First days of school can be interesting. Can’t they? And when I say ‘interesting’ I mean it in more than a few ways. There’s interesting like watching a boy blow an eraser top out of his nose and across the cafeteria. There’s interesting like the Texas gym teacher who wore the same outfit for picture day 40 years in a row. And then there’s interesting like how certain kids make it to the top of the popularity food chain while others don’t.
And that’s the ‘interesting’ that I feel like talking about now that school’s ramping up again. Because between you and me, that whole popularity enigma has baffled me since the first time I understood what popularity was back around junior high. And since I write about what I know—and I know plenty from my own experience as the kid who spent copious amounts of time wishing she had someone to sit with at lunch—here’s what I know…
It doesn’t matter whether you were the prom queen or the football captain or the kid who could never seem to find a gym partner, because I’ll bet the farm that you’ve been touched in some way by social politics, either as a kid, as a parent, or as a bystander.
I’ve spent a good part of my life fascinated by how people—kids in particular—can become so divided and classist at such an early age. Because, when you think about it, modern popularity as we know it is just the kid version of classism in its purest form. It’s really nothing more than bias or discrimination based on differences made between social or economic classes—differences that usually come from nothing more than opinion, not even from fact. And in elementary or middle school, that could mean nothing more than not liking someone because they don’t have a North Face jacket or a pair of Timberlands. Or, if you were me, it could be because you wore nothing but corduroy overalls to school most of the time. (I know, I know. Hindsight is 20/20. I see that now.)
Just take a second and think back. Way back. Back to your first few days of junior high or high school. Try to isolate that moment when you first realized that there were people around you who were perceived as popular or unpopular. Back to when you first recognized that people were secretly ranking you. Remember how powerful and intimidating that was? Remember that feeling of being judged and how hurtful it was? We all remember the people we thought could make or break our social status simply by giving us their attention or endorsement. Or by not giving it at all. There are certain things we never forget.
Ironically, these are usually the same people we had play dates with when we were kids. But somehow, suddenly, they became unapproachable. Abruptly and without warning, they cut the cord and let us drift away. These same kids who used to sleep on our bedroom floor in sleeping bags and fishtail braided our hair just cut us loose. Remember? You must, because it happened, on some level, to all of us.
Ever ask yourself why that was? Ever wonder how something as arbitrary as simple perception could have such power? God knows I have. And I’m astounded by it, even more now as a parent then when I was the unpopular kid going through it.
I can feel the ache of every kid who came before me and every one who’s come since. Because that crazy enigma called popularity touches everybody.
But lemme tell you, the pain any of us felt as kids being the last one picked for the dodge ball game or being the kid left without a lab partner or a bus partner or a table to sit at in the cafeteria, pales to the pain any of us feels watching our own kids go through it.
What I’ve learned is that popularity—or, rather, what we perceive popularity to be—is nothing more than an illusion. It’s a sleight of hand and anyone can be fooled by the trick. I just hate seeing people get dupped.
Maybe I’ve just got a little too much Martin Luther King, Jr. on the brain. I really don’t know. But I feel compelled as I watch another school year start, to support the idea that change of any kind really starts at the grass roots level. It starts with us. It starts with dialogues with our kids and modeling and reinforcement and putting ourselves out there. And taking risks on people. And encouraging our kids to do the same.
I look at someone like Dr. King and the seismic impact that this one, single man had on the course of an entire Civil Rights Movement, and I think that if one person can be so powerful to effect change, then imagine what an entire community or school could do if they were unified? Hmmmmm.
I feel like it’s so important that we keep explaining to our kids that popularity is really nothing more than smoke and mirrors. We need to teach them that popularity—the way their generation perceives it—can be fleeting and random and dangerous. It’s hurtful and can be lethal when put into the wrong hands. It’s like chemical weapons for the heart.
Look, when you’re 10 or 12 or 15, you’re finding your way. You’re trying things on and seeing how they fit. And that includes attitudes. You’re testing limits and learning how to push peoples’ buttons for the first time. There’s a lot of power in that. So what we have to remember is that there isn’t one of us out there—adult or kid—who doesn’t wish to be popular and well regarded. But how we achieve that and to what degree is very impactful. Please don’t let it cheapen the fact that Spiderman said this, but, “With great power comes great responsibility.” What we can’t realize when we’re a kid, unfortunately, is that popularity is really nothing more than a social phenomenon. And its randomness and fallout can be unpredictable.
That’s why I think we need to stress to our kids, especially now that they’re back in school, that how many friends they have in their circle or how many Instagram followers the have liking their feeds isn’t a true measurement of popularity.
Instead, we need to be pushing the idea that popularity should be measured by their ability to reach out to someone who isn’t in their circle. It should be measured by how inclusive they are and how empathetic they can be. Like politics, I believe that popularity should be bi-partisan, allowing everyone to co-exist in ways that enable us to see what everybody has to offer.
I guess I just want us all to remind our kids, and then remind them again, that what they perceive popularity to be now isn’t at all what popularity is really about. Popularity has evolved into a goal for a lot of kids now. A pursuit. When what it’s actually supposed to be is a byproduct of being a good person and making good choices. We have to remind our kids that popularity can be fake and fleeting and arbitrary. And what they should really be concentrating on is being real with people and being with people who are real themselves.
Because at the end of the day, that’s who I want as my friend. And I can only assume that’s who you want as yours and that’s who they would want as theirs.
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItisWhatitisColumn OR follow her blog at https://itiswhatitiscolumn.wordpress.com.