I've always had mixed feelings about popularity. I have always thought that there was a set of lessons that everyone has learned except for me. I'm not sure what it is but I think it has a lot to do with the ability to recognize the importance of the social pecking order more than adhering to some objective measure of right and wrong. I mean, it might also have to do with my own inherent weirdness and that I tried to get my little friends to talk about igneous rock, speed metal and the wonders of the BASIC computer language (and what I could make my sweet Vic-20 do). Sure, I was not the most normal of little girls but there is an effortless way that I think some people negotiate social relationships that I never easily tolerate.
I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a crappy town in the middle of nowhere and like anyone who lives in rural America, social relationships are nothing if not an intensely interlocked microcosm of social jockeying. I had a pack of friends and when times were good, we'd have slumber parties in the tent of our front yard, play stiff as a board and light as a feather and listen to the GoGos and the Human League on permanent repeat. But the whispers of friendship can quickly become conspiratorial if you don't recognize who is in charge. I was clearly not the head of that clique. It was my neighbor who was admired for her ability to pick and choose among our social circle and steer us to the proper girlish activities—boys, lavender and lip gloss, among other things. Now being neither heterosexual nor finding many of these activities clearly interesting, I always felt like I was on thin ice and when I ended the seventh grade, the shit finally hit the fan.
I wish I could remember what the conflict even was because at the time it seemed like the end of the world. And I knew what was happening. I was being completely iced out of the social group and my former friends could not even be seen with me. I paid the price of being angry at the head girl in charge. Because I refused to apologize for the sake of returning to the social circle, I didn't speak to any of my friends for a solid year. I merely pivoted, spending my time in another social group. It was frustrating because I remember feeling that I was not wrong. I know enough that it was an interpersonal dispute and not some egregious act of war. And I did not feel okay about apologizing for no reason. Maybe my stubbornness was my undoing. But after a year, I finally did broach my friends without an apology but by saying that I did not want to fight with them anymore. I was reluctantly let back into the social group but I never felt close to them again. I did not trust them anymore because their friendship was not based on mutuality and care but by an ability to not piss off whoever has the most social capital. I did learn something about friendship. When I left this town, I was not going to be in relationships that required constant acquiescence.
The first two years of High School were difficult ones for me. My mother was in the process of divorcing my stepfather, who was nothing if not abusive and manipulative. I was clearly depressed and had difficulty getting through the day. Of course, anyone who knows High School well knows that when you are weak is often when people are ready to pounce. There is nothing that makes people feel more popular than the opportunity to victimize someone else. There were three boys who were ruthless in teasing me. Everyday, they waited outside of school to mock the way I looked, the way I dressed, the way I spoke, my interests and eventually, the mortification I clearly showed when they made fun of me. The thing I hated the most was that I one of my legs turned inwards at the time—it was just a birth defect that I could not fix without extensive surgery. I remember I broke down in class crying after one of the boys spent the entire gym period behind me, mocking the way that I was running. Even the teachers were appalled by their teasing and this was long before anyone cared about bullying.
Even more than hating those boys, I hated the ones who joined in to be part of the crowd. They were not feeling the intensity of derision but rather the desire to gain popularity. They were clearly pandering. I mean, the alpha males at the school were assholes enough but their followers just had no respect for themselves. I learned one thing about that time in my life—I was not going to throw people under the bus for the sake of popularity. It diminishes you as a person. Oh and the other thing, I hate pandering—it's total bullshit.
I remember when it all stopped. I wish I could remember it in detail but there was this subtle change that felt like a tectonic shift. I think I forget because it felt like I was having an out of body experience. I was sitting in my classroom when one of the boys was saying something typically mean to me and I remember firing back at him. The entire class laughed. I looked back and he was sitting there red faced. Yes, I admit, I smiled. I realized there was nothing worthwhile about taking their verbal assaults and I would not play their games. I was never super-popular in High School but I could hold my own socially at least.
I always felt fortunate to have two role models of people who were unwilling to go along with the crowd for the sake of having people like them. My grandfather lived most of his life in a town with seven churches and one general store. He went to a one-room school house and used to tell me that he worked like a man from the time he was twelve. If you knew him, you would believe it. He was intense and hardworking but also sensitive and caring. My grandfather was also the only person I knew who was an agnostic. He never promoted any idea that we should believe what he did (he would never promote that he was better than anyone else) but he refused to embrace ideas that he did not believe. My grandfather taught me the value of authenticity.
The other person is my mom, who is one of the nicest people I've ever known. Really, she is a much better woman than I am. She is kind, polite and friendly to everyone she meets. But she has always been quietly independent. During the sixties, she was a housewife to a man that treated her poorly and left him (twice) even though no one in her life supported her decision. She was similarly discouraged from divorcing a second time and from moving away to a new town to find work. My mom said that every decision was scary but you do have to do the right thing for yourself even if everyone around you is telling you that you are wrong. I've seen it in other ways in her life. When she discovered that a good friend had AIDS in the early 80s, I remember she was one of two people in his life who refused to abandon him. On the run up to the Iraqi war, in an era of ultra-patriotism, we had long talks about how she would not play into the obviously virulent anti-Islam sentiment that seemed to sweep our town. My mom taught me that in the end, you have to live with your decisions and when you look back at your life, you don't want to be ashamed about what you endorsed for the sake of other people.
I don't think I am courageous like my mom and anyone who knows me knows that I can be undone by my desire to be well liked. But there is something to be said about having convictions and some type of moral compass. As an adult, I've worked in systems of power, whose social mechanisms are not dissimilar to High School. I know I've paid the price about not being close to the right people. I still have a deep level of ambivalence about popularity—both envy and derision about people who are successful in negotiating those types of social relationships. But there is something to be said about looking at your life in a way that has integrity.
Pic from the Huffington Post