Authored by Joseph McNally (a guest contribution)
The sounds of laughing relatives filled my aunt’s house as I hid in the kitchen, my dish sponge and any dishes I could find protecting me from watching our extended family reunion video from 1994. I closed my eyes and cringed while the sound of boy bands from the ‘90s and more laughing cousins and relatives caused me to clutch tighter to my soapy sponge.
“Wow, you sure could dance back then,” one cousin’s boyfriend said with a coy smile as he patted my back, cautiously looking for my reaction. I painfully winced.
“Fourteen wasn’t my best year for clothing fashion—or disco moves,” I responded, an embarrassed smirk covering my face.
“Don’t worry, we’ve all been there! Wanna come watch the rest of the tape?”
I laughed nervously. “In a minute, thanks!” I desperately looked around for a drying towel. I wasn’t leaving the kitchen. I didn’t need the help of the reunion video to remind me of that night. I remembered the basketball clothes I wore that I couldn’t part with, my frizzy hair that screamed “wannabe ‘80s MTV video,” and my hilarious dancing.
“Look at Joe get DOWN!” someone screamed in the living room. I could picture myself enthusiastically dancing like I knew what I was doing. In reality, my moves looked like an exaggerated version of the guy who was next to or across from me!
Thankfully, my relatives are some of the kindest and most easygoing people I’ve ever known, and to my surprise, my aunts, uncles, and cousins didn’t avoid me after this showing. In fact, some of them told me they thought it was great stuff! I’m just glad it was recorded on a camcorder nearly a decade BEFORE smart phones and Facebook!
Which brings me to the title of this article: “Uncool.” In case you’re wondering, as I and Microsoft Word spell check did, uncool is an actual word.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary states that uncool is defined as “failing to accord with the values or styles (as of dress or behavior) of a particular group.”
Have you ever felt that you weren’t looked at as cool? Maybe you didn’t mirror the values or styles of the class or group you joined, and they let you know it!
One evening, while exchanging stories with my wife about our childhoods, her recollection of one period in her life left me feeling deeply saddened for her. She said, “When I was in public primary school, I was taller and bigger than the other kids in my class. I was slower in certain subjects and often failed in others. To make matters worse, one of my teachers seemed to have it in for me. She’d often end a lecture with the statement, ‘You don’t want to be like HER, do you?’ Pointing toward me as I sat in a separate chair in the front of the class as a punishment.”
When it was time for recess, she would wander around the school grounds alone. My wife told me that she could clearly remember waking up each morning begging and pleading with her father not to make her go to school. When he would ask why, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him how she was being treated. Once, when she was brave enough to tell him about the difficulties she was facing, he didn’t grasp the full picture and therefore sided with the teacher, telling her that she needed to be a “better student.”
My wife suffered for a couple of years, until junior high, when she was moved to a different class with new teachers and where she made a few close friends. Although things in her new class weren’t always picture perfect for her, school was something she now looked forward to and wholeheartedly enjoyed.
In my wife’s story, it was a teacher who made things tough on her. Perhaps she was inexperienced with teaching or maybe she was frustrated with a child who seemed to have a slight learning disability. But one thing I’m pretty sure of, the teacher likely had no idea of how she was making her students feel. Otherwise, I’m sure she would have changed her tactics.
The silver lining of this story is that my wife is the most compassionate and caring person I know. She’s an amazing teacher, defends the unpopular kids, and always treats each child with a lot of love, regardless of their behavior or seeming social standing.
Although I wouldn’t wish the cruel school of “uncool” on anyone, it seems to me that in my wife’s case, this especially trying time deepened her life and gave her priceless gifts of empathy.
Although I’m a guy who loves to clown around, even at the risk of being labeled as “corny beyond repair,” over the years I’ve learned that there’s a grave difference between having fun interacting with people who enjoy a bit of a “humor exchange,” and picking on others who are weaker, defenseless, or not quite meeting my standards of “cool.”
I shamefully admit that I’ve been guilty of the latter. When I was 15 through 17, I wore the right kind of clothes, listened to the latest music, and hung out with a “cool” gang of friends. Outwardly I was “cool.” Or so I thought! Those years were by far my most insecure years. With attractive lady peers at every corner, the pressure was sky high to make a good impression. And how did I compensate? I put others down. Why wait for others to poke fun at me? I thought. Like a commander at war, I made up my mind to constantly make the first cutting move.
Although this seemed to work quite well, as my friendship circle was growing, I discovered that even my closest friends had no qualms about putting me down when I wasn’t looking.
I’ll never forget one very embarrassing experience I had. It all started out during an intensely competitive basketball game with my friends and my dad. He was the oldest player on the court, but definitely not the slowest.
The score was tied. The team to score the next and final basket would come out as the winner. Frustrations were high, and the defense was tight. The words just spoken from my father were still freshly ringing in my ears.
“Take it easy, Joe! Just cool down.”
Whatever! I thought to myself. I’ve gotta win this one!!
A shot from the opposing team clanged off the rim. I smiled with glee as the rebound softly fell into my outstretched hands, which were now dribbling the ball ahead of everyone else down to the opposing court. My dad was only inches behind me, but this was my shot, my game. As I leapt from the ground, the ball gently left my hand and effortlessly bounded off of the backboard and into the basket. Game over. My fist pump and victory cry drastically transformed into an actual cry and ground-bracing maneuvers as I hit the ground with a thud.
A trip to the doctor proved that ligaments in my swelling ankle had been badly strained, and I needed to be on crutches for at least a month. I received quite a few wisecracks from my buddies about my new “disabled” state.
During my second weekend on crutches, my friends and I were about to go to a local pool hall for a shootout. At least there was one “sport” I could play without needing the use of my right foot. We had been talking near the front door and it was time to leave. “Where are my crutches?” I asked. I had been sitting down and had forgotten where I had left them.
“Over there.” A friend pointed a few feet behind me, and I turned to see my crutches leaning behind a shoe cupboard. I hopped over to pick them up. “Come on, guys. Let’s go.” I placed the crutches under my arm one at a time. I put my full weight on them while taking my first step toward the elevator. Crumble, crash, flop! I fell, head first, toward the floor. Wing nuts and pieces of my crutches spun all over the dining room floor. “What on earth! What’s wrong with these stupid things?” I wasn’t hurt from the fall, but my ego was seriously bruised!
Fast forward eight years to a conversation I had recently with an old friend who was present during my pride-crippling “floor-surfing” incident.
“Hey, Joe, do you remember the time when you were on crutches?”
“I can’t forget,” I answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you remember when your crutches collapsed and you fell on the floor?”
“Oh, for sure! That was crazy!”
He continued with carefully placed words and a shameful grin. “Well, your crutches…”
He paused and held his breath. “Before we left that day, we reworked them, just a little bit, loosened a few screws…”
“What??” I yelled in disbelief! After a moment of rewriting history in my mind, the corners of my gaping mouth slowly turned upward and we both broke into a hearty laugh!
I honestly wish I could tell you that this incident changed me forever, instantly transforming me into a selfless teen with a heart for everyone unpopular, but you can be sure I never mocked people with crutches again!
It took me a few more years of catastrophes and soul searching to help me begin to learn the meaning of compassion for others. After I made a seriously cool life change and chose Jesus as the supreme commander of my life, I learned from the Bible how much He loves and cares for each person that He created, including me. I didn’t need to hurt other people or look better than them in order to find acceptance and approval. Knowing that I am infinitely loved and accepted has given me true confidence.
We’re all beautiful in our own way. Jeremiah 31:3 says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”1
King David, the last of eight brothers, had plenty of moments when he was a kid where others tried to make him feel inferior and on the “shallow end of the gene pool.” But David was confident that God had made him unique and he didn’t let anyone else distract him from becoming the man God made him to be! In one of his recorded prayers, he told the Lord, “You alone created my inner being. You knitted me together inside my mother. I will give thanks to you because I have been so amazingly and miraculously made.”2
If you’re finding yourself in the cruel school of “uncool,” or if you’re feeling insecure and forced to poke fun at others who you think aren’t as awesome as yourself, chew on this truth: The secret to true popularity isn’t found in trying so hard to be cool and doing whatever it takes to climb some imagined ladder of coolness. It’s found in believing that God made you unique. You’re already loved, popular, and cool in His eyes! A genuine unselfish interest in others is WAY more attractive than Hollywood hero aloofness, and can transform even the shyest teenager into a person of kindness and character. Break those levels of imagined popularity and you’ll find a barrage of unexpected friendships coming your way.
Believe me, you won’t find the word “uncool” anywhere in your life’s dictionary!
1 New International Version
2 Psalm 139:13,14 GW
Read by Stephen Larriva. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright© 2016 by The Family International