There's the high school cafeteria with its ironclad rules about who sits where--tables for the gamers, the emos, the jocks or the geeks among the boys and for the girls the clusters around this or that social magnet. Just about everyone has been there. If you're lucky you might fit in with one group or another or at least squeeze through relatively unnoticed. A few actually thrive in this acrid environment. And some are torn to bits.
On one particular gray Tuesday, there's a girl sitting on the steps leading to an upper level. She's alone - as always. She has a pad of paper and colored pencils and she's practicing drawing lines of perspective, capturing the crazy, obtuse angles of the modern cafeteria.
Does she bother the groups at the tables?
She sits there every day in the same spot. She is weird. At first she tried to talk to people, but she looks a bit different and she won't play along. She won't dress the way you are supposed to. She won't wear makeup or not in the right ways. She never pays attention to what was in style. She doesn't make small talk. She talks about why things are the way they are in the Arctic and what happened in a book more than about the other girls.
Yes, she bothers people.
A couple of the guys catch a nerdy kid with glasses at the top of the stairs. He should have been paying attention. Never should have walked by them. He knew he should take the other stairs to avoid them, but he was in a hurry. He bothers them too. He doesn't give them their due.
So, they grab him and hurl him down the stairs. He crashes into the girl's back, scattering her colored pencils, shattering them into pieces, pulverizing the delicate cores within. They'll be useless now.
She saved for those pencils. There's no way she can afford a new set. But that isn't even the important part. They were her lifeline, the way she survived the hell of this place, the disdain and the shame. Now her lifeline is broken.
She believes the boy jumped on her from the stairs to taunt her, and in a split second brain chemistry flips and years of isolation coalesce into rage.
She grabs the boy's hair at the tender nape of his neck in her left fist and pounds him with her right fist. Again and again. She sees white, not red. She hears only her own ragged breath. She doesn't scream but her face holds such intensity that they leave her alone for a while after that.
She knows that she has failed again. She played right into their hands. The crying, beaten boy wasn't the attacker. They should have been allies.
We left such things behind in high school. Didn't we?
I hoped so. Once. But then I discovered Mommy cliques. When you're a mother with small children, you need other mothers. You need companionship with those who understand and the occasional conversation of multi-syllabic words. And you need playdates so your toddlers don't drive you crazy. But if you thought high school had cliques... watch out!
Mommy cliques are a tad more sophisticated, but the rules are still pretty much the same. The ammunition is still fashion, makeup and small talk, but you have to add in home decor, flashy birthday parties, magazine-quality Pinterest photos of crafts and cooking, kids fashions, kids behavior, parenting styles, how early you potty-trained and how well you can talk about it all without seeming to brag too blatantly.
The stakes are the same - inclusion or exclusion, street cred or isolation.
Does this mean that men get it easier? Maybe. But both men and women have to run the race for "success" in academia and then in career. Men have to dress the part too. If you don't, it's your loss. You can't blame anyone but yourself. Sure, the fashions are arbitrary, but only geeks can differ and they can only differ in certain ways.
A random perusal of my Facebook feed shows that it isn't just mommies who didn't leave the social rat race behind in high school. Everything is measured in "likes" these days. I've been studying a lot about effective online business, but I still can't figure out how "likes" help exactly - except that they give that street cred. It's essentially the same thing as having the popular kids give you a considering look and an oh-so-minuscule nod to show that you are allowed to sit in their vicinity.
Except "likes" have the illusion of democracy. They make it appear that the more you have the more people must really support you.
I inadvertently ran a small experiment on "likes" recently. I was trying to choose between two possibilities for the new logo of my dystopian fantasy series and I posted it to various groups asking for gut reactions. In every group there would be one enthusiast who would pipe up quickly and give their answer, either "right" or "left." The first time this happened I was thrilled. The first person chose "right" and that was the option I secretly favored. There followed a stream of agreement, "right," "right," "yes, right's the best," a dozen or more responses. I was vindicated!
But then I looked at another group. There the first person to answer had said "left" and the whole string of replies had agreed that the left-hand choice was the better one. Out of six different groups, the responses were about even, but they always followed the leader, like little ducks... or lemmings.
What I learned from this is that "likes" are far from democratic. What is popular is popular because of how people follow the leaders, not because of popular appeal or true support. I call it "the cult of popularity," but I might as well call it a "cult of power."
Political organization, social structures and economic entities all use it and the underlying psychology isn't that different from high school cliques.
I just read an article about a blind citizen detained by US border patrol between Montreal and New York because the way his pupils were dilated looked suspicious. He and his friends laughed and the border patrol was incensed. "You think US Customs and Immigration is a joke?" they bellowed. Then he was subjected to hours of intimidation and interrogation. The guy's eyes "bothered" those with power. His failure to "play the game" of mild intimidation bothered them even more.
Does nothing ever change? Are humans just wired to ostracize - to pick sides, pick out and pick on? When will those who are bullied stand up together instead of fighting one another? Will bystanders ever wake up and say enough is enough?
For as long as there have been poets and bards and storytellers by the fire, some of us have tackled these questions with stories. That's why I wrote The Kyrennei Series. It started there in the lunchroom in high school. I watched the florescent lights and escaped from purgatory by making up characters, names, places and fantasies.
The story is dark because it comes from that darkness. But it's also essentially the anatomy of hope. First, how can you survive? How do you struggle and hang on to those who stand by you? Then how do you choose your own path no matter how hard you're pushed down? How do you use the power you have - great or small - to make something meaningful?
I'm going to write a few posts about the premise of the Kyrennei series. This is the first. The Soul and the Seed is a story that faces the human desires to to build cults of popularity and reject difference head on.
I love your comments on these posts! Do you thrive in the social rat race? What do you think would happen if the cult of popularity literally ruled the world?