omehow, today's planned discussion of Speak devolved into a weak conversation about popularity and unpopularity in adolescence. Since this is one of THE MAJOR themes of lots of YA realist fiction, it's worth talking about. It's also, as far as I can tell, a major theme among high schoolers.
As I have in past classes, I asked this gaggle to put up hands if you considered yourself popular in high school. A goodly number raised their hands; I wasn't surprised by any of them. I asked who would identify themselves as distinctly unpopular, and got a few hands (I always put mine up for this as well; the older I get, the more relieved I feel that I wasn't well-liked by my classmates). So I tried to get them to analyze what it means to be popular. Is it being well-known? Well-liked? does it have to do with class? Why are so few people ready and willing to cop to being popular in high school? I have some thoughts of my own on all of these subjects, but I really am extremely curious about this as a topic, and I was hoping to get some decent responses from my students.
As usual, they mostly just sat there and looked vaguely at me, or possibly into space, or "secretly" at the phones in their hands, "hidden" under their desks [industry secret: those desks have no fronts. i can SEE your phone in your lap]. A handful responded with various things, some more thoughtful than others, some more anecdote-laden than others.
The idea of popularity as relational came up, as did the phrase "people who would talk to you," which, when extracted from the high school context, kind of sounds awful. The point being made there had to do with proximity. Take random Popular Girl A. Put her in, say, English class without her normal Popular friends. Who will she talk to? A hierarchy organizes itself then, based on that class; Girl A may talk to you in English, but she won't sit with you in lunch when her other friends are there. This really needs to be mapped visually, but I don't have the time or talent for it now, but it makes a lot of sense.
But what I really want to know - and I sincerely, devoutly hope that people, someone, anyone, will post a comment about this - is how popularity was defined or organized in YOUR high school experience. One remark that was mentioned today - and affirmed by about half a dozen students in this class - was the "everyone in my class was friends, we all got along, no one was unpopular." I have heard this remark before, and every single time I hear it I want to shake my head and sigh. I suspect this often means "No one I knew was unpopular," or "None of my friends was unpopular." Because there's a swath of kids in every high school, I imagine, who are largely invisible. They might just be quiet kids; they might be weird, they might just be so average as to disappear. Maybe they don't join any clubs or sports; maybe they work two jobs, or have some weird out-of-school hobby. Maybe they simply don't fit into any readily identifiable archetype or social group and thus, uncategorizable, become invisible. There are people like this in every environment I've ever been in - high school, college, grad schools, workplaces - people who seem to never be talked about, never seem to draw attention. People who fade in and fade out and have very little to do with anyone as far as you can tell (and when you ask your friends about that person, often many of them don't really know who you mean; or maybe one does and has a tiny tidbit of information, like: he eats lunch in fourth period, or I think he used to work in Communications.
I just cannot believe in the existence of any high school in America where everyone's friendly and kind to everyone else. Where there's no one who's the weirdo loser. Where there's no small band of uber-nerds, clinging together for safety, but generally the butt of everyone else's jokes. Someone who no one likes. ALL group environments seem to resolve themselves into hierarchies of some kind, even hippie quasi-communes like my undergraduate institution. There's always at least that one kid that no one you know has ever seen speaking to anyone.
One girl, in class today, put forth the intensely troubling idea (especially in the context of Speak) that anyone who isn't "friends with everyone in the class" has brought it on themselves. That they don't want to be happy. That they don't join things, or "put themselves out there." Implied in her remarks was a negative judgment: if you don't join in, then you kind of suck. But then I think of Melinda, in Speak, and her silence and what it conceals and reveals. I think of all the troubled fictional teenagers who have no or few friends because of a perceived issue that is actually a symptom of some truly grave problem.
I know the terms popular and unpopular are simplistic and reductive and possibly not useful. What I mean, I think, is whether you perceived yourself to be unpopular, or popular, in high school. Not what other people thought of you; not what you think of other people. But how you felt, or feel, as a high-schooler.
Two easy criteria: were you ever picked last, or nearly-last, for teams in gym class? Did you ever have to eat lunch alone because you had no one to sit with?
And a third, a corollary of these two: Did you ever have to worry about the likelihood of either of these things happening?