Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Popularity Contest

There is a new word making the rounds at my house. It floats in and out of bedrooms. Through closed doors.  It hides in cob-webbed corners.  It pushes its way into private conversations. The new word forces old words aside. Familiar words. Comforting words. It wheedles its way into unsuspecting ear canals and infiltrates gray matter. The new word revels in its self-proclaimed importance. It’s all-encompassing significance.

It’s a seemingly benign word. Popular. Not so scary, huh?


Suddenly, inexplicably, all life as we know it is divided into those who are popular and those who are not. My son is a middle schooler and popular is the be-all and end-all of his existence.
When did this happen? What is this intangible thing called popularity? Who does the sorting? And why has my young son latched onto his seemingly random sort with the conviction of a mountain climber dangling from the last intact thread of a fraying rope?

I am old. Or at least I feel old most days. I am not, however, so ancient that I do not remember my own middle school days. I should be comforted by the fact that adolescence has not changed a single iota in the thirty years since I was eleven years old, save for the anonymity of the internet which has only managed to intensify the experience. But when my son talks of the “popular” kids as though they are immortal gods capable of bestowing or withholding amazing grace on a whim, I am not comforted. I am not comfortable at all.
Believe it or not, my bespectacled, skinny, pasty, science-loving, mathematically gifted, choral-music-singing, kind-hearted, sensitive eleven-year-old son who just learned to ride a bike and has yet to tie his shoes so must resort to wearing the fashionably limited selection of grown-man-sized shoes that come equipped with Velcro is NOT one of the popular kids. Crazy, I know. I mean, what the hell kind of criteria are we working with here, people?

My son is a geek. A self-avowed geek.
In my house, geek is not a dirty word. It is a status symbol. The highest possible station in life. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I like to think of geekiness as realized self-actualization. The ultimate state of being.

In our home, we recite Star Wars dialogue ad nauseum. We argue over the virtue of Marvel versus DC (umm….Marvel, of course).  We sing show tunes. In rounds. Anything and everything can be a sword. Or a light saber. Or better yet, a wand. We hex one another with pencils. With baguettes. With toilet paper rolls. We watch science documentaries for the sheer enjoyment of it. My children love Xena. And Buffy. And Hermione. We believe girls can kick ass, too. Our favorite channel is PBS.  I often find Lucas humming the entire theme to the BBC’s Sherlock in the shower. We think Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christiane Amanpour are strangely sexy (okay, maybe that’s just me).  We embrace our geekiness with joyful abandon. Lucas has always proudly declared himself a geek.
And he still does.

But now his proud declarations are tainted with a tiny, almost imperceptible bit of longing. A longing to be one of the popular kids. To obtain the status—the pre-pubescent prestige—that is reserved for the very few. It’s a miniscule longing, but I can see it. I can hear it in his voice. When he talks about the kids on the student council. When he talks about the girls in his class. When he jokingly refers to himself as not having an athletic bone in his body. There is an undertone now. There is subtext that was absent a few short months ago.

Lucas and I have discussed this phenomenon. He is surprisingly candid and he has a keen understanding of how fleeting popularity is. He knows that today’s popular kids will be flipping his burgers tomorrow—or so I tell him. He understands that there are things much more vital to personal success than popularity—like kindness and intelligence and diligence. He knows these things on an intellectual level.
But on a visceral level, he wants to be one of the cool kids.

He may hate himself for wanting it, but he wants it all the same. And it is something I cannot give my son. It is an intangible that eluded me when I was eleven years old and certainly eludes me at forty-one. For the first time in Lucas’ life, my child desperately wants something outside of my ability to give him. He has entered a strange new world he must navigate alone. I can give him tools. I can provide support, but I can’t take that walk with him. This is probably one of the toughest realizations of my life.
But Lucas is one of the lucky ones. He is not a loner by any means. He has a best friend—a great kid who I really like—with whom he can share his thoughts and interests and feelings.  And he has three other good friends. They are the five amigos. The five musketeers of geekdom. He is not alone. Not all kids who enter this strange new world are that lucky.

Last night, Lucas and I watched the documentary “Bully.” I would highly recommend that anyone with a middle school kid—just entering the world of the popular and the decidedly not—watch this documentary with your child. It is available on Netflix or from Redbox or you can get it at Target or Walmart. You may even be able to check it out from your local library. Watch it and talk to your child. Listen to your child. Make sure your child knows that he can always come to you. He can always count of you. Make sure he understands, in no uncertain terms, that bullying in all its forms is absolutely unacceptable.
If every parent of every middle school student had this conversation with their child, just imagine how we could change the world! One school at a time. One family at a time. One kid at a time.

It’s within our power, moms and dads. We just have to have the talk.


Janice Miszczak said...

as always good job Shannon sharing a mom's heart

Madgew said...

Loved this blog. I hung out with both the popular and non popular crowds. I was on the fringe of popular but still accepted by both. Not sure what it did for me. I felt like I do today, I can get along with most everyone and can be in everyone's group. And Lucas will find with his brains and wide interests he too will find so many groups he will have the pick of the pack as he grows up. Glad he has his group of friends. Some truly never get that in their lifetime. At my high school there was a lower patio and upper patio. The upper were all the popular ones and the lower, not as popular. Very sad to think now how some couldn't float between the two. I came from the lower side of the area until we moved so I was between both. It was really divided by economic lines which even when I moved would have put me in the have's category, I felt better with the people I grew up with who were middle moving up. I was not a fashion plate but just a likeable sweet, always pleasing person. The real popular ones had money, new cars and lots of clothes and things. I didn't care to live like that. Still pretty much that same way now. WOW, you took me down memory lane today Shannon.

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