We Cool?

How old are we when we first begin separating into cliques? High School seems to be the apex of this particular paradigm--jock, prep, goth, punk, nerd... the whole Breakfast Club thing--but it must start sooner than that. I can remember junior high being pretty clique-oriented, too. In seventh and eighth grade recess, most of the boys would usually gather to play touch football. I tried to join them once, but after making what I presume was a terrible mistake on the field, I was told by a kid fully a foot shorter than me that "if you can't play with the big dogs, stay on the porch!" I assume he read that off of a t-shirt at some point and it really stuck with him. Anyway, after that I went back to my usual recess activity: "hanging out." I was obviously not a jock.

As an adult, it's hard to look at little kids of eight or nine and think of them in terms of social status within their peer group, but I can remember that even then, there's a kind of hierarchy forming. When I was in third grade, the kings of the hill were usually guys named Justin. They wore Starter jackets and Air Jordans; they had spiky hair. The cool girls were named Brittany. They were allowed to wear makeup, I guess. (To be honest I don't really know what the girls considered "cool." They were all pretty neat to me.)

At the bottom of the elementary school social ladder were kids like Ben Ogles. Ben looked like a young Stephen Hawking. He had memorized pi out to fifteen digits. He left class in the middle of the day to attend "gifted" lessons. I went to his house once, and discovered that his parents were both software engineers (well before that was the kind of job that would earn you stock options.) Ben, for his part, had already learned to disassemble and reassemble his Super Nintendo. The other kids thought he was weird. I thought he was the coolest kid ever.

I've always been somewhat of a double agent. I learned early on that if you can make people laugh, they tend to gloss over the Periodic Table of the Elements shirt you're wearing. I could also draw a little bit (I specialized in unflattering caricatures of our teachers) which was important. When you're a kid, you gotta have a trick. Double jointed? You're cool. Can you jump up and touch the "exit" sign above the door? Awesome. You gotta have something: I had drawing and jokes. So despite my love of science and videogames, and my tacky clothes, I was accepted by the Justins and Brittanys. That didn't mean I wanted to hang out with them.

I wanted to hang out with guys like Ben Ogles. He claimed that he could develop force-field technology if he had enough batteries. I figured he was probably full of it, but who cared? Everyone lies when they're a kid (I once convinced some classmates that my last school had been at a nudist colony, where all the girls were so totally naked!) and the fact that Ben would even consider the concept of force-fields meant he was at least thinking about interesting things. All Justin talked about was football, and cursing, and making fun of Ben. But still I straddled both sides of the fence, because more friends are always better, right? (As Facebook has taught us.) This changed one day, as we were coming back in from playing on the playground.

I don't really remember what prompted this conversation between Justin and myself, but he sidled up to me and, in hushed tones, informed me that it would be better for my social standing if I stopped hanging out with Ben. Don't play with that kid, because other people will judge you. This really got to me. I thought, who are you to tell me whose company I can enjoy? I'll hang out with whomever I darn well please, thank you very much! Why don't you pump up your Air Jordans a few more notches and fly outta here! I didn't say any of that, of course, but I did put my hand in my pocket and secretly flip him off. You'll be sorry, Justin, when Ben engineers an army of killbots to do his bidding! I stopped hanging out with Justin after that.

Now, I wasn't trying to make some kind of a stand about being friends with everyone. I hated--hated--this one kid just because he thought he did a better Donald Duck impression than me. (To this day I think of him as a stupid jerk, and can not even entertain the possibility that perhaps he did do a better Donald Duck than me.) But I couldn't understand the idea of certain people dictating who and what was "cool" or not. It's such a fluid thing, anyway, "coolness." Twenty years ago, videogames were nerdy. Now it's a multi-billion dollar industry. Comic books used to be nerdy, now movies like The Avengers blow box office records. Facebook, Apple, Google... some of the coolest, most beloved industries on the planet were created and staffed by the Ben Ogles' of the world. It's a bit of poetic justice that, in turn, the Justins and Brittanies are the ones being mocked on shows like Jersey Shore. The meek are inheriting the Earth--if you can't play with the little dogs, stay on the porch.

So anyway, I guess cliques form pretty early. It's human nature. We like to organize everything; something as complex as a human being needs to be labeled so we can understand it. Jock, nerd, prep, poor, punk, weirdo, freak, geek, goth, slacker, stoner... shorthand for determining whether you deserve to "fit in" or not.

Me? Since my conversation with Justin back in third grade, it's been much simpler. Are you a good, nice, friendly person? Or are you a jerk? Those are the only two cliques I think should matter.

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