The Journey

Small-Town Girl Finds Identity at a Big-time School

By Rachel Johnson

Personal Essay

My palms were clammy and my knees were knocking as I stood stage left, only minutes away from performing in front of Ephrata High School's student body. No more than 700 people watched, but they had the ability to spread rumors like wildfire. They knew every mess-up and accomplishment; not only of my life, but of everyone else's. I had known all of these people since birth, and they waited with anticipation to see how they might be impressed.

Dressed in an extra-small white shirt with the words "Life Guard" printed in big bold red letters, oversized aviator sunglasses and neon pink Aqua Socks, I could feel the sweat stains spread. I was about to perform my rendition of "Lifeguard," Jim Carrey's Saturday Night Live sketch. His character portrayed a lifeguard obsessed with a Jacuzzi. Second thoughts rushed through my mind. Living up to the rubber-face antics of Jim Carrey posed a challenge.

The MCs finished their introduction, and I strutted out in front of the student body and faculty, with my teeth jutting out over my bottom lip. To the left, an inflated kiddy pool from Wal-Mart sat on the ground. The casual swimmer sitting in it started to stand up as I yelled into an oversized megaphone "NO DIVING SIR, NO DIVING!" Laughter rumbled through the audience as the hairs on the back of my neck began to settle. The end result had me diving in the Jacuzzi, saving the victim suffering from a toe cramp. Applause rang through the gym as I made my way offstage.

Friends gave me compliment after compliment, raving about how funny I was and how I made the show a success. This is how I was known: the Girl Who Puts on a Great Show. I basked in this sense of security and familiarity. People knew me and knew me well.

So I went off to college, facing 2,000 people I did not know. Blank stares filled the faces of fellow students in my classes. Compared to my little pond in Ephrata, trying to plug myself into the social pipeline seemed difficult in the big ocean of Whitworth. During Freshman Traditiation, I found myself in front of a freshman lad, belting out "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in a valiant attempt to woo the supposedly macho yet actually desperate young man. I unleashed my arsenal of dramatic moves and hand motions. The boy merely raised an eyebrow and looked away unimpressed, pretending not to notice. I knew that this was going to be harder than I had anticipated.

My biggest break and best Whitworth experience came the next year. I said to myself: "I can do this, I can find my place; I am a sophomore and an RA."

A freshman approached me with a request to perform in a Mock Rock routine.

So there I was with five other girls on my leadership team preparing our moves. The routine contained snippets of songs on a CD that included Wannabe, by the Spice Girls. Because I was the only redhead in the group, my protégés dubbed me "Ginger Spice." Later, I found myself standing offstage waiting for our cue. The same adrenaline I had felt in high school shot though my veins. I felt, for the first time, that I belonged here. Dressed in bizarre garb – spandex, platform shoes, caked-on makeup and teased hair – I ran onstage with my fellow Spice Girls. An auditorium packed with screaming students stood before us as we danced. I grabbed the boa around my neck and shook it, eyeing each person in the front row. I felt the familiar sensation of lights beaming on my face, of a radiant glow warming everything inside of me.

In the following days, I was once again showered with compliments. I suddenly had an abundant amount of confidence. I walked to the Hixson Union Building with a different frame of mind that day, with a sense of assurance. Whitworth was my home.