Friday, July 11, 2008

Considering Popularity

Every now and again, d2 of 43rd State Blues posts something utterly thought provoking that forces me to step back and "assess" an issue on an entirely personal level. This is the brilliance of d2--brevity that outright begs for curiosity. More than once I've checked out a book, article, website, etc. because d2 has mentioned some component of it that seemed in his explanation to apply to me personally. And d2 does not disappoint with today's link to an essay by Paul Graham, author of Hackers and Painters.

Graham tackles the issue of why nerds, generically smart teenagers, are not popular in junior high and high school. On a basic level, he is asserting that nerds are too busy to be popular. They seek knowledge over all else, a search that requires time and concentration, and that search impedes any hope of being popular because popularity, too, takes time and focus. You must feed popularity.

I'm not going to over-analyze Graham's essay, it speaks for itself and is a wonderful read, but I am going to take this essay and make a personal application. As I am further and further removed from my own junior high and high school days, my own perception of who I was and wasn't then is skewed. Taking into account all six years of middle school and high school, I can say for certain that I was not the same kid throughout. The first four years were most similar, due in part to my location and my surroundings, but also due to what my priorities were. The last two years were in no uncertain terms a battle for survival. Oddly enough, it was the last two years that I achieved any amount of popularity, though I never would have then (or now) considered myself to be popular. I was, simply, known and liked by most of my classmates. Whether that is popularity or not is still a mystery to me.

Watching my fifteen year old brother embark on his high school career has been an interesting life experience for me. His priorities at this time in his life are so unlike mine when I was his age that I can hardly believe we can have such an amazing relationship while being so completely different. He is the jock, the natural athlete in every sense. He is, at times, the class clown, but can be equally shy in certain settings. His understanding of what high school is boils down to what he assumes is his God-given right to hang out with his friends. I'm not sure he knows what a GPA is, much less why it matters. His only concern with college at this point is whether or not the college he chooses will have sporting events that are televised. Without intending to demean his intelligence level, he is not a kid you would expect to have a library card and he is not a kid you would expect to have legible handwriting (not that either of these are sure signs of intelligence). None of this is to say he isn't brilliant in his own right, because he is. He is smart about people and has a huge heart. However, being popular seems to be an overriding consideration for him around his peers.

Until I read Graham's essay this evening, it didn't occur to me that being popular and cultivating popularity could actually detract from learning. Because I never felt that being popular was a goal and I didn't feel the need to work at it, I couldn't have known that popularity is a distraction.

Part of me not understanding the teenager my brother is now, in comparison to the teenager I was, has a lot to do with this essay. I know that student athletes sacrifice a great deal in the classroom for their sport. Being an athlete takes time and dedication, time taken away from being a student. I know that the student body president had a busy schedule, I just never equated that busy schedule with the time it must take to get enough of your classmates to like you that they'd be willing to vote for you.

Another interesting question remaining when I finished reading this essay was that of self-awareness and stereotypes. Are we the best judge of who we were in high school? Can we adequately apply stereotypes to our former selves? Thinking long and hard about it, I don't think I would apply any of the standard stereotypes to the high school version of me. I wasn't a jock, I played sports when I was younger and healthier. Like I said, I don't think I was popular. I wasn't a freak, at least not by the definition Graham gives. I wouldn't have considered myself a nerd, by my standards then and in comparison to my nerdiness now. I have no idea what I was in high school. I was too busy doing other things to define it, I guess.

On the contrary, my kid brother will five years from now state without hesitation that he was the running back in high school.

There is so much more to Mr. Graham's essay that begs comment--like whether we are teaching anything at all in our schools or if we are simply 'teaching for the test'--but that is an issue for another day. I look forward to reading a few more of the essays by Paul Graham, the ones that are less computer oriented and will, like this one, help me to understand human nature a little more. "Disconnecting Distraction" sounds promising...

1 comment:

Adam said...

Teed, this is kinda funny. I dont think it takes time to be popular, just takes cool shoes! :-)