During the summer between seventh and eighth grades, everything changed—or at least it seemed like everything at the time. We'd become teenagers. Kids were rapping along with Vanilla Ice and mastering yo-yo tricks. I was the boy who liked to sing his own songs at talent shows, and I was suddenly officially uncool. It wasn't that I got pinned against my locker, but I was intensely aware that the things I valued weren't shared by anyone. Girls didn't like me, and I had few friends. Our Los Angeles private school was partial to athletes and star students, and I was neither.
Every day I lugged my backpack through the halls, waiting for the final bell. Then I'd race home and hole up in my room, playing the drums and the piano, composing music. When morning came, I'd find myself at a desk again, trying to work out a chemistry equation. I felt claustrophobic and terribly lonely. I had so much to express but no way to express it.
At the end of our eighth-grade year, a friend gave me a brochure for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts—an audition-based public school where you study academics for the first half of the day and dedicate the second half to your chosen art. I had no formal training and no idea what I was getting into, but I was desperate for something other than the status quo. I auditioned and was accepted.
On the first day, I had to perform a monologue in front of the class. Afterward I was red with humiliation. I thought it went horribly. As I was leaving, a group of kids approached, and I wondered if this school would be even worse than the last—maybe instead of being ignored, I'd get picked on. Did people get beat up at art schools?
"Your monologue was awesome," one said. Another asked me to join him for lunch. I nodded slowly and looked around the hallway. Behind me two people were reciting lines from a play, and beyond that someone was singing opera. It seemed I'd found the only high school in the world where I even had a chance of being cool.
As I walked to the cafeteria with my new friends, I could breathe. I had gotten to this place by doing what I loved, even when it meant I felt different and alone. I could have worked harder to fit in back at my old school. I could have gone out for the baseball team or stopped wearing sweater vests. But for some reason, I didn't try to be like everybody, even when that seemed the easy option, and I had finally been rewarded.
Since then I've been confronted with a lot of pressure to compromise. When I feel confused or depressed, I remember back to junior high and I silently repeat, "This, too, shall pass." Because I know that life is a journey I must accept and that pain and confusion are temporary. I know that if I follow my heart, it will lead me where I belong.
Josh Groban's latest album is Awake (Reprise).