It was my sophomore winter and my first term abroad. It was also my first time away from the people and institutions that had come to define my life at Dartmouth, as well as my first time dealing with the influx of a new freshman class and the changes that the 4-year cycle always brings.
“We miss you,” my friends told me, homesick Facebooking late at night. “But it’s okay - we found a mini-you!
We found you a replacement.”
My first instinct was aggressive rejection, pushing myself back in my chair to regard my computer screen from a safe distance. Impossible. They could never find a replacement for me. Me. Come on. I’m singular, unique-- a special snowflake. Aren’t I? Next came doubt, and fear. What if I AM replaceable, after all? Who are they replacing me with? What does this person look like? What do they act like? Would we get along if I were in Hanover? What exactly does a “mini-me” mean, anyway?
I don’t think I ever talked to anyone about these questions. I just carried them around in my head: in class when grammar got boring, on long commutes, while wandering through the unfamiliar city that I was trying to make my home. For two months I saw these unfamiliar names in blitzes, on signup sheets, even occasionally gracing my inbox when the freshman fear of listservs was at last overcome. My constant consideration wore these questions smooth, like the sea does to seaglass, taking away that initial bite, resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn’t have answers until I got home and could see these (no-doubt sad) imitations for myself - imitations in the plural, because not one but TWO organizations had told me the same thing.
I was that unoriginal of a person. Me, who prided herself on being so different.
As it turns out, I guess we all do.
My spring homecoming was fascinating. I remember both meetings, separately and distinctly, and both in the contexts of the organizations through which they’d replaced me. One was at a fancy dress party, and I walked in the door, had my name squealed, and began distributing hugs and compliments accordingly, but all the while an itch in the back of my mind notified me of the presence of a person who was not supposed to be in my space. MY space. I found her immediately and instantaneously began the comparison checklist: a particular tilt to the head or a thrust to the jaw that told me she wasn’t usually shy, and a drink in her hand when a good portion of the room didn’t drink. But what cinched it for me was that she carried herself when dressed up the same way I did, which is to say like a water buffalo in a skirt.
I have a bad habit of not making introductions easy. As I recall, I crossed my arms, looked her up and down, and said, “So you’re the girl I’ve heard so much about.”
She promptly returned: “You could say that YOU’RE the person I’VE heard so much about.” I grinned. She grinned. (Not a smile - a grin. The distinction is important.) Friendship ensued.
The other introduction was more straightforward. I walked into a rehearsal room and almost ran over her. “Oh, shit, hi, who are-” I paused and looked her up and down. She had short hair. Oh. Of course. “You must be — .”
It wasn’t difficult. She was small and adorable. I decided I could deal with that. I lifted her off her feet and hugged her. “LET’S BE FRIENDS!”
For some strange reason, all my doppelgangers tend to be short.
Over the course of getting to know them, I started to piece together what would make an informed third party link us together. Short hair is the easy one, but it’s a representative aesthetic. Short hair is against the norm. To get a short haircut requires conscious rejection of the norm. Therefore, on some level, short-haired girls have to be a little bit counterculture. Not a lot. But enough.
The more people tell me that I am like someone else, the more I discover about how I present myself. But this inevitably brings up another question: who am I replacing?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve never had someone tell me, “You remind me of [someone from an older class].” I don’t think I’ve ever really looked up to anyone, for that matter. Sure, I’ve thought individuals were cool, and maybe respected particular traits, but there has never been any one person that I have looked at and thought how much I wanted to be like them.
It took me until my junior year to learn - well, in all honesty, to be told - that there were other people looking up to me. This necessarily conflicted with my worldview. If I didn’t look up to anyone, why in their right minds would people look up to me?
(I’m still working on that question. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.)
But even in the midst of this incredulity, I found that I had to deal with reality: that some of my less-favorable traits were being observed by other people who took them as models of behavior. (Why? Why would anyone do that?) I don’t want to be a role model. I want to freely continue indulging in my own streak of bad behavior, of being loudmouthed, of offering snarky commentary from the back row in a reliable flow.
I suppose I wouldn’t have cared so much if this were just between me and the lookers-up in question - they’re free to make their own bad decisions. But once it was pointed out to me that their perception was not only of me, but of the institutions that I frequented, we had a problem. This went against my desire to be the difference, to be unique, to be the anomaly. Now if suddenly people were seeing my actions as being part and parcel of a group, that both reflected badly on the group and occasionally turned away people from the group thinking that I represented it.
That means I’m representing my associations in a negative fashion. That means I, myself, am a Bad Thing.
No one wants to be the bad guy. We all want to be the hero of our own stories, and so I’ve been embarking on a quest to rein myself in. It’s only fun to affectionate-troll if there’s an established institution in place, one that works, one that you enjoy. And sometimes it’s necessary to put that persona aside in favor of one actually involved in building and maintaining the institutions that you love - and I’m bad at this. Really. I am. So please, bear with me while I struggle with this self that I’ve somehow created, and remember, kids:
Do as I say. Not as I do. Unless you want to turn out like me, in which case, carry on.
(Note to EMT class: I do actually do work, and readings, and things other than throwing parties.)
(Note to my retreatmates: we really do more than run around cabins shouting about patriarchy. I promise.)