The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

Quirk Theory—and why high school outcasts are most likely to succeed.

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.

See also:
Alexandra Robbins on “The Overachievers”

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