by Haniya Khalid
About two weeks ago I watched Ghost World for the first time in its entirety. The film, a cult favorite among hipsters and nostalgics, stars Thora Birch and pre-superstardom Scarlett Johansson as two friends navigating their way through late adolescence. I was particularly taken by the movie, not to say I enjoyed it. I didn’t, mainly because it was hard for me to stomach any of the deliberately cringe-worthy scenes with a side-combed, emotionally needy Steve Buscemi, and I barely smiled through the dry, deadpan humor. I could see my much younger self enjoying the movie, laughing at the strangest of the strange jokes in a knowing way: the in-your-face weirdness was right up my 16 year old alley. I was, and still am, a sucker for any movie or TV show where a town is a character “just insist the environment is a character unto itself” I can hear my fellow* English majors say teasingly. I did, therefore, appreciate the attention to detail, the clever, thrifty fashion, and the overall soul in older movies that today’s movies just somehow lack.
What struck me most about Ghost World, was how the main characters–isolated, cynical Enid, and less isolated but equally cynical Rebecca reminded me of me and my friend during middle and high school. Like them, we too drifted through our adolescence in a haze of sarcastic responses and lazy eye-rolls. Individuality bordering on weirdness was greatly appreciated in our world. Normalcy or–god forbid–pep? No way. Get out of here. Cue eye roll.
I met my friend, who I will call A for the sake of this post (and no, that’s not a reference to Pretty Little Liars, because I wouldn’t know, because I don’t watch Pretty Little Liars, you watch Pretty Little Liars), in sixth grade. We connected immediately as eleven-year-olds but were kept at a polite distance due to unnecessary layers in our cliques, layers that were eventually shed as the years passed.
After eighth grade I transferred schools to start my IGSCE curriculum at a new school, one relatively well known for grooming their students into getting stellar, straight A* results. My first day of ninth grade was an altogether terrifying experience for many different reasons: first day of high school, first day at a new school, and to my absolute horror, I was the only student who was not adorned in the schools gray-skirt-and-navy-check-shirt uniform (my parents were oddly laissez-faire about those things, insisting nobody would wear uniform on the first day). I walked into a classroom and rows and rows of eyes peered back until I noticed A, who to my utmost delight, had transferred as well. Right most row, third desk from the front. Golden brown tan and long, curly ponytail. Uniform, too, I noted enviously. My nervous gaze met her uncomfortable one. Thus began the truly formative years of our pre-destined friendship.
We loved movies and music, and spent all of our free time huddled in a corner of the classroom listening to Nico or watching Sofia Coppola movies on a blotchy iPod video. The years went on and Nico was sometimes replaced by Flo Rida, the movies ranged from dramatic period pieces to cultural masterpieces like Eurotrip and we stayed ensconced in our world. It was vivid and colorful and entirely dynamic but only to us, but then, we were the only ones who mattered. Our world was open to some (those who we gave our seal of approval to) and firmly closed to others. As we got older, more depth and deliberation were added to our carefully constructed opinions and interests: cinema, music, fashion, books. Shocking though it seems to me now, but 17 year old me would take hour-long walks listening to Tchaikovsky or Mozart. Man, I was pretentious as eff. By the time we made it to senior year, we were impossibly brilliant to ourselves and positively insufferable to anyone who took on the painstaking task of talking to us.
Don’t get me wrong: I still believe creating your own world out of the things you love is one of the best ways to deal with the not-so-fun real life situations we are all faced with. We managed to fine-tune this skill as a result of our sheltered, private school upbringing, where our bored, restless minds would wander and make us thing and do crazy and creative things. I almost long for those sun-blazed school days where I would sit on the steps reading The Catcher in the Rye while eating an oily aloo samosa with my bare hands. Looking back, what bothers me about our attitudes is the negativity, and I cannot help but wonder if it could have been avoided.
High school was tough. I can never forget that first day of school, when a group of girls gathered around me and asked me who my favorite band was. When my thirteen year old self hesitantly responded “Linkin Park”, I was met with a unanimous groan. Later, I heard a sagely whisper in my ear “Linkin Park is not cool. Nu metal is not cool The Pixies are cool. Do your homework”. And from that day, I did. I quickly got rid of my skateboard and black rubber bands (ok, so maybe they did me a favor) and swore off Nu Metal. I read about the rivalry between Robert Smith and Morrissey instead, and eventually my knowledge grew enough for me to support my own eye-rolling. I became a much more intense version of myself today, now watered down by time, a growing obsession with pop music, and most importantly meeting people that inspire me who are bright and perfect, but as Judy Blume would say “couldn’t tell their Bach from their Beethoven”. To this date when someone asks me about music I get hesitant to respond, and tend to avoid the discussion altogether. I avoid discussing books too, an area I am more comfortable with than music: no, I don’t like Jody Piccoult (WHAT? she is awesome), neither Paulo Coelho (are you even kidding have you read The Alchemist? I have, and I am not a fan), nor Khalid Hosseini (oh em gee dubble-yew tee eff). I prefer to keep these discussions private, the conversations extended to people I know won’t judge my judgment.
Its obvious now that the cynicism and snarkiness was just a thinly-veiled attempt to mask our doubts and uncertainties. If only we had been told, or had figured it out for ourselves that the doubts were healthy, that asking questions and wondering things, however bizarre or nonsensical, almost always led you to a place of knowledge and understanding. The school itself was not the most diverse in that it only recognized types: the smart kids, the popular kids, or the troublemakers. If you didn’t fall into any of these categories you would slip by unnoticed, especially by the teachers. Me being a bit of a class clown, studious but not Ivy League-bound, friendly but not noticably so, fell into one of those cracks.
I once overheard a teacher remarking on one of the popular kids the morning of our Statistics exam “look at her sleek, blow-dried hair. How does she have time for that? Do you think she will get an A? An A student wouldn’t even have time to wash her hair”. In their incredibly myopic view of us, all of our defining traits were mutually exclusive. I remember years later, being awestruck at the groomed-to-perfection, modelesque pre-Med students at my university in the US: so many sets and subsets I had never been exposed to!
A and I kept growing in our little bubble. The less we felt like conforming to norms, the less we fit in. The less we felt like we fit in, the more defiant we became. I now see that if somehow been more at ease with my own uncertainty, I would not have been so “above everything”. Maybe I would have cheered a little bit harder during Sports Day, and not ignored anyone who didn’t fit our meaningless, arbitrarily snobby criteria. Some of the people we avoided, the upbeat students who grinned mercilessly before the morning bell, have turned out to be incredibly lovely people. Whose to say they weren’t always lovely? Certainly not me or A, both of us that kept a secret stash of neon-blue mascara in our backpacks “just in case” and decided we knew more about fashion than anyone because we knew who Commes des Garcon was.
A and I have stayed friends, and to this date she might be the wittiest person I have ever met, someone capable of making me laugh out loud from miles and miles away with a single sentence. And I do mean laugh, really laugh, a deep belly laugh reminiscent of our aloo samosa-eating, Nico-listening days.
I can forgive the neon blue mascara and the pointedly nonconformist behavior: we were young. Those days were awesome. What I cannot forgive, however, is the cynicism, the wildly unreasonable bitterness, the positive refusal to be anything ordinary even if being ordinary meant being happy.
A major plot point of Ghost World is the disintegration of Enid and Rebecca’s friendship. At the end of the graphic novel and the movie, Enid boards a bus that magically appears at an out-of-service bus stop. Fans and critics have long argued if this nondescript ending to an important character journey signifies suicide, an argument that is still inconclusive. The story is an homage to loners though, the isolation you face when your individuality borders on loneliness. If I could meet my 15 year old self now, I’d tell her enthusiasm is a good thing. Passion can be misdirected, so direct it well. Be open to people and ideas. Personalities do not have to be discrete, so do not distance yourself from someone just because they are unlike you. I’d say: cynicism is overrated. Happiness is simply more fun. Also–you are lucky you have A.