They populate hallways of high schools across the country, sauntering to class in their flannels and flared jeans. They cry “like this if you’re a ’90s kid,” while bopping out to hip hop music on a vintage Walkman. These lost souls were “born in the wrong generation” and yearn for days gone by. Fixating on any time period from the 1960s to the 1990s, these angsty teenagers often proclaim that the times in question were “better days” and that these past eras produced the last truly “good” music. Oftentimes, such individuals are dismissed by their peers as those kids who can’t stop talking about “My So-Called Life” or “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” Of course, the ’90s saw events like Y2K, the OJ trial and a presidential impeachment. But we also have this decade to thank for beanie baby hoards, those slap bracelets that got banned and “Space Jam.” What if these displaced dreamers really were born in the wrong generation, and the past, particularly the ’90s, truly was a better time?
Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” made me consider this question. Published in 1999, the epistolary tale takes the reader on a journey with Charlie through his first year of high school and “the world of first dates, family dramas, and new friends,” as stated in the novel. “Perks” is quintessentially ’90s, filled with grunge, angst and feeling infinite. I am not a ’90s kid, but Charlie’s experience truly resonated with me and brought me back to my own high school years. In many ways, his journey was my journey, and reading Chbosky’s novel reminded me of the loneliness, vulnerability and love that characterized my life. The story is transcendent and universal, “both happy and sad” and written from the perspective of a boy who is “still trying to figure out how that could be.”
You could say I was lonely in the ninth grade. Following the dissolution of a close friendship, and overwhelmed by my own nervousness, I had a difficult time making friends. I was quiet and shy, terrified by the prospect of talking to new people but racked with a yearning for human connection. It wasn’t a great phase of my life, but it was a formative one nonetheless. And Chbosky captures the essence of this period nearly perfectly. Early in the book, Charlie timidly befriends Patrick and Sam, both seniors, and becomes close friends with them. But before this connection is made, and after conflicts arise between the friends, Charlie’s isolation takes center stage. The hopelessness and rumination that characterized many of my days trapped alone in my head are depicted with a scary accuracy. At one point, Charlie is promised a call from his friend Patrick after a mishap, but Charlie doesn’t receive one. This one event begins to taint the rest of his thoughts, and he becomes increasingly distressed the more he stews in his own worries. That sort of poisonous anxiety, the kind that paralyzes you and seeps into the rest of your existence, is not new to me. That Chbosky is able to capture this inimitable feeling of nervous isolation only speaks more to the universality of his book.
Thankfully, much like Charlie, I was able to find truly life-saving friends during the ninth grade, and coincidentally, the friends I made as a ninth grader were all older than me as well. Emotional insecurity and anxiety don’t go away overnight, though, even with new friends, and growing into appreciating these friends is a process in and of itself. It’s a process of teenage growth that I haven’t seen depicted often. Here, “Perks” once again captures an aspect of my adolescence with precision and grace. Charlie’s quiet sentimentality is both beautiful and familiar. When Charlie is first invited to hang out with Sam and Patrick’s friends, I saw a part of myself in him. He passively intakes his surroundings, absorbing the presence of new, strange and wonderful people just existing. “That was me once,” I thought. I remember when I was invited to a house party for the first time, and though I wasn’t fed any pot brownies and we only listened to “Kidz Bop” while we face painted, my emotional state in those moments was similar to Charlie’s. Anything felt possible, and the depths of love ripped my chest open, baring my soul for whatever pain or joy might come.
But I got much more time with my friends than Charlie does with his: My friends were only a year older than me, whereas Charlie’s are three years older. But this doesn’t matter, because even though Charlie’s journey of friendship with Patrick and Sam moved to a new stage much sooner than my journey did, both Charlie and I hold an acute awareness of the rarity and beauty of friendship. Our explicit acknowledgement and tranquil acceptance of the impermanence of these times amplified the highs of love and companionship. There were times when I became so acutely aware of how great it was to have friends that I simply cried out of joy and thankfulness. Such sentimentality is familiar to Charlie, and on this level I connected with him. I distinctly remember a moment driving home from my friend’s house in the eleventh grade. It was the last year everyone in our friend group would all be in high school, and graduation was approaching quickly. I came to a stoplight and considered this fact for the thousandth time, but while I was thinking, a pretty song came on. I don’t remember the song, only that it was one I recommended to one of my friends. But I remember that I just started laughing. Then crying. Love washed over me, and I reflected on all the times I felt infinite with them.
I still reminisce on these times, but coming to terms with the passage of time helped me grow beyond who I was before I met these people. I am still awkward and shy, and sometimes I avoid going to the same hair stylist more than once because I have already asked them every question in my arsenal the first time they cut my hair. But I am not afraid anymore. I carry on with the memories of those I love in my heart. Steven Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is transcendent, and it spoke to me and my experiences over two decades after it was originally published. Each generation is defined by the culture in which they grew up in. The hippies of the ’60s, the angsty adolescents of the ’90s, the political revolutionaries of the 2010s. It is inevitable, necessary, even, to move beyond the past, but there is also value in what has been lost. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” reminded me of this. So slip into those Dr. Martens and that flannel and jam out to some Salt-N-Pepa, and embrace being born in the wrong generation. Embrace the ability to look back on remnants of times gone by while still being able to appreciate what made those times special. The wisdom to be found in them is timeless. “Perks” in particular reminds us all to be aware of limitless joy and opportunity, and, most of all, helps us to remember to feel infinite.