Saturday, February 2, 2013

She's So Popular

When I saw The Writer's Post prompt on Facebook last week about POPULARITY, the first thing that came to me was Peter Gabriel's Song, Games Without Frontiers (She's So Popular), but I also couldn't help thinking about grammar and high school. 

Like many children, as a child, I had no clue what "popular" meant. And again, as with other kids, by the time I was a teenager, popularity became a highly desirable position – a position that was nearly impossible for me to attain, though, because I was not very friendly. Unlike some of my grandchildren (Kaden in particular – read Wanna Be My Friend?), I waited for people to ask me to be their friends. Yes, I was highly unskilled in the social graces.

I remember my first true friend – beyond family and my mom's circle of friends (which included their kids) – a little girl named Kathie, who approached me before school one day to ask me if I was a Negro. She set the pattern for the way I would make future friends – the wait-for-them-to-approach-me technique. Because I was just a child, I never paid attention to how people made friends; I thought friends just happened. Like my future granddaughter, Myraiah (when my daughter marries her dad), I probably believed that everybody I met was a friend just waiting to happen.

Before I continue with this blog, let me get back to the, "Are you a Negro?" question in case you're interested in how that played out. I was one of only two girls in my grammar school with black hair. I was a skinny little 6 year old who was allergic to just about everything so I looked anorexic long before the term became popular (there's that word again). I knew what Negroes were, but I never thought to ask my parents if I was one. I told Kathie that I would check with my mother and get back to her. 

Mom couldn't believe that anybody would ask such a question. Had it not been for the fact that I had a face, people might have tried to slip me into their typewriters – my skinny little body practically glowed with whiteness.

Kathy was the opposite of me. Friendly, outgoing, unafraid to talk to anybody, she easily became one of my mother's favorite little people. In my home Kathie was popular, and as I came to understand popularity, I decided that friendliness surely was a component of, and a reason for, popularity. 

Which of course doomed me to living my life as unpopular. Or so I thought.

I wasn't UNfriendly. I just wasn't likely to ask anybody to be my friend. When I was 9, I was part of the popular crowd, but I never knew it. Not until high school did I realize the perks that came with being popular. My sister, Cindy, was popular throughout grammar and high school, and I was jealous of her popularity. She had lots of friends who were always asking for her. I had only a few close friends.

High school had a completely different set of rules from grammar school about popularity. I saw popular grammar school students become virtual wallflowers in high school, and some other kids become popular for a variety of reasons – and not all of them good. Cheerleaders were popular. Athletes were popular. The class president was popular. But then so also popular were drug dealers and kids whose parents were wealthy. I was not among them.

As an asthmatic assigned to a restricted gym class, I had no athletic skills whatsoever. At all. Throughout high school. I was not cheerleader material, nor was I volleyball material, and to make matters worse, I was clumsy. And I was self-centered, a word that I think defines many unpopular kids. So concerned with what others thought of me, without considering what I thought of them, I would never have approached anybody because I was so afraid of not being smart enough or pretty enough or worthy enough. On the one hand popularity mattered to me; on the other, the desire to be popular wasn't strong enough to bring me out of my self-consciousness long enough to make new friends.

Maybe Facebook would have changed that for me. I wonder how my generation – as high school students – would have responded to Facebook "friends." Would the number of friends have been important to us? If we had 500 friends, would we have considered ourselves to be popular? 1,000? 10,000?

Growing up, I discovered something else about popularity I hadn't considered when I was younger. Remember those popular kids in high school? They had a LOT of competition when they attended college. 

When you take a popular kid away from his or her usual friends, you can't tell the difference between who is popular and who isn't. I once asked my kids and some of my grandkids to look through my high school yearbook and pick out all the kids they thought were popular. Try that experiment with your own kids and grandkids. You'll be surprised with the results.

Today popularity takes a different form than it did when I was in high school. Granted that was decades ago, but contests of all kinds, including shows like American Idol and other talent competitions, now create popularity in ways that go far beyond the talent competitions that took place when I was a kid. 

But are these contemporary shows about popularity or talent? If a contestant asks enough friends and relatives to call in during the finals, does that contestant win for popularity or for talent? The reach today exceeds anything imaginable when I was a kid. Sending out a tweet to thousands of kids takes only seconds. Reaching out through phone lines would have taken hours. You have to wonder if someone more talented might have won the competition if he or she had been more popular.

Our perceptions play such a huge role in defining "popular." We consider something or someone as popular if we think he, she, or it, is popular, because popularity is subjective and fickle – what is "popular" one day might not be the next. Popularity changes over time. Bell bottoms were once popular. Maybe one day they will be again. The Beatles were once popular. They still are for generations of people.

But not for everybody.

Actors and musicians who are popular one year fall into oblivion the next year. I remember one time being at an airport in San Diego. My (then) daughter-in-law, told me that "Flava Flav" was standing right next to us. What's that – an ice cream maven? To me, Flava Flav was just a heavily bejeweled somebody I didn't even notice until my daughter-in-law pointed him out. To her, he was famous (popular). I didn't even know what he did to earn recognition.

I'm not sure I would have wanted that kind of recognition, though – having people point me out at an airport. I was too self consciousn and self-centered, and therefore too uncomfortable to be noticed. And though I craved popularity, I believe people sensed my self consciousness. 

For reasons they might not have understand, many people steered clear of me and others like me (self-centered individuals). If you think about it, that makes sense. If I am self-centered and self-conscious and I don't think I'm worthy of attention, why should anybody else? What I've learned about popularity is that popularity is, among other things, earned, paid for, or promoted.

Let's take my blogs as an example. If you find anything at all in my blogs worthy of reading, I may have earned your respect. You might visit me once in a while to read what else I've written. If I hired a publicist, I could practically guarantee my own popularity, because I would be paying for it. If I get all my friends and relatives to ask their friends and relatives (and so on and so on) to subscribe to my blogs, I will be promoted as if I had a publicist.

But the way I feel about my writing is that if I don't give you anything in my blogs – if you don't get anything from my blogs, whether it's inspiration, information, a smile, a tear, or even the desire to read more of my words, you will pass me by and never think of me again. I want to give you something. That's why I write. But I wouldn't get any pleasure from just being popular. I would want to know I was providing you with something of value.

And so I wonder about all the young people today who are more concerned with being popular than they are with being genuine. If I could tell them anything, I would say that what you give in life that matters, not what you get. And what matters most is when you give of yourself to others.

I would also like to go back in time to tell myself as a teenager, "Don't be afraid to be yourself. Don't be afraid to express yourself. Be who you are and be proud of yourself. You already have people who love you. You are worthy. Now love yourself and forget about being popular."

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  1. Sadlynow the wholeularlity thing starts in grammar school, even if they don't yet know the word for it; my 7year old talks about the most "famous" kid in his class and wishes he were more famous. I.e. popular.

  2. Too bad teachers don't take advantage of the term, popular – or even famous, and take turns making each child popular for a week, continuing the pattern throughout the year until each child gets the same amount of weeks to be popular.




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