Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic] and founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar:
I grappled with the idea of popularity in middle school, and realized it could come from wearing a certain type of clothes, having a certain type of hair, and more nebulously, projecting a certain kind of attitude. I was a little behind in the clothes department, but probably could have convinced my mom to buy me more stuff if I really wanted to. What I decided, though, was that I would rather not have to do some of the things I saw the really popular girls doing. I wanted to be popular, but I wanted to be liked for the positive stuff I did and the kind way I treated others. I wanted to transcend the social norms. It wasn't that I *didn't* want to be popular, though I'm sure I would have said at the time that I didn't care about it. I just didn't want to have to sell my soul for it.
It was painful at times. I got invited to a lot more parties in middle school. Some of those parties were annual events, and I felt it acutely when my name was no longer on the list. I heard people talking about who was there and what happened, and I had to erect a protective barrier around myself so that I wouldn't have to feel the pain of exclusion. In part, I protected myself with achievement. Even if I was not popular, I was still a good athlete. I was still smart. I still played music well. Also: I had a fierce perm, which was decade appropriate so do not judge. Few people had larger hair. It makes a fine piece of armor.
I'd say I still carry this barrier to a degree, and I have to remind myself that I'm perfectly likeable -- that my presence is welcome and that I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not to find friends. I don't seek popularity in the way that you'd define it in high school...there is no longer a cool lunch table, and no one I know checks the label of your pants to make sure they're an OK brand. But I still want people to love me for who I am, and I still carry fear that they won't.
It's funny. I'm a writer now ... I get fan mail and hate mail in equal quantities. My pulse races when I see new mail in the inbox, for fear it's someone hating how I think or write. I'm not going to change who I am or what I believe to win false friends, but I would love to be in a place -- 20 years after high school graduation--where I am not wounded by the rejection of others.
I really feel for people who are struggling with this, and I think this is one reason I have such love and compassion for teens and such affinity for YA literature.
Melissa Walker, author of the Violet books:
I admit it: I longed to be popular when I was a teenager. Outwardly, I made fun of certain cliques and pretended not to care when I wasn't included in certain parties, but the truth was, I wanted people to know me. More importantly, I wanted people to like me.
But what I know now (and oh, how I wish I knew it then!) is that the truly "popular" people were the ones who were confident enough to be nice to everyone around them. I was in LOVE with a guy named Jeff in high school. Why? Because he was on the football team, was cute, was smart, and - here's the key part - he actually talked to me. He smiled, said hi, took time to ask about my day. I realized that the other "popular people" were objects of my admiration in a superficial way, but Jeff was someone I truly liked because he was a confident and caring person. And that's always the best - and most lasting - kind of popular. We're still friends today!
Lorie Ann Grover, author of On Pointe:
I'm thinking middle school is when popularity is defined most narrowly. If you can grind through it, you will have the rest of your life to find your peeps. That's really the bottom line: find people that matter to you, those you can relate to.
If you find yourself in the "popular" group, know you have a much bigger responsibility. Your influence is wider and people are watching. Don't lose yourself to maintain your position. If you are tempted to do so, maybe you haven't found your peeps after all.
Once you find a group that has meaning to you, foster your friendships. Who cares if everyone knows or watches? You've found a place to nourish others and be nourished. That's what matters.
It's good to remember that whatever popularity is gained, there's always a bigger group out there that never recognizes it. Actors, statesmen, even countries pass from popularity and are forgotten. So, find your small corner of the world, and be a good friend. Matter to your peeps.
Dia Calhoun, author of Firegold:
I went to an alternative high school where the kids were so involved in individual pursuits and being individuals that there were no issues around popularity. Everyone was unique, and we were all pursuing interesting projects. The same was true at the ballet school where I took class every day. So I never tried to be popular, or felt that I was unpopular. I did worry about what other people thought of me, but that is a little different. The whole concept of popularity is a teen concern, which fades away once you become an adult. (Have you ever heard adults talk about trying to be popular?) I believe that if you just be who you are, and pursue your own interests, you will find friends.And being true friends with a few people is far more rewarding than being popular. The pressures of having to maintain popularity are enormous! Always worrying whether what you do or how you look will affect your popularity rating. This is existence for the sake of how others perceive you. You can never be authentic that way. Just be who you are!
Holly Cupala, author of A Light That Never Goes Out:
I think acceptance and community are basic human needs – too often, the popular community is perceived as more valuable when really, the most valuable community is one that supports you for who you are and helps you become who you were meant to be, and vice versa. I learned this the hard way, but luckily my true friends forgave me and are still in my life. Those kinds of friends are a gift for life.
HipWriterMama, member of postergirlz, the teen lit advisory council for readergirlz:
I will never forget my brushes with popularity during my high school years -- from the time one of the wrestling jocks had a major crush on me (!) in my freshman year, to when one of the most popular girls in my junior year became a true friend, to when a group of senior girls looked at me with a whole new set of eyes. All fascinating experiences for a girl who was not popular, who didn't always fit in.
I was one of those fortunate teens who could mingle with almost any group, but only in the fringes. To be in the core center of a group required an effort, a true belief that one belonged. I was a consummate rebel and unwilling to jump through hoops. Perhaps I was scared, or maybe I just didn't want to commit. It's funny, I'm really not sure now.
But I do know, looking back, that I always wanted to be accepted for who I was, not for what I represented. I hated being pigeon-holed as the Asian, the smart kid, the first chair violinist. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the people who were most likely to see me for who I was, were the teens I thought were the least likely to.
This knowledge has been invaluable over the years and has shaped how I interact with people. There are people who will defy the definition of what it means to be popular, what it means to be beautiful, or exceptional. Yes, there are those who will always play the popularity card to the hilt, and be the epitome of every teen angst movie out there, but there are also the people out there who yearn to be seen for themselves, who believe in letting others shine, of letting people have their moment, and being true.
Little Willow, readergirlz webdiva and member of postergirlz:
I was never the most popular girl in school, though I admit I was possibly the loudest - volume-wise, not sassy-wise. I'm naturally talkative and outgoing. I always knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew what I liked and what I didn't like, and no one could change my mind or my opinions. In high school, I knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew me, but I didn't hang out with the same people all of the time. I often said I had a lot of acquaintances, but not a lot of close friends. That was and still is fine by me.
I once saw a poster that declared, "What's right is not always popular, and what's popular is not always right." As hokey as that sounds, I think it's true. I am a big fan of doing the right thing. I certainly hope that others like me, but I'm unwilling to change my beliefs, my plans, or my priorities to fit in. No way! I have a strong moral compass that I follow every day. My true north has nothing to do with popularity or fame and everything to do with personal truths and happiness.
I may add a few more responses from other postergirlz and readergirlz to this post. Stay tuned!
Submit Your Feedback
How about you, gentle reader? I hope that you, like me, value individually over popularity. Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! Here are some discussion starters:
Were you (or are you) popular in school? Did you want to be?
Do you do your own thing, no matter what others think or do?
What do you think of how popularity is portrayed in books and film?
What's your most unique trait or talent? Do you share it or do you hide it?