Chicago Tribune: “Message to ‘invisibles': Jerks don’t decide who you are”

This incredible story ran in today’s Chicago Tribune:

Huppke: Book dissects high school hating
Message to ‘invisibles': Jerks don’t decide who you are
By Rex W. Huppke
5:08 p.m. CDT, August 28, 2013

Every year around this time, I see trudging teenagers, fusions of innocence and awkwardness, bound back to high school.

I see them and my heart aches because I know what happens in there. I know that place will damn near eat some of them alive, as it did me and probably many of you.

It’s a brutal stage of life, and I want to grab these kids by the shoulders, look them in the eyes and say: “This will pass. You’ll be fine, and one day you’ll look on Facebook and see your tormentors have become average and you’ve become happy, and you’ll realize all that high school nonsense was just that — nonsense.”

But they wouldn’t listen. I wouldn’t have listened if somebody had said that to 14-year-old me. The pain of not fitting in and getting picked on and judged is too much to overlook in that moment. And besides, what does a grown-up know?

Fortunately, there’s a grown-up among us who knows a lot, and she has taken every struggling high school kid’s dream scenario — What if I had a guide to help me become popular? — and turned it into a novel that has the potential to do great good. Her name is Caprice Crane, a Los Angeles-based author and screenwriter, and the book is called “Confessions of a Hater.”

She describes the story as a cross between the movies “Mean Girls” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” though I’d rather call it an advice book expertly disguised as fiction. It’s a cunning delivery device for the things we’d like to say to struggling teens, a pill they might be willing to swallow.

The main character is Hailey Harper, and she’s just starting her sophomore year at a new high school. She comes across a journal her now-college-age sister wrote called “How to Be a Hater,” which is brimming with tips on “how she became strong and popular and self-assured.”

Hailey is wise beyond her years — allowing Crane to slip bits of wisdom in at every turn — and early in the book Hailey notes: “Popularity. It’s stupid and random and based not on talent or skill but on rank — a rank decided upon by no one deserving to make that determination.”

How true that is, but even though Hailey gets it, she still transforms herself, using her sister’s guide to fall in with the popular clique at her new school. It’s a fleeting ride, and Hailey soon realizes she fits in better with the outsiders, the group Crane aptly calls “the invisibles.” (That would be most of us during high school.)

The story then revolves around Hailey and her fellow invisibles using the “How to Be a Hater” tips to knock the popular crowd down, raising some powerful questions about what we sacrifice in the name of revenge.

The book is painstakingly up-to-date and authentic. Any adult who reads it will be jettisoned back into the uncomfortable hallways of high school, and any teen who reads it will closely relate to the language and pop-culture references. (The book is recommended for ages 13 and up and does contain profanity and one awkward — and accurately squirm-worthy — first sexual encounter.)

But what matters most is the message. In an interview, Crane said: “I wanted to say, ‘Don’t look outside yourself to find self-worth; that has to come from within. Praise won’t make you better, and hurtful words won’t make you worse. What other people think of you isn’t your business; what you think of you is what matters.'”

It’s a lesson we could all learn, even those of us far beyond our high school years.

“I sort of always felt a little like an outsider in high school, and still I’m not exempt from that,” Crane said. “There are always hierarchies in every world that you exist in, whether it’s the online world, the job world or wherever. There are always going to be some situations that you’re in where you feel excluded. You can’t change that, but learning how to best deal with the jerks in your life early can help.”

I don’t remember the exact moment when I came into my own, when the judgments of others became unimportant and the sound of my own self-confidence drowned out the noise of feckless haters. It certainly didn’t happen in high school, but it happened eventually, and it gives me strength and at times an overwhelming desire to shield young people from a similar fate.

I believe that’s a common emotion among adults. Whether it’s our own kids or someone else’s, we want them to be themselves and to know that by doing so they will find friendship, and love will come, and life will be good.

Not everything winds up perfect in Hailey Harper’s world, a fact that makes her story that much more believable. But she grows smarter, as young adults should, and she says something I wish every teen — the jocks and the geeks and the divas and the invisibles, one and all — would take as gospel: “Tearing down others to make yourself feel better is like burning down your neighbors’ houses to make sure you have the nicest house on the street. You end up all alone and the view sucks.”

The dedication for Crane’s novel reads: “For invisibles everywhere.”

We invisibles, former and current, are here and we are many. And I dare say we are grateful for a book that gets it right.


Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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