When Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” came out in 2010, a series of YouTube videos directed at teenagers who were the victims of homophobic bullying, something didn’t feel right to me. Here were a bunch of stories by people who had, yes, admittedly made it through to the other side, telling our youth a common tale–painstaking childhood, turning point, and a happily ever after. What struck me as unsettling was how un-nuanced this narrative arc was…surely there was more to the story than happenstance. Did we think that little of the children watching that we could only tell them things WOULD get better but not HOW to make them better? Yet, there seems to be a common truth for all those who’ve made it through the hallowed halls of secondary education–gay, straight, or otherwise–perhaps not entirely unscathed but made it through nonetheless; it IS better on the other side. So perhaps the question isn’t “How does this happen?” but “Why?” Why do the teens who didn’t have a spot at the cool cafeteria table end up as success stories in adulthood?
In this month’s book club we are going to attempt to uncover the answer to just that. Perhaps in analyzing why the losers, geeks, and outcasts in American teen culture gain access to a more promising future, we can finally solidify the “how” in our own stories and thereby paint a more holistic picture for our struggling youths than “it just will.” To do this, we will be reading “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School” by Alexandra Robbins. No stranger to writing great non-fiction about the youth of America, Robbins notes in “Geeks” that she kept encountering kids who felt like there was something catastrophically wrong with them because they weren’t popular or they were bullied. In my experience as an educator of middle/high school students at various forensics institutes over the years, I have answered these same worries in ways probably not uncommon to those of you who have found yourselves in a role-model situation. “There’s nothing wrong with you. High school is crazy. The stuff that makes you unique now is gonna make you popular later!” and “The popular people are probably miserable too.”
Robbins takes a more academic approach to her answer and presents “The Quirk Theory,” explaining that the passions, idiosyncrasies, interests and all the stuff that makes one considered weird as a kid are the very quirks that will turn them into cool, interesting, and successful adults. And it’s true–as adults we reward passion; children, for whatever reason, tear it down. As my peers and I settle in comfortably on “the other side,” all it takes is a quick voyeuristic scan on social media to see endless examples of this theory in practice. Oh you can build a computer in your spare time? Awesome! I bet you’re making a shit ton of money. You’re working for an NGO in Botswana? Killer! Your stories are probably super interesting. You just crocheted a whole blanket? WHUT?! The patience! The creativity! Sell that shit on Etsy, dawg! The computer geek. The dirty hippie. The shy girl who sat by herself at lunch. In a matter of years these labels become completely reframed.
Robbins’ book follows 7 high school students labeled as, “the loner, the popular bitch, the nerd, the new girl, the gamer, the weird girl, and the band geek.” Following each student for a school year, you begin to recognize these people. Maybe you see yourself or someone you knew. Peppered in between these narratives are essays on popularity, how schools make the social scene more intense and the psychology of exclusion; all of which seek to help answer our underlying question–why did everything we hated about ourselves in high school, all the things that made us different and therefore BAD, suddenly turn us into the best versions of ourselves? How in Jesus’ name did we grow-up and suddenly get cool?
In a world where we’re spending tons of money on anti-bullying campaigns and initiatives, as I begin this book, the glaring systemic problem seems to be something we’ve yet to address. By promoting certain activities over others, the school systems are basically telling kids who should be bullied and who should do the bullying. As adults, I think we can do better. This discrepancy obviously hits close to home. I was a speech dork in high school–competing for a team who split their time 50/50 between practice and fundraising. We rehearsed on the same loop upstairs that the cross-country team ran on; as we spoke to walls, snickering runners continuously lapped us in a never-ending stampede. Would our popularity trajectories have looked differently if the school was buying US new suits instead of the swim team? Who’s to say?
In an attempt to get to the bottom of all of this, why not join in the book club fun? A book club, you ask? FUN?!? That would soooo not have been cool in high school! So celebrate your adult-self and all the nerdiness you’re now allowed. Pick up a copy of “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School” by Alexandra Robbins and let’s get weird.
(Top image via here.)
Any initial thoughts? Do you feel like you had a label in high school? What weird things about your high school self do you find gains you positive attention as an adult? What would you tell a student who is struggling with their outcast status today? Feel free to leave your answers in the comments below! And tune in each Friday!