Adults have long tried to convince disbelieving high school outcasts that their fortunes are destined to improve in the not-too-distant future. In “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth” (Hyperion) best-selling author Alexandra Robbins explains why those adults are probably right—and why those same outcasts are likely to surpass their “popular” classmates in terms of real-world success. Specifically, Robbins’ quirk theory tells us that “Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling … outside the school setting.”
To be sure, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that quirk theory holds true. Countless celebrities, rock stars and public figures—including Angelina Jolie, James Hetfield and J.K. Rowling—have noted how being an outsider played an instrumental role in their future success. Of course, these few examples of almost unreachable achievement are cold comfort to any student currently being ostracized. But readers are likely to find solace in Robbins’ book, which chronicles the highly-relatable experiences of seven students grappling with the uncertainties of high school social life. Perhaps most importantly, the book concludes with a series of recommendations for students, parents and administrators—all designed to improve the school environment.
Earlier this week, Failure spoke with Robbins about issues like: what makes a student popular; why kids label each other (geek, nerd, dork, bro, bro-ho, prostitot and tanorexic being a few of the common labels); and why the overwhelming majority of students consider themselves to be failures, at least from a social perspective.
What inspired “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth”?
I lecture at schools across the country and I kept meeting kids that had some characteristic that drew me to them, whether it was their genuineness, a quirky personality, or an interesting hobby. Something about them made me think they were terrific—and would be terrific adults. Yet they thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t sit at the “popular” table. They were almost sheepish about their social status: “Well, I’m not very popular.” Or “I don’t socialize that much.” Or “I’m a geek, but….” As if it was a negative. I didn’t see it that way.
What is the message you want to get across in the book?
There are two. One is that being excluded in school doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. In fact, it probably means that you’re going to be an exceptional adult. And two, popularity doesn’t make you happy. Popularity is just this empty reputational construct.
What does it take to be popular these days?
There are three elements. You have to be visible, recognizable and influential, which is why the athletes and cheerleaders—who schools usually herald more so than others—are popular. But it’s also a willingness to conform—to bury anything about yourself that could possibly be construed as weird.
What role does the increasing emphasis on standardized tests and the homogenization of the U.S. education system play in fostering a conformist atmosphere?
I think there is a connection between standardized testing and social conformity in schools because teachers are forced to teach to tests. That sucks the creativity out of the classroom. Teachers can’t go off on tangents, and they can’t follow student interests or passions if there is fervent curiosity about a particular side note, for example. When creativity is sucked out of the classroom that teaches students to devalue that characteristic in each other.
What is the difference between “perceived popular” and “popular”?
For decades psychologists measured popularity by asking students to rank how much they wanted to spend time with people in their class. The researchers would tally up the votes and the students with the most votes would be considered most popular. But when they went back to the students and read them the list of who was popular the students would say: That’s not right!
Then a small group of psychologists started asking students directly how popular their classmates were and ranked the class that way. When they did that, the lists were completely different. So psychologists created a new term, which is perceived popularity, and that refers to reputation. The way we think of popularity today is perceived popularity.
How do teachers contribute to certain kids being viewed as popular?
A lot of teachers favor the popular kids, whether they realize it or not. And some teachers like to affiliate themselves with the cool kids because it makes them feel cool. They let popular kids get away with things they don’t necessarily let other kids get away with.
Also some schools automatically think that outsider status means that there is something wrong with a kid. This lingers from Columbine, after which schools began to engage in what I call outcast profiling—targeting kids who are outsiders and trying to either normalize them or get them out of the school.
Is that a continuing problem—the fear of school shootings affecting the treatment of outcasts?
It’s not as bad as it was ten years ago. But a stigma remains. Instead of nurturing outsiders and trying to tailor the school experience to the creative kids who are outside the popular group, schools are instead trying to force outcasts to conform to the popular kid image.
How much different is the environment in the teacher's lounge compared to the school cafeteria?
It’s the same. You have cliques. You have teachers who save seats [laughs]. One of the biggest surprises for me in reporting this book was finding out that teachers have cliques—with names and T-shirts. And the same schools that are spending thousands of dollars to bring in anti-bullying programs to curb clique warfare among students—the teachers are role modeling the same behavior. They are never going to change the environment if the students see the teachers engaging in the same group dynamics.
How has Facebook changed the high school experience?
I call social networking sites the online cafeteria because they essentially serve the same purpose. They are public spaces where students gather and are more or less expected to choose where they belong and with whom. It forces students to feel like they have to be their own publicists—constantly updating their public image. It forces them to choose their friends in a black and white, yes or no, confirm or ignore way. And it leads to cyber bullying because there is a detachment in that kind of socialization.
However, Facebook can also allow kids to cross group boundaries and make new connections and learn something new about a classmate they wouldn’t otherwise have learned.
What are some of the things administrators can do to improve the school environment?
One of the easiest things a school can do is to change the cafeteria seating so that there are a varying number of chairs at each table to accommodate groups of different sizes. And schools can set out a handful of loose chairs so that floaters—kids who don’t belong to any single group—can go from table to table and don’t have to feel they have to choose one group and stay there. Another thing is for schools to stop the practice of discounting tickets to events like dances and athletic games for couples or groups. When they make singles pay more, they are telling these kids that they are less valuable.
A more radical change would be assigned cafeteria seating on a regular basis—once a month or once a week. Kids resist it because they want to sit with their friends, but it takes a lot of the pressure off of them. They don’t have to choose a seat [like] in the [stereo]typical movie scene where the kid walks into the cafeteria with their tray and surveys the room to figure out where he or she belongs.
Do kids have more labels for each other than they used to? Forget No Child Left Behind. It seems like No Child Left Without a Label?
I believe there are more labels than before, and not only do labels refer to what students do; they also refer to what they are or how they feel. For instance, Emo means that you express emotions more openly than other students.
It’s as if everybody needs a label. And the psychological reasons behind it are such that students don’t have to process more information. They can just lump outsiders into a category and forget about them.
What kind of feedback have you received about the book? I’m particularly interested in how outcasts and popular kids have responded.
The outsiders feel like the book gives them hope and the popular students see that they’ve been focusing on the wrong priorities.
You challenged the self-described “popular bitch” you followed to become a floater. How did she fare?
I challenged a popular [girl] to de-clique herself and become a floater, because she was miserable in the popular clique, even as she was seduced by its trappings—and even though she supposedly had the coolest friends in school. She did wonderfully. She was so much happier at the end of the year as a “nice” floater, than she was as a mean popular girl.
What kind of kid were you in high school?
I was a floater, and apparently also a total dork. I didn’t actually know that people made fun of me for being a dork until a few months ago. I went on Facebook and found one of the most popular girls in my [high school] class and I asked her: Hey, did you ever make fun of me? And if so, what for?
She said, Oh my God, you were such a dork. The things they made fun of me for were being on the public speaking team, writing for the newspaper, and hanging with the “smart crowd.” All those things have benefitted me as an adult. So while it was a little awkward to contact this girl, it was also sort of validating for quirk theory because it holds true with me. And you know what? I love being a dork. So it’s all good.
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