What Exactly Is Popular?
Kids label themselves and each other in ways that challenge and define their self-esteem and sense of value.
Smart. Nerd. Teacher’s Pet. Geek. Bossy. Jock. Bully. Trouble-maker. Popular.
That last one in particular baffles me, especially since it is the only one on that list with a seemingly positive connotaion among middle and high school aged kids. We all know who I’m talking about – the ones who strut around school looking like they own the place. They sit together at lunch, appearing to cast judgmental glances around the room, giggling at some joke only they are allowed to know.
Popular? Popular with whom? Seems to me they are only popular to their own circle of friends and don’t give the rest of their classmates the time of day, let alone smile and say hello. But does that make them any different than the other kids? Not that I have seen. But somehow the “popular” label gives them a peculiar power over their peers who view them as untouchable and unapproachable, and those outside the circle feel inferior, unworthy and uncool. My daughter is admittedly not in the “popular” crowd and it pains me when she tells me that some girl or another would never talk to her because she is one of the “popular” kids. Reading between the lines her interpretation is clear – she believes that person is somehow better and cooler than her.
But a teenager I know who travels in that seemingly elusive crowd gave me some insight. She admitted that she and her friends are aware that girls outside of their circle think they are mean because they don’t talk to them. And it hurts their feelings. In their eyes they are just hanging out and having fun with their friends and wish everyone else would find their own circle and make their own fun.
Everyone finds their own circle of friends eventually – sometimes multiple circles – and no one circle is any better or worse than another. There is no hierarchy. But the popular label instills a sense of jealousy. “They look like they are having so much more fun than I am.”
It took me decades to realize that that is just not true. The grass is never greener on the other side. Middle school and high school sucks for everyone. Underneath every energetic, confident façade there are elements of self-doubt and insecurity. I am confident that everyone – even the “popular” kids – went home at some point in their teens and bawled their eyes out because of some feeling of inadequacy or because one of their friends said or did something that hurt their feelings. I don’t know a single person who wishes they could go back and repeat middle school and high school.
I realize that to try and eliminate labels completely would be an exercise in futility. So I’m searching for another word – one that takes away the perception of power and allows my daughter, and others, to not dwell on who isn’t their friend and focus on being the best person they can be.
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