I Was a Loser

Milestones came at a rapid clip when our son Ned was an infant – crawling, sitting, standing and first words. Once school started, these milestones slowed down, replaced by the predictable progress through one grade after the next. But now here was he was standing in the kitchen in blue blazer and khaki pants – all decked out for his first school dance.

“Let’s go Mom, I’m ready. We’re supposed to pick up Chris on the way.”

“Just one thing before we go, Ned.” I reached for his blue blazer and tied a small red string around the tag, a tip from my friend Marion. “I know that everyone will be wearing the same type of blazer. This will help you find yours in the pile at the end of the evening.” He shook his head in disbelief as we headed to the car.

I had leapt at the chance for this driving responsibility, eager for the captive audience the car provided. Ned had carefully shielded his school life and particularly his co-ed life well beyond my grasp. Perhaps I could learn something along the way with carefully probing questions, or seize a few teachable moments.

“How do these dances work, Ned? Do the boys ask the girls to dance, or do you just dance in groups, or maybe the girls can ask the boys?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“At your age, I was in dancing school. The teacher Mrs. Woolson taught us the foxtrot and the waltz.”

“What’s the foxtrot?” asked Ned.

“It’s a type of dance.”

“So when you were a kid, dances had names?”

“Yes they had names, and I had to wear little white socks and gloves. And for music we had this old women thumping away on the piano. We didn’t have any albums or anything.”

“They’re not called albums anymore, Mom.”

“Well okay, but the point is that all of us girls had to wait for the boys to ask us to dance, and I was just wondering what the system is today. Do you think that you will be asking some girls to dance?” I said.

“Well, I guess so,” he mumbled.

Here was the opportunity I was waiting for. “Ned, it’s kind of tough on the girls if they just have to wait to be asked to dance. If you see a girl that looks like she wants to dance, maybe a girl who’s standing at the edge of the dance floor. Well maybe you could just go up and ask her.”

Ned turned to me with a look of trembling agitation. He spoke distinctly and slowly. “You mean you want me to dance with a LOSER?”

There it was, the enduring category of a loser, spanning generations and cultures. And there were probably even more ways to be a loser today as in my day – basically any parameter that fell beyond one standard deviation from conformity, whether it be athletic ability, odd hobbies, height, weight, skin complexion, grades, the car your parents drove or even your siblings (blow-back from a sibling’s status was particularly cruel). I quickly tried to marshal all my insights into cliques, individuality, open-mindedness. This was my teachable moment.

But suddenly I felt a quick spasm of gratitude. Thank God, my son did not consider himself a loser. Life would be so much easier for both of us – Ned apparently already enjoyed the coveted insider status. And as a parent my life lessons could focus on how an insider can gracefully widen the circle, rather than how to confront the challenges of a lonely outsider.

We had reached the half-way point in our ride, and I needed to quickly find some nonjudgmental entry point into these big life concepts. “Ned, you know when I was your age I was a loser, and it would have been nice if someone had asked me to dance occasionally,” I said quietly.

“You were a LOSER???” he wailed.

I sensed he had realized that half of his genetic material was tainted by a self-confessed loser. It seemed more than he could bear and he slid further down into his seat.

I had made my admission as a simple conversation starter, but now I was forced to consider whether I fit the specs. I was always pretty confident with who I was, but after forty five years, it was still uncomfortable to submit to the ultimate stigmatization of a loser. I did have my pride.

My dancing school was a high stakes affair. Girls sat on one side of the room, the boys on the other, staring across at us as they sized up potential dance partners. The possibilities in increasing order of humiliation were: 1) nobody would ask you to dance; 2) a loser would ask you to dance (the stigma was not gender specific); 3) since there were more girls than boys, Mrs. Woolson would insist that the leftover girls dance with each other. I fell into this last category.

There were also some dances over the holidays, and the organizers tried to engineer out the inequities by having a card dance. Each girl was given a card with a dozen or more lines representing each dance for the evening, and the idea was that during the dinner party beforehand, boys would come up and sign up for a dance. The cool boys had been designated “dance captains,” a status that empowered them to demand to see your card. Rob Isham saw plenty of blank lines when he scanned mine, and said (a little bit too loudly, I thought), “Give me your card. Looks like you need help.”

With that he whisked it away, and went to some back room and horse traded with the other captains to get the card into respectable shape. He managed to get some of the dances filled – he was not a miracle worker – and I regretfully noted that the critical last dance at midnight remained blank. That night when the lights were turned down in the gym, I found myself abandoned, standing alone in the middle of the dance floor. I felt like I was in a game of musical chairs, except that I lost when the music started instead of stopped. There were a bunch of other girls without partners, and we all trooped over and sat down on the benches at the side of the gym.

What were my standard deviations, my qualifying quirks that labeled me a loser? My status on the honor roll was one ding against me. Our grade was endowed with an oversupply of dim boys who did not appreciate being upstaged by the girls. And then I recall the Friday night skating at the local ice rink – a de rigueur coed event. There was an exceptional water fountain just inside the door that had the coldest water; everyone assumed that it came directly from the depths of Lake Michigan. The popular boys and girls would jumble up in a line for water; jostling through several layers of parkas and sweaters was a rare opportunity for physical contact. This was not an exclusive line – I could have mixed into this line to enhance my status. But I never had the courage, succumbing to my irrational fear that as I bent over to drink, the person behind me would push my head into the faucet, breaking all my teeth.

What little information we knew about sex was traded on those evenings. I prepped for Friday nights by studying the dictionary definitions for as many sexual words as I could come up with so that I could contribute to the banter. I remember one proud moment when I told the very cool Colt Landreth what a pervert was. “It’s someone who goes wrong in sex,” I said authoritatively, even though I had no idea what this implied. I hoped that just saying the word “sex,” out loud would grant me a few rungs on the social ladder. But Colt just laughed and skated off.

But perhaps the most damning evidence came from my mother in her Christmas letter from 1964.

“She likes to work with a microscope and slices up animals – spreading frog and mudpuppy guts all over the kitchen, has a cherished cow’s eyeball and sheep’s heart sloshing about in a tub of alcohol in her closet…”

Yes, my odd hobby was an early interest in anatomy, which presaged my eventual career in medicine and pathology. But in sixth grade, friends and classmates only knew that I dissected pickled animals ordered from a catalog, suggesting that I was on a trajectory toward a psychopath and an unhealthy fascination with road kill.

Ned’s anxiety had escalated during my reverie. “Wait a minute, Mom. Tell me again. You were a loser? Is that true?” Ned needed verification of this troubling information.

Now I began to wonder whether Ned’s horror actually reflected the confirmation of a secret fear. In our affluent suburb, maybe Ned already sensed that I was a bit of an outlier. Most women were very fashion conscious with immaculately dyed hair and coordinated outfits. This was not an interest of mine. I had first met Chris’ mother when she came to our house to pick him up. She had wandered to the back yard and saw me bouncing on the trampoline as I showed the boys a fabulous game of dodge ball I had invented. I leapt off the trampoline to greet her, wearing a pair of ratty green shorts and my favorite tee shirt that illustrated different birds of prey. My forehead shimmered with sweat. She, on the other hand, was wearing an impeccable pair of snug white pants, a green and pink striped shirt and was holding a pert little hand bag. I wondered if Ned had noticed the judgmental look on her face then, equivalent to a large “L” blazoned on my forehead.

Ned interpreted my continued silence. “Oh, no – for how many years were you a loser?” he asked.

I gratefully seized on his choice of tense – you WERE a loser. That blessed past tense suggested that I might have been one, but not any longer. Maybe Ned thought that I had simply aged out of the category, or he acknowledged that people’s perceptions should not be frozen in time – an insight that had not occurred to me in 6th grade.

And then finally, with a note of exasperation, he said “Did Dad rescue you from being a loser?”

Ned had now wandered into complex gender roles. I didn’t know how much he had absorbed from not only our marriage, but all the other social cues that seeped in from TV, movies and simple observation of classmates. Perhaps he sensed that men were traditionally the wage earners, and this responsibility was already weighing on his slender shoulders. And now added to this duty a husband was supposed to rehab a wife’s status from loser to popular?

I had little time left. We were almost at Chris’ house. Time to be a parent.

“Well, Ned,” I said, “Yes, some people might have thought I was a bit of a loser when I was your age. But I liked what I was doing, and I had plenty of good friends. The important thing is what you think of yourself. The differences in people are what make them interesting, and what makes life interesting. Don’t get trapped into what others think. You know that don’t you?”

We had pulled into Chris’ driveway. Ned nodded yes as he stepped out of the car. I gave it one last salvo. “You know Dad and I both think that we are the best things that have ever happened to each other.”

I followed him as he rushed up the walkway to the door. As he burst into the house I heard him loudly announced to both Chris and his mother, “I can’t believe it, my mother was a loser but now she isn’t anymore!”

It was a start, but some life lessons require more than a ten minute car ride.


The missing words in the following poem are a set of anagrams (i.e. like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicate the number of letters.  One of the words will rhyme with either the preceding or following lines.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

Oh, the travails of 6th graders as they seek their assigned social —-

The brain, the boy crazy, horse crazy or even buffoonish mascot.

Even if you think you’ve made it, —- of pitfalls remain.

With one simple slip up, your hard earned status may be hard to regain.

No one wants to feel —-, marginalized and socially disabled,

So don’t succumb to that stigma if “loser” is what you’ve been labeled.







slot, lots, lost

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