Proving yet again that I’ve fallen down some sort of strange rabbit hole, I was asked to judge an official beauty contest this past weekend. For real. An actual, Texas beauty contest. With real people and crowns and scholarships. It was a surreal experience, one I wouldn’t actually believe myself except that I have a 58-page event program on my desk to prove it.
I’m still not quite sure to say about this. It’s one of those things that I’d rather have you come over to my house, pull up a chair and discuss it at length. But I’ll give you to short version here.
Last summer at some point, my new, fun friend Kesa direct messaged me on twitter and asked if I’d judge a beauty contest. I thought she was kidding, so I said “Sure! I’m super qualified to do that!” Turns out, she was serious.
Fast forward five months… I found myself waking up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to put on a fancy dress and head over to judge an interview round with my friend, Jenny. Thankfully: A.) We were only two of the ten judges and B.) Someone had the wisdom to split us up. A few weeks before, they’d given us a giant handbook that outlined what we should do (ask smart questions, give detailed feedback) … and, perhaps more importantly what we shouldn’t do (don’t clap, don’t make eye contact, don’t talk to anyone, don’t breathe too loud). As I was trying to envision how I could ever be quiet and serious with Jenny in the room, the coordinator announced that there were two separate group judgings…a 13- to 16-year-old category and a 17- to 22-year-old category. Knowing I was completely the Paula Abdul of the team (“Y’all are all amaaaazing! Don’t change a thing!”), I was super happy to get the younger group. And then I thought, oh crap, I have the younger group.
At the end of my sixth-grade year, I tried out for cheerleader. Because in small town Texas, that’s the law. I had no business doing this (I had zero skill) but my mother (who had been head cheerleader) assured me that I was wonderful, and it was going to be great, and no matter what happened it would be a fun experience to learn new things and meet new people. So I did it. And it was great, and fun, and I learned new things, and met new people, and completely did not make it or anywhere near it and OhMyGod, I felt like a total loser.
I had this acute, cheerleader nightmare flashback way too early (or way too late?) last Saturday morning as I downed coffee and waited for the girls to enter the room for their first job interview. There were five of us waiting there, serious adults, who I’m sure looked somewhere around the age of 100 to each of the hopefuls. We were lined up, pens and notebooks in hand, ready to shoot intense questions their way for eight straight minutes. It was tense. In fact, I almost felt ill, I was so nervous for them.
But you know who didn’t seem to be nervous at all? Them. These eleven girls individually marched in, completely confident, looked each of us in the eyes and answered all of our easy (What was the last book you read?) and tough (What is the meaning of success and how does one achieve it?) questions. They were amazing. I kept thinking, ‘what if I had possessed this confidence at age 13?’… hell, ‘what if I possessed this confidence now?!’ It was honestly exciting. They were engaging, and smart, and funny, and serious. Each girl had extra jobs and interests and hobbies and activities. They talked about their families, friends, dreams, expectations, ambitions. And all of them had interesting stories. At age 13 to 16. Real stories. I was fascinated, encouraged, and inspired by these girls. I did not expect that.
Something else that I didn’t expect happened right after my own cheerleading disaster. Within the week of my very public failure (I believe approximately 4 people knew and/or cared), the counselor at my school pulled me aside and asked me to join the U.I.L. academic fiction writing competition. Since I believed my life had no meaning without cheerleading and all (and really what else did I have on my schedule?), I told her okay, whatever, I’d do it. The following week, I won first place in writing, and decided that’s what I’d do for a living someday. So far, that plan has worked out well.
As I’m sitting here now, and as I’m looking through this 58-page program, I’m thinking I want to write a personal note to the eleven 13- to 16-year-old girls that I met this last weekend. I want to tell each of them how impressed I am with their ideas, their energy, their confidence. I want to tell them how they changed my mind about some things, and how they reminded me what you can learn from..and grow from…experiences you have along the way. I also want to say how much they reminded me what it was like to be 13, to be 16… the insecurities, the drama, the growing pains.
I shared some of this with Jenny, as we were killing time during the six-hour break break between morning interviews and the evening event. We had a lot to process and hours to burn, so we drove around and stumbled upon a beautiful Hill Country winery. I went on and on about how impressed I was with these girls, especially impressed with their bravery, because I remember what it was like to be a teenager in a small, Texas town. By all recollection, I felt like a freak most of the time. I was positive that there was not anyone else like me out there in the world…no one who liked Sylvia Plath, or listened to The Stone Roses, or dreamed of being Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain. And as I was droning on and on and pontificating about reminiscing, Jenny said, “Oh look! There’s a fountain! We have to splash around in it like Maggie McNamara in Rome!”
And I knew. Again, I knew. Again, I was reminded.
It just gets better.
If we look ahead, look around, look forward…we find our people, our passions, our place. And we find ourselves.
These girls may already be there. But if they aren’t, I know they’ll get there. And I know, because I know, because it will. get. better. And when it does, it will be fantastic.