I have always been good with the internet. My family was not an early adopter, but I noticed the sleek silver AOL discs we got in the mail week after week.
“Can I install this on the computer?” I said, holding the light blue sleeve next to our family computer – a chunky gray Gateway desktop atop a massive faux mahogany desk in our upstairs living room.
“It won’t work yet. I need to install a new phone line,”my Dad replied. He promised he’d get around to it soon, which never came fast enough for me. I wasn’t even exactly sure what I’d find on the internet, but it was this untapped resource of knowledge and exploration that I needed to get my hands on. About a month later my curiosity was finally sated while I listened to the grinding cyberspace churning through the phone line and finally the most satisfying sound – a friendly male voice warmly telling me, You’ve Got Mail!
By the time I started the 8th grade about a year later, I was an AOL expert. Chatrooms? Check. I knew which were okay to participate in (horses) and which would make my parents really angry if they knew existed (pretty much everything else). I had my own Expage webpages with carefully chosen clipart (later to be replaced with a Geocities account and the start of my HTML career). I was in horse sim email groups, and I had online friends. My carefully chosen screenname, MysticFillyX, was at the top of our family’s sign-on list.
As I’m sure it was for many of us, middle school was an awkward time for me. I was chubby, but my body hadn’t decided if it was baby fat or the full figured woman I would grow up to be. I had braces. I experimented with bangs, which I suppose is better than experimenting with drugs but trying pot would have probably led to better fashion choices. Middle school was the only time of my childhood that I associate with not having many friends. Maybe not having girl friends for gossip and swapping notes gave me the free time to hone in on my English teacher.
Mr. Smith was not the kind of English Teacher I typically bond with. He didn’t seem to have a grand passion for words and poetry. There were no Dead Poets Society moments of “Carpe Diem!” or anything awe inspiring about him. Rather, he liked technology and computers. We had one of the few “smart classrooms” in our school with tons of PCs and connection to the internet. He taught via digital projector versus “the overhead” that all of my other teachers used. Mr. Smith was tall, awkward and a fish out of water. I doubt he taught much longer after my class graduated, partially because I most likely traumatized him.
I don’t remember having a crush on him, though I suppose I must have. It wouldn’t have been the last time that I got all mushy over an older, tall and well read man. The utter absurdity of having a school girl crush is too much for me to admit to, so I’d like to explain away my actions by saying that I was a little bit lost. I wanted to fast forward my life past the awkward and confusing stages, and decided to attempt that by playing with adult themes beyond my maturity level. I had a desperate need for someone outside my immediate family to think that I was special.
Plus, it was so damn easy.
Since we were a technological english class, Mr. Smith often logged on to the internet to bring up various lessons or examples about what we were talking about in our study. Like millions of other Americans, he did this by logging into – you guessed it, AOL. For those of you who don’t remember, you connected to the internet through this software by entering your screenname (aka your email) and your hidden password. The minute those six characters in his screenname were projected onto the wall of our classroom, I had him.
The screenname, a tribute to his alma mater, was short and easy to remember. That night at home I was able to find his AOL profile within a few clicks, although unlike mine it was annoyingly deprived of information. There was a hometown listed and perhaps a quote, but not the extensive list of personal details I was after. Disappointed, I decided to take a defensive approach at first.
Originally the goal had nothing to do with catfishing, I just wanted some level of attention and validation that I didn’t know how to define. To try and get this, I did what any other teenage girl on AOL did back then – I filled out email surveys. If you don’t remember, they’re not entirely unlike the various “Things About Me” or “This or That” blogging challenges you’ll see floating around. I carefully chose key details about myself to look interesting, mature and intelligent… and decorated those details with special fonts, wingdings and colors (these were days well before emojis). These special surveys would be sent out to a list of my few friends with one special addition – Mr. Smith.
Sending these surveys turned out to be my fatal flaw. One should never mix the real and the fake online personas, but I didn’t know that then. What I did know, is that my series of carefully curated information went unnoticed so it was time to up the ante. Enter Alicia.
Maybe it was the chatrooms full of crazy people that inspired me to create an entirely fake person, but before I knew it I was typing out a new profile and filling out information for Alicia. She was 28. Enjoyed reading & hiking. She didn’t live in North Carolina, because I needed to make sure he never wanted to meet her. I searched through online dating profiles, primitive in the late 90’s, to find a picture for miss Alicia. She couldn’t be too porn star, no fake boobs or plastered on faces, but she couldn’t be too generic either. I settled on a brunette with a warm smile, very girl next door, wearing a white spaghetti strap top the 90’s was famous for. Alicia looked how I wanted to look in fifteen years. She was what I wanted my fast forward to be.
I debated how to make contact with Mr. Smith with my new persona. He didn’t show up as ever being in any chat rooms. An email would be too impersonal, too cold calling. Though it was perhaps a bit bold, Alicia ended up messaging him on IM one afternoon.
Oh hey there. How did I get your screenname? I was browsing profiles and noticed West Virginia, my brother went there. What’s going on? Not much. I’m pretty? Thank you, that’s kind. What do you have going on this weekend? Just hanging out with friends. Hope it’s a good one.
We chatted off and on for a few weeks. I remember almost nothing about the conversations, probably because I’ve blocked them out of sheer embarrassment. I do know they were nothing deep and meaningful. There was no love connection, no Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan situation. Simple small talk, and some chain emails exchanged. One of those chain emails however, is how I know that I had my dear English Teacher convinced for some time. He sent “Alicia” an adult cartoon. It wasn’t obscene, but there were cartoon penises – one sad and one… not sad. 😉 I opened the email, sitting cross legged in the leather chair behind my family’s computer, and was both horrified and ecstatic looking at the smiling cartoon dick in my inbox. Ecstatic because my plan worked. Horrified, because my plan worked.
There was a downfall to Alicia – you knew there had to be. Remember those detailed surveys that Lauren would send out? Alicia decided to send out some as well. Though I changed many details, I didn’t change all of them and Mr. Smith proved to me that he did read those things afterall.
You remind me of someone I know.
Yeah, her name is Lauren…
I signed off immediately.
The next day, my mom sat me down in my room for a “special talk”.
“Do you have a crush on your teacher…. Mr. Smith?”
“Uh, no,” I said sitting in the middle of my bed with her perched on the edge. I knew what was going to follow, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant. To my mom’s credit, she didn’t get angry at me. She said Mr. Smith wanted to make her aware of the “situation” because the internet was a dangerous place, and he didn’t want me to try this with some creep and get into a bad situation. That probably terrified my mom, but I couldn’t explain to her that I was smarter than that. I couldn’t tell her that I was bored and a bit misunderstood, that the Alicia experiment was a calculated hit on a pre-determined target. I’m sure Mr. Smith didn’t mention to her that I even had him convinced, even if it was a brief period of time. I couldn’t tell her any of that, so I sat there quiet on the bed and nodded my head while she said what she felt like she needed to.
I haven’t catfished since. Having started so early in life, I’d probably be pretty good at it by now. I certainly wouldn’t throw any clues through extensive e-mail surveys. Maybe my career in deceit peaked at a young age, and I didn’t think there was anywhere higher my talents could take me. Maybe I don’t want to press fast forward in my life anymore. Or maybe I’ve learned to live my own life with a little bit of its own con running in the background. A little Alicia in my Lauren after all.