It always happens.
Every time I wander into Topshop, I end up looking shiftily around me. I simply don't look as if I should be there. Essentially, I look too old: so much over 25 that it's almost beyond a joke; with 18 such a distant memory that I started to laugh to a point of incoherence when asked for ID in a supermarket last October. Yet when I was young enough to shop in Topshop, I was mentally so old that I wanted to shop somewhere else. Now that I'm old enough to want to cling to the coat-tails of the lost youth I never really cared for very much, the shop assistants probably think I'm someone's Mum. Tragic.
But last time I crept into these terrifying halls, just in the interests of research as Spring seemed imminent, I was met by something which surprised me. A host of high school stereotypes, tossing their heads in sprightly dance on the chests of many t-shirts. DWEEB. DORK. GEEK. NERD. There was even a t-shirt emblazoned with the word CHEMISTRY, along with an associated atom symbol. I've admitted it already: it's a long time since I was 18. But I don't recall the Nerds and Geeks and Weeds being the cool kids who set the trends. I remember them being the meek who might very well inherit the earth one day, but who, in the meantime, got the skin from the canteen custard flicked across the table to land, splat, in the middle of their anaemic apple crumble, or had their National Health glasses smeared with the salivary DNA of the much cooler, macho predatory elite of the rugby First XV.
Was I a victim? Am I bitter? Mostly, no: I was invisible and peripheral enough in secondary school, for the most part, to remain fairly undefinable through most of the atrocities of teenage labelling. What would the t-shirt of my teenage self have had emblazoned across the chest? BOOKWORM. LINGUIST. MUSIC FREAK. Not very memorable; not easily categorised. It figures. As a school reunion shimmers on the misty horizon, months away but close enough to make me feel a little anxious, I'm thinking: how on earth do I relate to my teenage self, and how do I affix a label to the adult I've become?
Many of the designer glasses available in most high streets are of the Nerd design: large, black-framed or horn-rimmed spectacles designed to make their presence obvious on the face of the myopic wearer. They've become so fashionable that numerous fashion chains sell a clear-glass variant for those whose 20/20 vision means they didn't need to go to Specsavers after all. There's a story in my family - one of those stories I remember hearing in my childhood when my Uncle came to stay - of when my Dad, aged perhaps 14, brought spectacle frames 'borrowed' from the Optician's where his Father worked, into school, and the teacher must have wondered why an entire class of boys suddenly had new glasses... until suddenly someone gave the game away by poking a finger through the glassless lens to scratch his eye. The teacher went mad - the cane was deployed. The tale grew greater with the telling. The gales of laughter always rose, as my Dad grew helpless as the story reached its end. The 'Nerd' glasses are blossoming around us, now, on the faces of teenagers, teachers, actors, politicians, every pair reminding me of this ancient tale. These glasses are large. Those ones are far away... The deixis of nostalgia clouds my eyes...
And yet who are we - any of us - to define ourselves or anybody else? To encapsulate an experience or a time? Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt. Strange beings that we are: we define ourselves by a moment in time and space, and if we couldn't be defined by who we were, then a stereotype from fiction will be better still. We make our self-perceptions into self-imposed designer labels in the attempt to appeal to the consumers we are of one another's lives. GEEK. NERD. DWEEB. Like me, we're saying, really. Think I'm cool. Stylish. Better than you remembered me. Intelligent. Not a loser. A hipster, even. The kind of person who'd Instagram themselves but do it cleverly. With irony. Someone who's cleverer than you are, and if you don't get it, it's because you're clueless; you're a fool.
We don't wear our hearts on our sleeves any more, in 2013. We wear them emblazoned across our chests instead. They're hearts as blank as the clear lens of a pair of fake glasses. As empty as the framing of an American high school block font. As fickle as a teenage crush. As shallow as a stereotype.
Have we become as throwaway as these unacknowledged words?