I believe that some of what follows may be universal, and some of what follows undoubtedly was shaped by my own life experience. I am eternally grateful to have grown up in a loving family in a middle class suburb on the southwest side of Chicago in the 1970s.
At the beginning of our lives, learning to walk and talk are big milestones. First steps and first words are cherished. Parents are almost desperate not only to witness, but to somehow capture these events. The joy emanating from the parent is received by the child, further encouraging progress. Children need to be rewarded with love from the gods of their world. As they grow, children are coached in pronunciation and grammar, and constantly reminded of posture. When school starts, the parent promotes both good behavior and study habits.
Oh, how things change with the onset of adolescence. Inevitably, the acceptance of peers becomes much more important, and parents lose their omniscience in the eyes of the child. In the 1970s, acceptance by your peers was summarized in one word: cool. Everyone wanted to be a cool kid. What exactly did it take to be considered cool? The answer to that is elusive.
It was much easier to notice traits of those considered uncool, and work to eliminate them. For example, a boy who wore "floods" (too-short pants, exposing too much of the socks) was not cool. To complete the stereotype, he had a plastic pocket protector to guard against leaky pens, and wore galoshes and scarves in the winter. He always did his homework, raised his hand to answer the teacher's questions, and used proper grammar. He probably couldn't throw, catch or hit a baseball, or know how to pop and ride a wheelie on his bike.
There were more words than one to convey the opposite of cool: nerd, dork, geek and spaz come to mind. Boys didn't want to be called a sissy and girls didn't want to be seen as prissy, and nobody wanted to be called a tattletale or a teacher's pet.
Noticing these things, I began my "relentless pursuit of cool." I learned how to play baseball and ride wheelies on my Schwinn Sting-Ray. I played pick-up games of full tackle football in the park, without helmets or pads. I stopped raising my hand in class. I worked on speaking incorrectly; trying hard to use the word "ain't". I changed the way I walked, trying hard to project a "tough" image.
I learned all the swear words and their meanings. Then, I learned the right situations to apply each one. Finally, I had to practice. Seriously, it's obvious when a kid is learning how to swear, because it doesn't sound natural. It's like the aural equivalent of using a yellow highlighter on the swear word -- it just jumps out at you. Seeing the movie The Bad News Bears with my friends was inspirational; by the end of that summer, we were all swearing professionally.
Basically, many kids just like me put a lot of effort into unlearning all the things parents and teachers tried so hard to instill, all in the pursuit of cool. During this process, I would get confused and slip up. I would accidentally say "ain't" at home, or speak correctly by mistake on the playground. Eventually, I had two personas; one for school and home, one for my peers.
I listened to Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Who. I wore rock t-shirts, flared bottom jeans and the right sneakers. I watched Westerns, World War II and Bruce Lee movies. I made my own ramps and jumped just like Evel Knievel.
Walking the walk and talking the talk did not guarantee coolness; it only reduced the risk of ridicule. So, did all my efforts pay off? Was I ever considered a cool kid? I used to think so at times, but looking back, I'd have to say no, not really -- I only succumbed to peer pressure. At this stage of my life, I couldn't care less what others think or what's currently popular. I know my interests and passions, yet still get a thrill from discovering new ones. My relentless pursuit continues; only now, I define what's cool.
In the words of Keith Richards, "If you've gotta think about being cool, you ain't cool."