Friday, February 6, 2009

Another Hazard of Being Human: The Popularity Game

When I was a kid, I was what was then known as “shy”, now called “having social anxiety”, an affliction that involved, paradoxically, both wanting to be with people, and being very afraid of them. If you’ve ever been a kid, you probably know that school is the worst possible place to try to develop social skills. I had a few friends when I was in elementary school, and those friendships were pretty good. However, once I got into junior high, friendship became a competitive sport called popularity. Like any other sport, it had some basic rules, which I didn’t really understand, and lots of injuries. I decided I didn’t just have the stomach for the game. In the many years that have gone by since I was that age, I’ve come to realize that neither my school nor my experience was really unique. The basic dynamic gets reenacted in schools throughout this country, probably even throughout the world. Putting a bunch of immature humans together in close confinement, with no way to effectively escape each other and very little adult supervision, is just a bad idea.

In the junior high social scene, there are always a few individuals who cement their social standing through fear and bullying. If, like me, you endured junior high, I’ll bet that sentence just made one or two faces appear in your mind. In my school, their names were Mary and Amy. During the first half of the first year of junior high, Amy had been my friend, and I swear to you, she was a nice person. That was before she became Mary’s minion. One day, she abruptly turned to me and said, “I don’t like you anymore and I don’t want you hanging around with me.” That was the moment that I began to seriously distrust other people. Up until then, I had recognized and was willing to accept that some people wanted to be friends with me and others didn’t, and I was fine with that. Suddenly, I was confronted with the reality that someone who I liked and trusted could just one day stop liking me. Now, of course, I know that it happened because of Mary’s jealousy. Once Amy and Mary became friends, Mary insisted that Amy drop me so she wouldn’t feel so insecure.

Mary also seemed to dislike me forever afterward, and would take every possible opportunity to embarrass me in front of others. One day, I wore a new pair of shoes to school. “Are those your grandma’s shoes?” Mary asked loudly from across the classroom, “ Cause my grandma has a pair just like those.” My strategy was to try to remain invisible. I stopped talking to anyone or trying to be friends with anyone, because I felt like there was no one I could trust. I bought clothes like everyone else wore, not because I liked them, but just so I could avert the chance that someone would notice I was “different” and draw it to everyone’s attention.

However, I did make the mistake being one of only two girls in a drafting class, and that, I learned is a very bad thing. The other girl changed out of the class after about a week, and I was the only one left. The teacher, apparently a smoker, would disappear for about 15 minutes during the last half of every class. There were a couple of boys who would persistently tease and harass me from the back of the room. They would ask me if I was having my period, whether I used pads or tampons, and try to convince me that I had blood stains on the back of my pants. Later on one of the other boys from that class (not known to be part of the teasing group), came up to me and said that his friend, Roy, liked me and gave me a note from Roy. I asked myself what the odds were that Roy was sincere. I couldn’t know. I asked myself what the odds were that they were setting me for another joke and more humiliation: “Ha ha, you really thought Roy had a crush on you.” I decided it wasn’t a chance I could take. I told Roy’s friend, “Sorry—not interested.”

Truthfully, it has been a long road back from those early experiences. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting friends. Sometimes, I just can’t believe that someone would actually just want to sit and talk with me. I tend to ask myself, “What do they really want?”, or I start to feel like I’m imposing on their time. It’s only been during the last few years or so that I’ve made real progress in that area (I’ll tell you more about that later on).

Now, I have a daughter who is eight years old. We are fortunate to be able to homeschool her. When people who learn about our decision ask me, “But what do you do about socialization?”, I want to respond, “Oh, you mean the experience of having your peers torment and humiliate you until your self-esteem is beaten to a pulp, and you conform to their wishes just to “fit in” and try to survive another day? That’s actually the aspect of public school that we’re most happy she’s missing out on.

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