An exclusive excerpt from The Office writer and actress Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) out on November 1 from Crown.
Sometimes teenage girls ask me for advice about what they should be doing if they want a career like mine one day. There are basically two ways to get where I am: (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) convince your parents to move to Orlando and homeschool you until you get cast on a kids’ show, or do what I did, which is (3) stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallﬂower, and go to an accredited non-online university.
Teenage girls, please don’t worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete. Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life. What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also a big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.
I was never the lead in the play. I don’t think I went to a single party with alcohol at it. No one offered me pot. It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I even knew marijuana and pot were the same thing. I didn’t even learn this from a cool friend; I gleaned it from a syndicated episode of 21 Jump Street. My parents didn’t let me do social things on weeknights because weeknights were for homework, and maybe an episode of The X-Files if I was being a good kid (X-Files was on Friday night), and on extremely rare occasions I could watch Seinfeld (Thursday, a school night), if I had just aced my PSATs or something.
It is easy to freak out as a sensitive teenager. I always felt I was missing out because of the way the high school experience was dramatized in television and song. For every realistic My So-Called Life, there were ten 90210s or Party of Fives, where a twenty-something Luke Perry was supposed to be just a typical guy at your high school. If Luke Perry had gone to my high school, everybody would have thought, “What’s the deal with this brooding greaser? Is he a narc?” But that’s who Hollywood put forth as “just a dude at your high school.”
In the genre of “making you feel like you’re not having an awesome American high school experience,” the worst offender is actually a song: John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” It’s one of those songs—like Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”—that everyone knows all the words to without ever having chosen to learn them. I’ve seen people get incredibly pumped when this song comes on; I once witnessed a couple request it four times in a row at Johnny Rockets and belt it while loudly clapping their hands above their heads, so apparently it is an anthem of some people’s youth. I think across America, as I type this, there are high school couples who strive to be like Jack and Diane from that song. Just hangin’ out after school, makin’ out at the Tastee Freez, sneakin’ beers into their cars, without a care in the world. Just two popular, idle, all-American white kids, having a blast.
The world created in “Jack and Diane” is maybe okay—charming because, like, all right, that kid Jack is going to get shipped off to Vietnam and there was going to be a whole part two of the story when he returned as some traumatized, disillusioned vet. The song is only interesting to me as the dreamy first act to a much more interesting Born on the Fourth of July–type story.
As it is, I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting.
As a child of immigrant professionals, I can’t help but notice the wasteful frivolity of it all. Why are these kids not home doing their homework? Why aren’t they setting the table for dinner or helping out around the house? Who allows their kids to hang out in parking lots? Isn’t that loitering?
I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then, after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices. This is a song teens need to inadvertently memorize. Now that’s a song I’d request at Johnny Rockets!
In high school, I had fun in my academic clubs, watching movies with my girlfriends, learning Latin, having long, protracted, unrequited crushes on older guys who didn’t know me, and yes, hanging out with my family. I liked hanging out with my family! Later, when you’re grown up, you realize you never get to hang out with your family. You pretty much have only eighteen years to spend with them full time, and that’s it. So, yeah, it all added up to a happy, memorable time. Even though I was never a star.
Because I was largely overlooked at school, I watched everyone like an observant weirdo, not unlike Eugene Levy’s character Dr. Allan Pearl in Waiting for Guffman, who “sat next to the class clown, and studied him.” But I did that with everyone. It has helped me so much as a writer; you have no idea.
I just want ambitious teenagers to know it is totally fine to be quiet, observant kids. Besides being a delight to your parents, you will find you have plenty of time later to catch up. So many people I work with—famous actors, accomplished writers—were overlooked in high school. Be like Allan Pearl. Sit next to the class clown and study him. Then grow up, take everything you learned, and get paid to be a real-life clown, unlike whatever unexciting thing the actual high school class clown is doing now.
The chorus of “Jack and Diane” is: Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.
Are you kidding me? The thrill of living was high school? Come on, Mr. Cougar Mellencamp. Get a life.