le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Popularity: I really want to know about this

Somehow, 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?


MaryPoppins said...

in high school, i think i was mostly invisible. i can really understand how some kids get caught up in peer pressure. for instance, i was really against drinking until i turned 14. i gave in because i was tired of fighting people over it. but a strange thing happened when i made a fool of myself, totally drunk and out of my mind: people could finally SEE me. i was talked about. i was "that drunk girl who got lost in the woods"(not even kidding).

i was shy and awkward and avoided being the centre of attention as much as humanly possible. i did have to worry about whether or not i would have to eat alone or not have a partner in class because my social circle was limited. and i was often picked second to last in gym class (which was like my personal Hell).

Shoshana said...

I definitely wasn't popular in high school, and there definitely were popular kids, but I did have friends. In fact, I was in a relatively large group of them. We all knew who the popular kids were, and most of them were nice to us when the occasion arose; we just weren't in the same group. We were mostly nerdy; though many of them were studious, they were also less shy and more fashionable, and at least some of them were a bit less rule-abiding. I guess those elements were where the definition comes in.

I also assume that I was lucky, and that there were students in the school who had much less pleasant experiences than I did. I also wonder how the responses would change if the question were posed about middle school.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I don't know if I can speak to systems of popularity, but my own experience in talking with people on the subject has been almost the opposite of yours: most everyone I've talked to identifies being a total outsider. I'm pretty sure they're fooling themselves, maybe because there's some kind of romantic allure to having been an outsider. One need look no further than the countless celebrity interviews in which athletic, beautiful actors/singers/models wax confessional about having been a total dork in childhood. Yeah, right. I personally find this sort of thing really disgusting, as it cheapens the suffering of real outcasts -- who are few and far between.

On a different note, your students' rosy-glasses description of high school puts me in mind of David Levithan's BOY MEETS BOY, which takes place in a sort of utopia of adolescent tolerance -- sort of an anti-CHOCOLATE WARS.

Kate P said...

In my highschool, the popular kids were really nice and outgoing- the class president, in clubs, in sports. They didn't have to be in the same sport or club either. I think they were popular because: 1) people knew them from their various activities 2) people liked them because they were mostly nice and mostly good looking

I think there are places where most of the school is friendly and thus there are fewer boundaries of popular and unpopular. Yes, there may be the one kid who doesn't fit in but that doesn't mean the environment as a whole is not without these divisions.

I was neither popular nor unpopular. That's probably where most people fit- unless they only think in terms of popular and unpopular as if you are unpopular if you're not in the most popular crowd. The group of nerds is probably not unpopular- they are a band of friends and may navigate the environment differently but that doesn't mean they were picked on all the time. They knew who they were eating lunch with and felt secure in their world.

I want to have a few close friends. Should I disparage popular guy or girl if they feel the same and thus primarily hang out with their friends unless they're not around? No. That just makes sense. The less popular kid would do the exact same.

I read some research a long time ago that defined popularity by having kids pick 2 kids in the class they would most want to sit next to and then who they would want to do a project with. The researcher then made a web of connections. The kids with the most votes were "popular".