Stranger Me Too

She was my first middle school crush. I saw her for the first time on the first day of sixth grade as I was walking out of the cafeteria. She was opening her locker on the far side of the courtyard and I was hooked. It didn't take long to discover a few facts about her. Everyone knew something; she was the most popular girl in school.

I was like Preston in Can't Hardly Wait, pining for Amanda - the prom queen who doesn't even know he exists. Unlike the plucky Ethan Embry character, us geeky guys don't usually get the girl. Real life is more like Pretty in Pink where the cute girl chooses the rich and athletic dude over the lovable nerd. I was Duckie. If adolescence has a lesson to teach, it is how boys like me don't stand a chance with girls like her.

So, I did the most logical thing any socially awkward sixth grader would do, which of course is completely illogical. I went out the girl's locker partner instead. I never dated the girl. We only shared one conversation, forced by a teacher as a part of a class project. Today, I'm certain that she has no recollection of me lingering in her memories of growing up. Twenty years passed since graduation day and I doubt she would recognize me if we passed each other on the street.

This history of mine is what moved me so deeply in the final episode of Stranger Things 2. The kids all gathered in the Hawkins Middle School gymnasium for the winter dance. One by one, the core team of boys went their separate ways in pursuit of romance. The writing and direction transported me 25 years back in time to when I was the same age as the boys in Stranger Things, remembering my scrawny awkwardness, and they placed me in the shoes of Gaten Matarazzo's portrayal of Dustin Henderson.

image courtesy of Netflix

As Dustin searched for a girl willing to dance with him, I remembered all those painful memories of being a weird outcast struggling to figure out where I belonged. The first group of girls ignored him, then laughed at him. The second group sneered and walked away as soon as they saw him coming. All of the heartbreak and despair on that young actor’s face was so familiar to the younger version of me.

I remembered the times my female classmates laughed at me and avoided me. I remembered every word whispered behind my back as if I couldn't hear them. I remember being the only kid not invited to the parties. I never felt like I deserved a girl's attention or that they owed me anything. Instead, I spent most of my formative years wondering what was wrong with me. As a dejected Dustin sat on the sidelines, I suddenly identified with this character. I sat there and thought, "holy crap, he is me."

Gracefully, Stranger Things 2 doesn’t end with the rejected Dustin, moping, alone, and in tears. Rather than ending the night humiliated, an older girl stepped in and offered hope. In the TV show, Dustin’s friend Mike had an older sister. She was serving punch as a chaperone when she observed the girls rejecting Dustin. She saw his sadness and offered some compassion. She walked over to where Dustin sat and asked him to dance. After encouraging him to step in a little closer, she gave him the best pep talk a girl could ever give a boy: that he is her favorite.

My life was also given a breath of hope from an older girl. In sixth grade, I became infatuated with a girl who didn’t know I existed. I was a geek at the bottom of our school’s social totem pole and she lived in the upper echelon where only the cool kids thrived. She was an unrequited crush through most of our junior high years and into high school. I learned a lot about her, but there was one fact I didn’t know until later: she was the younger sister.

We both had older siblings. They graduated together five years ahead of us. Not only were they classmates, they were also friends. In my awkward years of not fitting in with kids my own age, I often found myself hanging out with my brother and his crew.

In the summer before my senior year, I joined my brother, the girl’s older sister, and a few other mutual friends at a carnival. I was the youngest in the group, the only one still in high school; most everyone else was 20 or 21. It was such an enjoyable night and for one of those rare moments of my teenaged life, I didn’t feel judged by anyone.

During that night, I made a few discoveries about the older sister. She was cuter. But more than that, she was also kinder. She didn’t act as pretentious. And she talked to me – not because she had to but because she wanted to. Much like Mike’s older sister with Dustin, this older sister treated me with dignity. She saw me as a human being.

I’ve always been grateful to my older brother for allowing me to join in many of his adventures. More than that, I am thankful for his choice in friends, how they never treated me like an obligatory tag along. I am in their debt for accepting me as a friend and equal. Thanks to the older sister, when my last year of high school started, I walked onto campus for the first time not giving a damn what the girl thought of me. Her opinion no longer mattered.

Here's to all the Dustin Hendersons of the world. Hang in there. Someone, somewhere will tell us that we are their favorite. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

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