I want you to close your eyes and imagine something. I want you to picture an awkward, overweight, black teenager, around 15/16 years old in 1997-98. Her hair is wild, broken off in some places, sticking out in others. Her clothes fit, but are the complete opposite of ‘Cool.” Her parents buy for her what they can, but plus sizes for teens are not what it is today. Imagine her at school. She’s smart, but her grades are mediocre at best. She has friends, but she fits in nowhere. A lot of the Black girls in her classes are mean and vindictive. It will be another 5-6 years before she realizes that a lot of their mean and hateful words were from pure jealousy. In the meantime she is barely surviving school.
Her father is in an out of her life. Her mother is always either at school or at work, hardly any time for her. She is on her own.
This girl was me. I was so lost for so long. I had a deep-seated loneliness, and a craving to be accepted anywhere by anyone. Don’t get me wrong. I had morals, and convictions, and held steadfastly to them (read: I was terrified to have sex). But I was different. I saw things around me differently than other people. I still do.
From age 14 to age 18 I participated in a program called Upward Bound. The highlight was every summer; you got to spend 6 weeks on a college campus. The campus I was on was Indiana Wesleyan University. You spent time in classes that mimicked what you would be going into the next year. The core classes, Math, English, and Science were the main ones, but you also got to choose ‘electives’. One year I remember taking Spanish (it was the only foreign language they offered, I took French during the regular school year). We have some free time, which I spent on computers, in chat rooms, watching movies, hanging with friends.
Two years I was in the choir as my elective. I can’t remember what we did the first year, other than the song “Dancing in the Street.” The second summer I was in choir changed my life. It changed who I was as a person.
I’d listen to musicals before. Not much however. The only two musicals I knew before this were “Oklahoma” and “The Wiz.” Our instructor introduced us to this musical called “Les Miserables.”
“He stole bread and went to prison. He kept trying to escape so they added time to his sentence. Eventually he was in prison for 19 years. All for a loaf of stolen bread.” I giggled as she told us the story. Then, we listened to the songs we would be singing. For the first (and not the last) time in my life, a chill shot through my body. Every hair on my body stood on end. This man’s plight was my plight. I was in a prison for 4 years. 4 years of high school, of misery, of being different and ostracized for it.
Then Eponine’s “On My Own.” As I am now 30 years old, I realize that every girl sees herself as Eponine at one point in her life or another. But as those lyrics blasted from the CD player, it was as if she put my soul upon the altar for everyone to see. I was Eponine. She was me.
I ended up playing Eponine for our brief musical performance. I belted each of those words as if they were my last. I showed no fear, no anxiety, because this was me. This was who I am, and this musical allowed me to show that.
The summer ended, and I was back at school, but that musical still had a hold of me. I eventually purchased (from my meager savings) what I thought was the entire musical (It ended up being the abridged version) and listened to it CONSTANTLY. I knew every word, every inflection of every song.
It sounds silly, but knowing there were people out there, who felt like me, who felt the same way I did made my life a little easier. I may not have a place in Kokomo, but it was a big world out there, and there were people out there just like me. I shed my skin of insecurity, hopelessness, awkwardness, and became stronger. I stopped caring what people thought about me. I knew who I was, and nothing anyone said, or did was going to change that.
I may not have achieved greatness, but I have carved out an amazing life for myself. I have stayed true to who I am. It was a musical that helped me find out who I am. It also led me to music I would have never heard on my own (*snort* on my own).
I went and saw Les Miserables in the movie theater this past weekend. I am not sure what I expected. What I did not expect was to be transported back to that 16-year-old girl, discovering a completely different world for the first time. I sobbed as everyone died (They were not kidding when someone said the name of it should be changed to “Everyone Dies: The Musical”). I felt the love of Cosette and Marius. I felt it all, and felt changed again.
I know this isn’t a hair or product entry. But I had all of this in my heart. I needed to share, to make you understand who I am, where I come from, and how I got here. Thank you for taking the time to read it.