For the first 12 or so years of my life, I was the good girl. My first act of rebellion came in seventh grade when I threw a bunch of baby carrots in the bathroom at church. (I have no idea know why I did this.) Before I could even be accused of the carrot caper, I confessed.
Bowing down to authority seemed to be inked into my DNA. While other middle schoolers were experimenting with smoking, I could be found in the school band. I didn’t even play a cool instrument like the drums or the saxophone. No, I played the oboe, and the oboe is just about the nerdiest of the nerdy instruments a junior high schooler could play.
Then in 8th grade, MTV came bursting into my room. That year, I spent every afternoon glued to the TV. I was enthralled by Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf. I escaped through a-ha’s comic book-styled world in Take On Me. I spent hours learning the moves to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But the song that captivated me the most was Madonna’s Lucky Star. It had something the others lacked: feminine power. I stood transfixed as this free spirit cavorted her way across the screen, asserting herself without apology.As I got ready for the first day of high school, I slipped on my uniform of rubber bracelets, bangles, and a black mesh shirt and, along with them, confidence.
In ninth grade, I stopped playing the oboe. I didn’t become popular, but I was no longer terrified of the halls between classes. As I got ready for the first day of high school, I slipped on my uniform of rubber bracelets, bangles, and a black mesh shirt and, along with them, confidence. By the time Like a Virgin released, I had discovered other Madonnas around me. At first, it was a small group of girls at my high school. Then one day, I spotted another one while walking through the mall. We nodded at each other in recognition as we passed.
Madonna had ushered in a new high school clique. We weren’t jocks or the popular kids. We weren’t nerdy or academic or burnouts. We were Madonnas. Some called us wannabes, but we didn’t want to be her. We wanted to be like her — empowered and free to create our own path rather than succumbing to the traditional ones laid out before us.
Being a Madonna was about more than the way we dressed. Being a Madonna was an attitude. We flaunted our independence. We danced to Holiday, but our anthem was Borderline. Being a Madonna gave us confidence to assert our right to speak for ourselves, not to just be an object. We had long conversations about issues like apartheid and women’s rights, and we were focused on plotting our own path through high school and beyond. Rather than going to college to get our “MRS degree” as girls were rumored to do, we wanted to have real careers for ourselves.
We were more into girl power than the “bad girl” connotation our teachers and parents associated with our new look. Being a Madonna wasn’t just about sexuality or the way we dressed. It was about confidence, including when it came to boys. While I’d had a couple of boyfriends in junior high, they were unsatisfying. I didn’t like the way these boys would talk to me for hours on the phone but pretend not to know me when we passed in the halls. I didn’t like how they broke up with me without warning, telling me by holding another girl’s hand in the cafeteria.
In high school, I took control of dating, mostly by ignoring nearly all of the boys who flirted with me. My only high school relationship was short-lived. Emboldened with my new confidence, I ended things by telling him I didn’t want to be tied down when I went to college. When a boy I vaguely knew asked me to prom, I accepted, delighted to have the opportunity to dress up exactly how I wanted.
I don’t remember my prom date’s name. I do remember exactly what I wore. I was the only girl wearing a black lace dress. It had a low scoop neck and puffy sleeves. A lace headband adorned my permed, highlighted hair. Around my neck, two strings of beads: a string of fake pearls and a silver necklace with a large cross. I clasped my date’s hand through black lace fingerless gloves.
The moment I walked through the ornate, traditional doors at prom, my outfit garnered attention. Boys stared, girls whispered behind their hands. As I danced with my date to Crazy For You, the principal tapped me on the shoulder, summoning me to the side of the room. He admonished me for my outfit. Although he allowed me to stay, he asked me to remove my gloves, calling them inappropriate. Still, I was thrilled that my experiment at flaunting the rules and following my own was largely a success.
I had no intention of losing my new confidence in college. While blasting Papa Don’t Preach my first day on campus, I discovered my roommate had also been a Madonna in high school. I knew I was going to be just fine.