turd he passes at three in the morning. Before hatred and fear ruled both our online and offline lives. Hell, back when there was such a thing as “offline.”

We are all connected. And sometimes that’s a very scary thing.

P.S.

Here’s a funny video of teenagers reacting to the 1990s version of the internet, posted in 2014. The kid who observes, “Little did they know of the pedophiles behind the screens,” is one of my favorites.

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For more information on the #52essays2017 Challenge, join us in the Facebook group or read Vanessa Mártir’s post explaining the challenge here.

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