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Dad Next Door: The popularity game — school is like a shark tank

A little encouragement from across the fence


My first parent-teacher conference was more than 20 years ago, with my daughter’s preschool teacher.

“Maddie’s doing fine,” she said. “Her language is right on track. She’s very focused and creative. She mostly keeps to herself, though.”

Those last few words gave me a twinge of anxiety. Oh no, my daughter isn’t playing with other kids. She isn’t fitting in. She isn’t ... popular. My own childhood flashed before my eyes.

I was a chubby, shy, Chinese kid with bad home-cut hair and oversized, hand-me-down clothes. My parents couldn’t have cared less if I was popular. They wanted me to get good grades, stay out of trouble and do my chores. My place in the grade-school pecking order was for me to sort out on my own.

When I reached middle school, a kid from Southern California moved in a couple of blocks away, and we became good friends. Back then, in my little New England town, being from California was like being from Narnia or Middle Earth. He was confident and charming, and he knew about Bob Dylan and Dostoyevsky. For a while, I basked in his reflected coolness.

Unfortunately, when we reached ninth grade, he found a group of friends who were much cooler than I was. Not only did he jettison me from his inner circle, but he convinced his new entourage to shun me as well. For most of that year, they made it their goal to systematically snub and mock me, and my profound uncoolness became the defining fact of my existence.

Eventually, they lost interest in me, and I spent the rest of high school trying to recover some small degree of cool. I was modestly successful. I played sports — not the right sports, but enough to acquire a bit of status. And I was smart, which carried some cachet in our college town full of academic families. Once I had clawed my way up from the bottom of the shark tank, I set about the work of any socially anxious teenager: maintaining my elevation by pushing others down.

I remember sitting in the back of my calculus class making fun of the eager beavers in the front row. I used to mock their high-water pants and their misshapen heads, but deep down I knew I needed them. They were the only thing between me and the muddy bottom. Their uncoolness was my personal flotation device.

This summer, I went to my 40th high school reunion. I hadn’t gone back for any of the others, so I had no idea what to expect. It was an amazing experience. Some of my classmates hadn’t changed at all: Dave was still handsome and charismatic, Joy was effervescent and kind, and Brian was as effusive and unselfconscious as ever. Others had seen their lives take unexpected turns. Some of the popular kids had aged poorly, weighed down by pot bellies, unmet potential and unrealized dreams. But most surprising of all were the uncool kids who grew up to be cool.

There were quite a few of them: successful, personable, and remarkably comfortable in their own skins. Somehow, by clinging to the bottom, they had avoided the open-water shark fights of the high school food chain, and had managed to grow and forage and feed their souls. Many had done extraordinary things. At one point, we honored two classmates who had died untimely deaths, but who had devoted their lives to social justice. We gave them a standing ovation. Once, they’d been misshapen heads in the front row. Now, posthumously, they were at the head of our class for real.

The Southern California guy was at the reunion, too. All weekend, I struggled with whether or not to talk to him about ninth grade. Finally, at the end of the last evening, I pulled him aside. I didn’t need an apology — I just wanted to know why. To my astonishment, he didn’t remember any of it: not the taunting, not the bullying, not even the simple rejection. He remembered us as friends. For him, my personal hell hadn’t been personal at all. The point wasn’t to kick me down, it was to propel himself upward. I was only collateral damage.

The other day, Pippa came home and announced: “I’m one of the most popular girls at school.” She’d only been back at school for a week, and she’s in second grade, so whatever. Still, it gave me a little shudder. All those baby sharks, swimming around in that tiny second-grade tank. Not old enough to bite yet, but still eyeing each other — sizing each other up.

No, I wanted to say. Stay on the bottom. Be a coral reef. Grow slowly and steadily into your most beautiful, exuberant, intricate self. But I know there’s only so much I can do for her. Someday, there’ll be blood in the water, and she’ll sink or swim on her own. And after that, who knows?

Jeff Lee works, writes, and lives in blissful uncoolness in Seattle.

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