American Theatre of Actors' Out of my Comfort Zone. The show's title pretty much sums up my middle school experience. In fact, I can recall only a handful of moments between grades 6 and 8 where I felt comfortable, both in my own skin and at school. And so when I heard that my long time friends Melissa and Sophia (pictured below) were stage managing a rock musical about middle school and its many ups and downs, I was intrigued on a personal level.
Because I have known these girls since we were in middle school, over 9 years ago. And although middle school made up undoubtedly the worst years of my life, Melissa and Sophia were there for it all, and even in college, we still make an effort to see and support each other.
It hits me upon arriving at American Theatre of Actors that the cast is comprised entirely of children, and young children too. Many of them look to be about 12 years old, tops, which seems unfathomably young even at my age.
The show opens with a young girl named Rachel, stressing over whether or not she should tell her best friend since grade school, Josh, that she has romantic feelings for him. While I never had a male best friend, I relate to her anxiety over a boy. Middle school was a series of me crushing on guys, only to have my feelings go unreturned. When Rachel finally presses send on a text message to Josh confessing her true feelings, I am rooting for her.
But only moments after Rachel sends this text, her mother confiscates her cell phone before she can get any response, throwing her into an understandable panic. And at school the following day, Rachel finds out that her text to Josh failed to send, leaving her with no choice but to talk to him in person.
Once she gets him alone, Rachel tells her best friend that she wants to be more than just friends with him, speaking as clearly and honestly as she possibly can. The secret he bravely admits to her is one that he has kept with him for his entire life, but unfortunately, the school bully, also known as The Viper, records Josh's admission, and threatens to expose him in his daily blog.
This brings me back to a particularly awful middle school memory: cyber bullying. I had always taken pretty good class pictures, but 7th grade ruined my lucky streak. When the camera flashed, I was unprepared, and so I came out looking incredibly bored, open mouthed, and tired in the photograph. But I wasn't hurt until I discovered classmates of mine talking badly about me online, referencing the class picture fiasco. I couldn't believe that they could say such cruel things about me on such a public forum. Had they no shame whatsoever? Apparently not...
The Viper follows through on his warning, humiliating Josh so much that he does something rash in order to save his reputation.
Another middle school horror story involved me telling a classmate of mine that she had sat on some gum. She looked at me angrily, and asked if I was kidding. I told her no and that there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to the back of her jeans. When I offered to remove the gum for her with a tissue, she screamed in front of my entire class, "You want to touch my ASS?! What are you, a lesbian?" Naturally, everyone in the class ate this up. I felt like I was punched in the gut.
Because I wasn't gay, and having people think you're something that you're not is terrible, plain and simple.
Being hated for something that you are is just as damaging.
Josh has lived his whole life with people thinking he is a superstar. He is handsome, popular, and athletic. A total man's man. But inside, he is masking a crucial part of himself, one that he didn't choose, cannot grow out of, and shouldn't have to hide. And why does he go to such extremes to keep his secret? For the sake of his peers.
Out of My Comfort Zone's message was one I wish I had known when I was in middle school: Don't be anybody that you're not. It sounds basic, but the effort that kids in middle school put in simply to be liked is nothing short of absurd. People like avoiding conflict. They don't want to stand out too much, so they play it safe. Out of My Comfort Zone challenged this concept, promoting self confidence, and loving unashamedly. Although it's been nearly a decade since I started middle school, the problems the children faced in Out of My Comfort Zone still strongly registered with me, and triggered painful flashbacks from my childhood that have shaped me to this day.