At the anime convention that I recently attended, I ran into an unexpected friendly face. Marianne Silbet and I went to the same school from about the seventh grade onward. She moved in from parts unknown. Marianne and I were never friends. The only real memory I have of interacting with her was when she went to the prom with Scott Sanders and the two of them plus Julie and I left the prom together and walked on the beach together.

The thing I remember most about Marianne, though, was that she was very, very unpopular in junior high school and I never remember her having very many friends at all. Marianne was sweet as sugar cane, cute if not hot, slender, acne-free, and at least after those awful junior high school years a smiley and pleasant person to be around. For some reason, though, she really, really got it bad in junior high school. And for prom the date she mustered up was Scott Sanders, one of the friends I was most ready to get rid of when I graduated from high school. The thing that I noticed then but struck me now was how completely, totally unfair that was.

I’ve mentioned before that I slummed around amongst the socially marginalized class of high school. I got to know a lot of them quite well. The guys, anyway. Some of them were a lot of fun to be around and I light up when I think about them. Some, like Scott, I would talk to only if there were absolutely no one else around and maybe not even then. But whether I personally liked them or not, I could easy tell you why they were unpopular. They were socially inept, they were fat, they were awkward, they were anti-social, they were smart-asses they were consumed with bitterness. The reasons go on and on.

I’m not saying that the criteria that found them lacking was a good one. It was stupid and superficial I am so glad to be away from it now. But at least I understood it. I knew what was hurting me and I could try to change it or I could accept the consequences of it. If they were to ask me and I were feeling particularly honest I could have told them ways that they could have improved themselves. It was warped and twisted, but it had its own little logic that if one could step away from themselves just for a little bit they could decipher.

But thinking about Marianne brings to light another observation: I have no idea at all whatsoever criteria, if any, the girls had for sorting themselves out socially. I have no idea what precisely it was that made Marianne so reviled and she’s not the only one. I knew a girl in elementary school named Louise that was dreadfully unpopular. As far as I could tell I was the only nice person to her. Then in the fifth grade her family moved and she went to another elementary school. Both our grade schools fed into the same junior high and apparently at the other grade school she had made quite the splash and when we ran into each other in junior high she had a lot of friends. Even though I was the only one nice to her in grade school, she was unusually cruel to me in junior high perhaps because she did not recognize me or perhaps because I was a throwback to an unfortunate time in her life. Other than the sudden cruelty, though, there was no big difference in her behavior to warrant the reversal of fortunes and I don’t think cruelty alone did it (there were a lot of cruel girls that were very unpopular).

A little closer to home, I understand why my wife was unpopular in K-12. I love her but she is stubborn and has unusual tastes and is not socially gifted. But the ferocity with which other kids went after her completely baffles me. I get angry just thinking about the things that she’s told me and there are things that were so bad, so much worse, that she refuses to tell me. When it comes to the guys that got it really, really bad in K-8 I understand why even if I think that the reason is dumb. But when it comes to Clancy, Louise, and Marianne I am completely and utterly baffled at the degree of derision they got.

My inclination is to say that the female social structure in schools is random and illogical, but it’s quite possible that I just don’t understand the logic because it was all in a world that I was not a part of. There were some that I understood. She was unpopular because she was fat or abrasive or socially awkward. But there were a number of them that I didn’t understand at all. I don’t understand either why they were unpopular or why they were as unpopular as they were. If I have a son like me, I’ll have an idea of what to say or what advice to give if they ask me why other kids don’t like them. If I have a daughter like Marianne, I won’t have a clue.


Category: Coffeehouse, School

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19 Responses to Mean Girls & Wallflowers

  1. Peter says:

    In most junior high schools there are a small number of girls who are on top of the popularity hirearchy. Other girls cross these top girls at their own risk. What this means, as far as I’ve gathered, is that many of the unpopular girls are that way not because of any serious personality/physical flaws but because they had some sort of falling-out with the top girls and became ostracized. Girls in the middle of the hirearchy will take their cues from the top girls and therefore will reject the girls whom the top girls don’t like. Silly, I know, but it seems almost universal and almost entirely resistant to change.

  2. Spungen says:

    My inclination is to say that the female social structure in schools is random and illogical, but it’s quite possible that I just don’t understand the logic because it was all in a world that I was not a part of.

    No, I think you’re right about the randomness. It’s not completely random, but it usually has little to do with how a girl acts or looks. Usually the ugliest girls had other ugly friends who’d stick with them. They were willing to make themselves unpleasant enough that no one messed with them. Plus people felt sorry for them and they were no competition.

    With guys, they’re usually willing to get along unless a guy does something annoying. With women of all ages, it seems someone has to be the scapegoat. And women have to have a clique. If you don’t have loyal friends, it’s a shameful status and almost mandates abuse. Think of social life as a war, where if you don’t have allies you’re sunk. Especially from the lower-rung mainstream people, who are unhappy with their status and desperate to feel above someone.

    I remember in or around fifth grade, getting chided by some girls because I never asked anyone to eat lunch with me. The idea was a surprise, as we’d all been eating together for the past five years. A few girls had best friends, but other than that it was random according to where there was space at the two girls’ lunch tables. Then it changed.

    A lot of who your friends are in K-12 isn’t real choice. Lots of girls had moms or older sisters or brothers who were friends. Or, they came from the same neighborhood. Most Hispanic and Filipino girls hung around with an extended family group that included lots of cousins about their age. They didn’t have to work to make friends. And they didn’t hang out with ethnic outsiders.

    A big part of the problem was that I didn’t have a mother after third grade. It was important who your mom was, because they got pretty involved in the schools. And some girls weren’t even allowed to come over to my house because I didn’t have a mom. It was considered weird.

    The one other really smart girl in K-8 was not considered pretty, but was part of a clique of well-off Central American emigrants whose older siblings hung around together. So we didn’t have much in common. Most of the other girls were either dumb, kind of trashy and streetwise (shoplifters, liars), or from strict Hispanic families. I paired up with a few of them but it never lasted.

    It seemed that each girl had to have a best friend in the class. The pairs had an alpha female and a slave. The pairs would then combine to make a larger clique of four to eight. If you didn’t have a mate, you couldn’t function in a larger clique, because pairs would constantly be ganging up on you. It was like being the fifth wheel on a really vicious group date.

    I had a best friend outside the school who was very popular. She was the alpha of our pair. I was pretty strong-willed myself though. So I wasn’t willing to be a slave to any of the pushy girls (hence fallings-out), but I didn’t like hanging out with quiet boring girls either. Not enough to dominate them and fight for their loyalty against interlopers, anyway, and that’s what was required.

    And remember, we only had 19 girls in our class. There wasn’t a lot to choose from. And 19 divided by 2 leaves one person left over.

    I think that for men and women, a lot of popularity depends on factors unrelated to how you act or look. A lot of it is how popular and social your parents are. How much freedom they allow you is another part (was the kid with super-strict parents ever popular?). Another big factor is luck — who lives around you, who you meet when you’re young, do you start out with a group of popular people. Did you enter high school already having some good friends, or did you have to start completely from scratch — or worse, with low status reported by people who knew you in junior high? Unless you’re a star athlete in a valued sport, you usually don’t make friends with new, better people. They don’t need new friends, no matter how attractive and charming you might have become.

    I’ve discussed this a lot with my husband, who feels he could have been popular in high school had he just chosen to be more outgoing. (He wasn’t harassed-unpopular, just overlooked-unpopular.) I asked him if he knew one popular guy who had teachers for parents. He admitted he didn’t.

  3. Spungen says:

    Will, I wonder if it’s fair to say that men will include unless there’s a reason to exclude, and women will exclude unless there’s a reason to include.

    Except I’ve known a lot of guys who act like women then …

  4. Spungen says:

    I’ve got an analogy: Think of girls socializing as a game of musical chairs. The rules of the game mandate that there are not enough chairs to go around. If you’re stuck without a chair when the music ends, you lose.

    Wait, maybe it’s a bad analogy, because in real life the game doesn’t keep going until only one is left. If that were the case, the first person out would eventually have plenty of company.

  5. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    Seems quite possible that the female social structure is much more hierarchial than the male social structure (at that age, anyway). Maybe Marianne sat at the wrong chair at lunch her first day and never rebounded from that, so it comes across to me as random when there was a definite (albeit possibly unavoidable) trigger.

  6. trumwill says:

    Spungen,

    And remember, we only had 19 girls in our class.

    When you say in your class what do you mean? Like there were 19 girls in your grade that would go up with you? At which school level was this the case? If you’re saying that I think you’re saying, the difference here is absolutely huge. I had roughly 100 students in my grade school class, 200-400 in junior high school*, and 900 or so in high school. I’d imagine that has a huge affect on the social structure.

    I think that for men and women, a lot of popularity depends on factors unrelated to how you act or look. A lot of it is how popular and social your parents are.

    I think this was less of a factor at my schools, or it became increasingly less important as time wore on. My mother’s civic activity I think helped me in elementary school, but by high school it was irrelevent. How much money your parents had did matter, though, because it made a difference in the kinds of things that you could do.

    Did you enter high school already having some good friends, or did you have to start completely from scratch — or worse, with low status reported by people who knew you in junior high?

    Both and neither, honestly. It’s a long story (worthy of its own post, actually). I had some friends in the 8th grade, but I had classes with almost none of them my freshman year. When I went to my high school reunion a couple years back, I was struck by how my old friends fit into two distinct categories: people I knew in high school and people I knew in junior high (and grade) school. I was actually unaware that I graduated with a lot of people in the latter group; I’d assumed that they’d just moved away.

    I asked him if he knew one popular guy who had teachers for parents. He admitted he didn’t.

    Kids with teacher parents were actually at an advantage around me provided that the teacher taught at a school we went to. Even the teacher that everybody hated had a really popular daughter, though I don’t know if there was cause-effect involved.

    (As an aside, I had the awesomest fourth grade teacher ever. She had a son in the second grade. The boys loved this teacher so much that they looked out for her son who was being pestered by bullies.)

    I wonder if it’s fair to say that men will include unless there’s a reason to exclude, and women will exclude unless there’s a reason to include.

    I don’t know that that’s true. There were an awful lot of guys that took pleasure in pounding on their lessers back in the day. Now, I do think that there’s some truth to that once you get out of college. The differences between male-dominated and female-dominated departments at my job with Falstaff in Deseret was very eye-opening, even when the departments were doing the same thing.

  7. Spungen says:

    Kids with teacher parents were actually at an advantage around me provided that the teacher taught at a school we went to.

    I wonder how much of this is demographic. You said you had kind of an upper-middle-class existence, right? Where maybe educated parents had more cachet? My husband grew up in kind of a rural exurb. His high school reunion happened recently. It looked to me like the stereotype one often sees in movies — where the formerly cool kids were kind of loserish (or at least looked a lot poorer, worse-dressed and worse for wear than we did), and the geeks were the successful attractive well-dressed ones. I always thought that was just wishful thinking so it was pretty satisfying to see it play out in real life.

  8. Spungen says:

    As for the school, yes, it was a typical parochial school with one class for each grade and 36-38 students in each class. From 1st through 8th grade we had a turnover of 6 or 7 students. So not much new blood and not much choice of companions.

    I think a lot of women just don’t have much in their lives beyond their little personal sphere — their families, their little clique. So they’re very, very jealous and protective of that little sphere.

    A new person may think, “Hey, I’m perfectly nice to her, she’s got nothing to fear from me.” But just the fact that you’re a new person coming around is a threat to her. You could alter the balance; you could steal attention or power. Or, it’s just her only opportunity to wield some power by excluding or dominating you.

    With women like me and Dizzy, you see how it is when a woman doesn’t have her own sphere and has to seek. It’s very difficult. Some women, they really, genuinely think they’re adventurous and open and people treat them well because they’re acting right. But it always seems like they’ve got their own solid sphere, and are drawing power from it to bring in new people — rather than trying, alone, to enter someone else’s.

  9. David Alexander says:

    And remember, we only had 19 girls in our class. There wasn’t a lot to choose from. And 19 divided by 2 leaves one person left over.

    Spungen, I suspect our experiences have been pepered by being in small Catholic elementary schools where the student body was small (400 students from K-8), everybody knew each other, and there were few new students, so it was very hard to escape being taunted since there was no real refuge in other students. Luckily, my HS was large* with 2800 students, so I was more likely to find people that were accepting of me. I think I’m one of the few people where the social situation improved with high school, and that’s because I was able to break free of the old elementary school.

    As for the factors you mentioned, I was poorer than many of the other students, so I was socially isolated because I didn’t have all the stuff that they had. I was a bookish, teacher’s pet nerd, so nobody found me interesting, and I was an “oreo”, so nobody understood my from a cultural and social standpoint. It didn’t help that the only other kids on my block were juvenile deliquants who were only interested in breaking in homes and stealing.

    *Yes, it is the largest private school in the United States.

  10. trumwill says:

    I wonder how much of this is demographic. You said you had kind of an upper-middle-class existence, right?

    I did, though not everyone around me was thus. I went to a upper middle class high school, a working class junior high school, and a solidly middle class elementary school. That may not make sense, but every time I bumped up schools we were outnumbered by the others socio-economically. My grade school merged with a larger, poorer grade school for middle school. My middle school merged with a larger, wealthier middle school for high school.

    The neighborhood I was raised in was solidly middle class and I never got the things that the kids with upper middle class parents got, but my father made more than a lot of their fathers did, I’d wager. We just lived well below our means. The money that my parents were stockpiling only became relevent when it came to paying for college (which they did) and the sporadic help we’ve gotten since. Part of me feels a bit ripped off that I didn’t get to live like a rich kid :).

    Anyhow, as far as the teachers and their respect goes, it may well have been a matter of their level of education. I think the biggest thing my high school had going for it was a lot of parents that expected success and were willing to do their part. On a per-student basis, my school district spent less than most of the surrounding ones, but performed better.

  11. trumwill says:

    Oh, and I’m not ignoring your great comments about how the social structure worked on the female side of things. It’s really interesting stuff.

  12. trumwill says:

    I think I’m one of the few people where the social situation improved with high school, and that’s because I was able to break free of the old elementary school.

    That’s actually the case for more people I know than not (though not necessarily for the same reasons as you). The junior high years are always the worst, so high school is almost by definition an improvement. Also the size allows for a greater degree of anonymity which is also a good thing if the alternative is cruelty.

  13. Peter says:

    Seems quite possible that the female social structure is much more hierarchial than the male social structure (at that age, anyway).

    Agreed. Male social groups didn’t seem to have specific leaders. They were more collections of equals than true hirearchies. All in all that was a good thing, as it made it easier for newcomers to join the groups and reduced the risk of ostracism.

    In fairness, I’m far from an expert on the topic as my school system did not have middle schools or junior highs at the time. Instead there were neighborhood K-8 schools feeding directly into the high schools. Given all the emotions swirling around middle schools and junior highs this was probably a good thing. A year or two after I graduated from high school the city revamped the system, opening three large 6-8 middle schools and reducing the neighborhood elementary schools to K-5.

  14. dizzy says:

    1) In the rural midwest, at least among friends I’ve had, teacher parents can make you pretty popular. They’re involved with the school, know a lot of people in town, that sort of thing. But it depends on the area. And I agree that parents determine, really almost completely, their offspring’s popularity.

    2) Once a girl is deemed unpopular, it’s almost impossible for her to come back from it. No one else will risk talking to her. And the most effective way for her to gain favor with the group is to do something, really, really mean to another girl. Not all girls are willing to be this cold blooded (also, most parents stupidly say things like, “If they see how nice you are to them, they’ll come around.”)

    3) Girl popularity is determined by what the other girls say about you. It’s hard to explain, but a girl will announce, “I’ve just never liked her…” and everyone has to agree because you don’t contradict. Once you’ve agreed, you can’t be seen talking to her. Only the girl who basically called “the hit,” or someone with really, really high status, can save her by talking to her. Otherwise, as long as that group exists, the girl will pretty much stay at the bottom. Girls start these “hits” on each other for various reasons. Sometimes it’s jealousy – if a guy she likes, likes the other girl, is a very common way for this to start. Sometimes it’s just a bad day. And I think the girls who are nicer get it the worst.

    4) Just for further explanation, there’s top-of-the-hierarchy nice, where you are very conscious of everything you say. And then there’s “nice”-nice. Which is kind of social suicide unless you have friends who will watch out for you.

  15. trumwill says:

    And I agree that parents determine, really almost completely, their offspring’s popularity.

    I’d be really interested in hearing you extrapolate on this one.

    Are you referring to a parents position within the community? Where I’m from this is less of an issue past elementary school. With rare exception nobody knew who anybody’s parents really were in middle or high school. I admit that I did get a boost from my mother (former PTA president) in elementary school, but that didn’t carry over at all. There were some mini-celebrities in the area, but I can’t go into that without explaining where I’m from. And, of course, the kids of teachers benefited (mostly). The Mayne area covers maybe 75,000 people or so, though, so I could see how that would differ from smaller communities.

    Are you referring to how much money they have and/or are willing to spend on their kids? On this we would be agreed. My parents had money, but we behaved as though we didn’t which put me at a disadvantage when it came to classmates.

    Are you referring to inherited characteristics? I’d believe it, though my personal experience doesn’t bear that out. My mother is pretty charismatic, but neither my brother nor Mitch did well in K-12 socially (and I take after her a lot, Mitch less so). In fact, the only popular one of us was my oldest brother Ollie, who was adopted (he was an athlete, though). Then again, it could be said that both Mitch and I took after our father as far as that goes, though Mitch grew out of his awkwardness in college. Clancy and her sister Ellie did not do well at all in K-12, though the youngest sister Zoey did great. The former two take after their father and the latter after their mother, so that’s pretty relevent.

    Are you referring to permissiveness? I’d believe this one, too, though it wasn’t an issue for me. Not being allowed to go to parties and whatnot doesn’t matter if you aren’t invited :).

    Are you referring to inherited values? Some kids wouldn’t go to a party even if their parents would let them because they know they have to study and all that. And as you mention, some parents give some pretty worthless advice on how to get along with people.

    This is a subject of some interest to me as if Clancy and I have kids I would really, really like them to do better socially in school than their parents did. Unfortunately, coming from the two of us the deck is stacked against them in that regard. In fact, apart from the genes we’ll probably rate pretty poorly on all of the above tests except maybe status.

  16. Peter says:

    I never recall any interest in family status during my school days. About the only exceptions, applicable only in elementary school, involved a few kids from particularly poor families. They faced a bit of a struggle for acceptance, but it wasn’t anything too bad. And no one seemed to care at all in high school.

    What might have contributed to the lack of concern was the fact that my schools were in a mainly Joe Sixpack city* with relatively small income differences. Things might have been different had there been more of an income variation. Now, when I got to college, a relatively selective New England liberal arts college, one’s economic background was very important. I would assume that was because the income differences were much more pronounced.

    * = Coming from Connecticut, I always found it amusing that so many people elsewhere in the country think the state consists entirely of affluent suburbia, think the Stepford Wives without the robots, interspersed with quaint small towns. In fact, some parts of Connecticut are classic Rust Belt.

  17. trumwill says:

    You can probably blame that perception on People magazine. It seems like every time I hear about some big superstar getting a mansion outside of LA it’s in Connecticut.

  18. Hit Coffee » The Discounted Promenade says:

    […] n Julie and I somehow hooked up with my classmate (and reluctant friend) Scott Sanders and Marianne Silbet. The four of us went to the beach together and considering that Scott was by far one of t […]

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    […] 1; than the fourth, I could not for the life of me discern it. I expect this kind of thing from girls, but not so much for boys.

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