Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Popularity

Every time something happens like at Columbine, a distraught, shaken society returns to the same questions—about adolescence, about high school, about cliques and social class, and about a sense of disenfranchisement that some kids feel. Some teenagers (and, in some contexts, adults) believe they are so alienated that they must resort to a type of violence that will either end or ruin their own lives. Afterward, hands are wrung, task forces formed, "at risk" kids identified, etc., etc.—but ultimately how much changes? What about the large group in the middle—the kids who are neither popular nor shunned. How many are on the fringe, craving attention? How many will come to view high school as a happy memory?

I suspect that the answer is few, based admittedly on my own conversations. Most people I know don't have fond recollections of high school, and those were on the fringe loathed it. Yet few cite those things that seem most hateful to kids at the time: boring classes, homework, difficult teachers, dull routine, and so on. For those who didn't like high school, the sense of "not belonging," "not fitting in," "not having lots of friends," or "not having a girl-/boyfriend" left bitter memories. For those on the fringe, it was blatant ostracism. It seems that, for a lot of these people, favorite classes, teachers, and assignments were the highlights of their school experience.

I remember not having a lot of friends and feeling that there was something wrong with me because I didn't. Now I'm aware of that this is part of being an introvert—introverts focus on a few close relationships, while extroverts establish a far-reaching network of friends and acquaintances. Neither type is right or wrong, good or bad, although we do seem to live in a dichotomous society with a distinct "us vs. them" mentality. Yet both "us" and "them" are necessary. Introverts (the minority) and extroverts both contribute to their world, the former more as advisers, the latter more as leaders and implementers. We're all interconnected and interdependent.

I didn't know all of that at the time, nor that my personality type, INFP, was the rarest and most difficult for others to understand. I continued to wonder what was wrong with me, why I was not well liked, why at best I was ignored and at worst tormented. At some point, I stopped worrying so much about it, probably because I understood that I was powerless to change the perception. Noting I could do would let me slip into the mainstream. This was confirmed for me in college, where at first I was completely unknown and where I could reinvent myself (I thought). The problem was—I didn't know how to.

I couldn't figure out what separated me from kids who were generally liked (I didn't aspire to be popular). It wasn't an economic issue; there were others worse off (although they probably dressed better!). It wasn't weight or looks; there were others were fat and unattractive. It wasn't intelligence or grades; there were others who were smarter and who received better grades. It wasn't living in or coming from a trailer park; while that may have been a factor in high school, no one at college knew that. Now I think it was primarily my INFP, highly sensitive personality, combined with a high level of insecurity and overcompensation and all the other factors, none of which helped my cause. I won't say I was unpopular; I was mostly, as I felt, invisible.

I also didn't understand the opposite—why certain kids were very popular, attracting others to them to the point where they could hold mini-courts. Most of these were not the stereotype of the handsome football player/pretty cheerleader. Many of the most popular were not particularly attractive physically, and I always found them a little hard to approach, a little hard to talk to, even a little phony at times. I didn't understand the appeal.

The odd thing is that, at high school reunions, the same people are still popular; they still hold court. Some of them have not accomplished all that much, let alone anything noteworthy, yet there always seems to be a crowd hanging onto their every word. Their appeal still escapes me. What elevates them above the people who are treated as though they are more ordinary? Yet some of the more "ordinary" are far more interesting—they've traveled, earned advanced degrees, and held either high-level or unusual jobs, sometimes in relatively exotic locales.

In the end, and especially at my age, I don't want hangers-on; I don't need superficial friends or popularity. I'm happy with who I know, although I wish some of them lived nearby so we could do more together. I simply remain curious—how does it all work? I may never understand.

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