Clockwise from top left: Alison Leiby, Mariah Smith, Madeleine Aggeler, and Maris Kreizman.
Eighth Grade, comedian Bo Burnham’s highly acclaimed debut film, is about a 13-year-old girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher) navigating her final week of middle school. Critics have called it “a haunting portrait of adolescence,” “so embarrassingly true to life,” and “a case study in adolescent awkwardness.” So, we thought, what better time to reflect on our own awkward adolescences? Why not look back on that period, now that it’s years later and we’re so removed from it all that we definitely don’t find ourselves regularly haunted by those memories?
Here, 11 writers share their most agonizing, embarrassing moments as 13-year-olds — along with photos of themselves at that age. Much like the film, the stories described here aren’t comprised of overt, over-the-top humiliations; rather, they’re mishaps that illustrate how almost everything felt cringeworthy at that age. Read on, and feel extremely grateful that you’re an adult now.
The thing about being 13 is that just existing is so soul-crushingly mortifying that you will do absolutely anything for approval. For example, when your friend Cecilia suggests that, when asked, you should tell your friend Theo that YOU were the one who broke into her locker and stole her notebook even though Cecilia did it (Theo and Cecilia have been fighting a lot lately, Cecilia explains, and it’s better for everyone if you take the fall) you happily comply because, for those few brief moments, the cool, beautiful, sporty Cecilia approves of you even though you’re tall and awkward and chubby. Theo doesn’t speak to you for two weeks. Theo and Cecilia end up perfectly fine.
One of the most traumatic events in my life was switching schools in middle school. Early into my tenure at my new school, and while I was still struggling to make friends, I went on a trip to Branson, Missouri, with my choir class. I was set to bunk with some of the cool girls that weekend, which excited me. However, I didn’t get to enjoy the weekend because while on the bus from St. Louis to Branson, I became severely ill, vomiting all over myself. It came on so quickly that I had to be rushed to the back of the bus and sequestered from everyone else. Before reaching the cabins we were to stay at, we made a pit stop at a carnival. I obviously couldn’t enjoy this stop and had to sit on the bus with my choir teacher, who used this time to tell me all about her impending divorce that her daughter (and my classmate) didn’t yet know about. Finally, we got to the cabins, and instead of enjoying my weekend, I writhed in pain on a couch while my roommates had a pillow fight around me and repeatedly called me “gray.”
My period arrived when I was 13, and with that came a sudden growth of pubic hair I wasn’t quite sure how to handle. I didn’t know you could shave it or even tame it, so I was utterly embarrassed to wear bathing suits around anyone. One day, I was invited to a pool party thrown by a guy I really liked. I didn’t want to wear a bathing suit for that very reason, so I wore jeans and a shirt. I told one of my friends to pretend to push me in the pool so that I could swim and have fun with everyone. Once she did, I played it up. “Oh my God, I can’t believe she did that!,” I said, and laughed like a cool girl who couldn’t care less that this just happened to her. But then, my friend (now enemy) told everyone that I told her to push me in the pool and that she thought I was really weird. I was humiliated, and the guy I liked looked at me like I was crazy.
Although I’m grateful I finished school before the social torture of Instagram and Snapchat, tech still fueled one of my cringiest adolescent memories. I was around 13 when I first started using AIM. After anxiously exchanging screen names with the Cute Older Guy on My Bus, I nervously messaged him that afternoon. Following the ritualistic “sup, nm, u?” I made a joke and he responded “lol.” I remembered a friend telling me that meant “lots of love,” so I was both thrilled and shocked when he seemingly declared his devotion out of nowhere. I typed back another “lol” to reciprocate and added, “I didn’t know you felt that way about me” like I was the 13-year-old star of a Nora Ephron movie. It still makes me groan thinking about it now. He didn’t answer for five grueling minutes and then eventually explained the acronym meant laughing out loud. I was so mortified I begged my parents to drive me to school for the rest of the week. I also stopped signing cards to my grandma with “lol.”
I was 13 when America’s hottest club was AOL Instant Messenger. This ruled for me — I was and continue to be both cripplingly shy and horny, and AIM provided a low-risk venue to work out complicated feelings. Since I was an emotional risk taker and savvy user, I had installed one of those trick links in my profile that said something like, “Click to see my Webshots,” but actually automatically sent an instant message from the clicker’s account that said, “Joanna will you go out with me?” I thought this was a hilarious deception that might also one day shake loose a classmate’s latent desires.
One afternoon, in the middle of an otherwise uneventful conversation, Dong Torkin* — a large 13-year-old with whom I had shared a tumultuous two-week relationship that ended around the time he robbed a Dunkin’ Donuts but probably not because of that — messaged me, “Joanna will you go out with me?” I gasped, and felt a shooting internal anxiety erection developing.
“oh dong, i dont know,” I responded, instantly forgetting my prank. “can we take it slow?”
“wait wut,” Dong replied.
“oh haha. u clicked the link,” said I. “i was jk.”
*A pseudonym has been used to protect the privacy of the innocent.
My mom dressed me until I was 13 and I now realize this was for the best. She has amazing taste and fashion sense. The summer before grade eight, I went to visit my aunt who lived in Minnesota. At the point in my life, I was experimenting with pop-punk. America had edgy stores we didn’t have over in Canada — it was my opportunity to finally buy clothes that would give me the social currency I craved.
I begged my aunt, bless her, to buy me skater shoes I found at Zumiez. They were ugly as hell. I just wanted to impress this one white boy at school, ultimately. But I couldn’t wait. I ended up logging into my friend’s MSN Messenger and pretending to be her. I said, “Sarah Hagi got these extremely cool skater shoes this summer!” And he said, “So?” I still wish I was dead.
I was obsessed with lying to everyone about my first kiss that hadn’t happened yet: “It was Mike Ferry in his driveway last year,” I’d say, adding that they shouldn’t mention it to ANYONE EVER because “he wasn’t a great kisser you know?” A whole pack of lies. One time after weeks of lying my scrawny ass off, someone taunted Mike in front of me in algebra: “How was your kiss with Christina, Mike? Oo0o0oh!” I was wearing white gauchos (like wide-leg capris, if you’ll recall) that I thought were very chic but weren’t great when, in that moment, I got so nervous and peed myself a little. Too little for someone to notice while I was sitting down, but enough that I was totally fucked if I stood up. I did what any genius would do: sat in my own piss for the next 40 minutes, waited for everyone to leave the classroom and sprinted to the bathroom to try to hide until I died. That day I swore to get kissed ASAP and then dated a skater two years older than me whose motto was “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I put that as my “favorite quote” in the yearbook. And I attributed it to him. Like he invented it.
I am 13 years old, 197 pounds, and five-five or five-six depending on the generosity of the nurse taking my height. I am also on Accutane for cystic acne, a medication whose function is to dry out your skin so badly that you aren’t even allowed to get your eyebrows waxed for fear it will rip off, but which might cure your zits. Despite this, I work up the balls to audition for the school play — The Chronicles of Narnia — and am blessed with the major speaking role of Unicorn. My husband is the unfortunately-named Mr. Beaver and the theater teacher casts the only other fat kid who auditioned. He debates having us kiss but decides the roles don’t call for it. There are no clothes that will fit me for costumes, so a volunteer mom goes out and buys an XL white top and XL white elastic pants. She’s the one who glues and then un-glues my unicorn horn every single night while everyone else takes photos on their new digital cameras for Myspace, which I don’t have anyway. I run my horn into my crush’s eye backstage. I’m not cast in the spring musical.
I had the hots for Daddy Warbucks. He was tall and blond and looked like he could be in high school. I was short — I would always be short — and puberty hadn’t done anything cool to me yet. I’d auditioned to play Miss Hannigan because mentally I was already an embittered adult, but I ended up being cast as Annie. It is so rare, in the junior-high musical genre, to have to play someone younger than you.
There were rumors that Daddy Warbucks was going to ask me to the Eighth-Grade Dance. I waited for it for weeks, imagining how fun incest would be. Daddy Warbucks ended up taking a tall blond girl named Elke. Things were supposed to get better, that’s what “Tomorrow” is all about. But no one told the Pomeranian cast as Sandy, who I sang the song to. I belted it out with all my heart while Sandy the Pomeranian sneezed on me the whole time.
In middle school I, like everyone, was desperate to “go out” with someone. Of course, going out with someone when you’re barely hitting puberty mostly meant walking from one class to another together and pressing your flat chests against each other at dances. I had a crush on a boy I had grown up with and really wanted to ask him out, but had zero courage. In the morning before school, while we all stood outside in jean shorts and flip-flops because it had finally hit 60 degrees in Maryland, my friend Lindsay confidently walked from the circle of girls to the circle of boys and asked if he would go out with me. It was a quick exchange and she came back with a big smile to report, “All the guys totally agreed with him!” I instantly got flush and excited until she uttered the next sentence: “And he said no.”
Summer camp represented a fresh beginning. Like a new journal that hasn’t been scribbled on, my camp identity was beautifully blank: I’d be meeting a group of people with no knowledge of my social status, or lack thereof, at home. I was meticulous in my planning, bringing the right clothes (North Face jacket) and accessories (Crazy Creek chair, Nalgene water bottle), but I also had to be meticulous in crafting my personality. I remember a middle-school summer in which I thought of exactly what I wanted to say to one of the cooler girls. I rehearsed it the entire walk back to the cabin from canteen, where once a day you get to pick out either a candy bar or a soda. There she was, on the floor, eating a Charleston Chew. “How’s your canteen treatin’ ya?” I said, with what I imagined to be Bugs Bunny confidence. “How’s it ‘treating’ me?” she shot back, more bewildered than anything. I shrank and shriveled, and likely floundered because I don’t remember what I said next, but that humiliation — the planning, the expectations, the instant shutdown — is tattooed in my adult brain.