Popularity, and its pitfalls, are problems I have never navigated with grace. Not from the bottom, the middle or the top. Nor have I cracked the code about how the pecking order is established. Bock. Bock. I’m pretty sure making chicken noises punts you right off the top of the heap though.
In elementary school I was a grade ahead of myself and a dorky know-it-all. I had a few friends, and even one or two devoted followers, but I was steadily in the bottom 1/4 of the class in terms of popularity. When we broke into working groups in fourth grade I would often be the one assigned to join a group by the teacher, or in the de facto misfit group.
The first time I cared though was when a new girl joined our school in fifth grade. Thanks to the connectivity marvel that facebook I can’t even use her name although I’m sure some of you will know who I am talking about. “A” played flute like me, was good at math like me, and had long glossy hair, unlike me. She invited me for a sleepover in the first three weeks of school. I was the first school kid she had over. To me this was as good as being engaged. She was MINE.
Then she wasn’t anymore. The popular crowd found her, and either through good manners or good parenting I was one of 6 girls invited to her birthday party. I kept trying to get her alone. At her party. That didn’t work well. That was the last time I went to her house.
From then on I cared. Which turns out to make the pain more painful and the pleasure more precarious.
Growing up in Newton we were early to the brand name game. By sixth grade (still elementary school) every item in my closet had been properly vetted. Esprit, Bennetton, Guess. I’m pretty sure my sixth grade wardrobe costs triple what my current wardrobe does (although…curse you lululemon yoga pants, why is luon so good?), thanks mom.
I looked the part. I just wasn’t chill. The innately popular kids in my school weren’t mean girls. They just expected to be loved. So we love/hated them. We had a pair of adorable, funny, tennis playing twins (here you for sure know who I mean Newton people). They were ranked number 1 and 3 in our state for tennis, had older siblings, called their parents by their first name, and got driven around in a volkswagon bus. Because of those last two facts I considered them to be free loving hippies. Although when I pass their enormous tudor house as an adult I realize I might have had a pretty low bar for hippiedom.
At some point one of the twins became my best friend. I wish I remembered how, but she and I wrote notes back and forth every night in a notebook. Because she was who she was this notebook became an item of hot pursuit. Everyone wanted to read it. It was my first brush with fame. We stayed close for a few years, including the 6 person sleepover amusement park party. Each twin got to invite 2 friends. I made the cut. I talked all night long. Partly to sleeping bodies. I got to ride in the bus. I even pretended I wasn’t afraid of heights. And speed. And lines.
I rode that wave of glory right into junior high where 5 or 6 elementary schools came together. Somehow two of the five school were considered better than the other three. So by default everyone who went to these schools ended up in the top half of the school popularity wise. A few of the schools had taken themselves out of the running. Their graduates wouldnt mix with the gen pop. Very occasionally one of their hottest girls would be pursued by one of the midlevel boys from my school. Scandal at the dance! They played football not soccer. In another town they would be townies. In Newton they were mushes. And yes I realize how narrow minded I was in 7th grade.
My elementary school friends got swallowed into soccer and tennis while I veered towards theatre and orchestra. I settled into a new crowd. Most of them old friends. They were more book-y, less boy obsessed. It felt good for a while. Then the big trauma. I tried to play them off of one another, these legitimate old friends, to rise up within the group, but I don’t remember the details. And the whole crowd broke up with me.
They each wrote hate notes and put them in a brown paper lunch bag and threw it at my head as I walked down the hall between classes.
I opened the bag and saw the notes and felt a wash of pleasure, remembering my 6th grade notebook with the twin that brought me such acclaim. It took 2 or 3 notes for me to realize that I was holding a bag of hate. I saved it for years. Until college. It was when I stopped playing the game.
So it was tough times for the next few years. I had been towards the bottom, at the top, and where I felt I belonged, and nothing stuck. We started high school. It was huge, quite literally designed by a man who built prisons. Divided into houses in theory to create intimacy but in reality to solidify cliques.
I was done with cliques. I had books, and flute, and the band room to eat lunch in. I spoke up in class, and kept quiet elsewhere. I don’t remember a single school friend from those days.
I made friends at the New England Conservatory and in the neighborhood, and there were a fair number of older alternative guys who hit on me. I went through the motions at school. Wrote for the lit mag, hosted an exchange student (built in friend)…it was a strange combination of living in the day to day, before cell phones and digital escape, when my place of refuge was my own head; and looking ahead. I knew this was temporary. This skinny locker. I was acting the part of the artsy loner. It never felt real.
So I went to music camp and a progressive private school, and began having real relationships. Where I saw each other person as a person rather than a representative of a group. Better late than never.
High school was broken into borders and day students. Beyond that there were no group affiliations. The irony of the signature statue in the quad “WE ARE”, was pointed out by everyone. WE ARE not one thing. Even the guy that wore chain mail had friends.
I am going to pause here and maybe finish later with Popularity part 2 College and beyond.
Were you popular? At what point in your life did you care most about being popular? What about now?