I have a 30-year-old confession to make. When I was in seventh grade, I bought a book called “How to Be Popular” through one of those periodic Scholastic Book Club offers. What’s worse is that I needed it. Had Facebook existed then, there would very likely have been a page dedicated to my flat chest. Which is awesome, because middle school isn’t alienating enough.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends. These were the days before BFFs and besties. I did have a best friend, a second best friend, and so on. But now we were in middle school and spread out and forced to interact with kids we hadn’t grown up with.
Still, there were “new kids," and my befriending one led to my “downfall." The first day of classes, I met Michael K., whose identity I will protect lest he one day lose his run for POTUS on account of having been a bully. Michael was tall, blonde, a tad equine and quiet, and I introduced myself after school and took him under my bony little wing. I brought him into a larger circle of friends who introduced him to an even larger one, and by Thanksgiving Michael had dated and broken the hearts of some of the prettiest girls at White Plains Middle School. I take no credit.
Then came the fateful day that I scurried past a wall of boys, clutching my books as I do in my recurring dreams. Laughter erupted, the kind of mean-spirited laughter that could only be meant for subjects within earshot. I glanced at Michael, who’d worked his way up to leader of his pack, and he bestowed my new nickname upon me: “Flatso!”
It was going to be a long year.
By its very design, middle school is a nightmare: a group of kids whose hormones are starting to rage taking notice of other kids whose hormones are raging at different paces. Mine were still dormant, and schadenfreude was everywhere. It sat at the cool table in the lunchroom, whispered about me in the hallways, and generally made that year awful.
My new nickname was clever enough for a pimply-faced seventh grader discovering girls for the first time and learning what it means to be horny. But as the flat-chested gal on the receiving end, it sucked. And it spread; soon boys I didn’t even know were taunting my body. Adding insult to insufficiency, this was the year we read "Call of the Wild," whose lupine protagonist, Buck, provided plenty of fodder for bastardizing my last name. We didn’t consider this bullying back then -- we called it “teasing." Bullying remained the domain of ruddy boys from the wrong side of the tracks and fatherless girls who threatened to beat up the smaller, meeker ones (hand-raising emoticon) after school. The Greek chorus of adolescent rage that followed me around was my first introduction to the concept of the inner circle, of which I was clearly not a part. My girlfriends advised me to simply ignore Michael and his friends -- easy for them to say, with their training bras and their precocious self-actualization.
I needed help, and I found my panacea in the guise of "How to be Popular." With all due respect to self-empowerment, this is perhaps the saddest title to grace bookshelves this side of the one recently gifted to a friend for her 40th, a book about enjoying unmarried life that might as well have been titled "How To Enjoy The Fact That You'll Probably Stay Single Until You Take Your Very Last Breath (Alone)."
But what did I care? If a book could make things better I’d be foolish not to read it. And it’s not as though anyone could have discerned the title amid the pile of paper-bagged textbooks and Trapper Keepers that I held like a shield over my flat chest.
There were no big surprises in "How To Be Popular," nothing one couldn’t have gleaned early on from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Davy and Goliath." I skimmed through chapters on smiling, paying attention to style and hygiene, and being polite. The chapter that struck me the most, and that has stayed with me over the last three decades, was the one on "Questions." Turned out, people love to talk about themselves and asking questions is a good way to seem nice and interested in others. And thus popular. I was curious, nosy and lacked a grasp of the world beyond my own. This information was gold.
However, middle school being the ancient Roman spectator sport that it is, I did not emerge victorious. It had already been decided that I’d be attending a new school the following year, allegedly for academic reasons but, let’s be honest, to an 11-year-old some things are more important, like not being taunted every time the bell rings. Still, asking questions became my modus operandi, my way to infiltrate the inner circles, one caught-off-guard member at a time. My high school was all girls’ and less competitive than others; athletes held court and I was so far from athletic that I was almost cool again. My college was all about the inner circle; it was a Greek school and sororities were hierarchical -- but it was also a very small school, and so assimilation across party lines was inevitable.
It is in the real world that I learned to integrate my two most valuable lessons from seventh grade. I might have started off viewing questions as a means to a social end. But, in the decades since, the habit "How To Be Popular" instilled has served me well in other areas. Publicly, I can defend my inquisitive nature as a byproduct of my need to write. I can claim to be an explorer of the human condition, delving into other peoples’ lives helps to inform the characters and worlds of my fiction. “Asking” became “interviewing," a necessary skill for my work talking to authors for a literary magazine, reporting for a gossip column and ghostwriting.
On a personal level, it is an excellent diversionary tactic. As someone who mines decades of vices and bad decisions for profit, I am far from a closed book. I can talk with bawdy self-deprecation about my many bleary-eyed misdeeds, which opens the door for others to do the same. But when asked a direct question about who I am or what I do or think, I get tongue-tied, self-conscious. And this may be a product of my long held perceptions of the inner circle. It took me a while to realize that, while there will always be tables reserved for the cool kids, and impenetrable inner circles, the world’s campus is vast enough that not fitting into any given one just doesn’t matter. I’ve since formed my own circle, ever changing and growing and shrinking depending on the year, but ultimately, I no longer feel like the underdeveloped adolescent tearing through a book to find a one-size-fits-all answer to popularity.
My heart breaks for today’s middle schoolers, who have all the pressures of my generation along with social media, where nothing is sacred. Discretion is a thing of the past, and Facebook can turn ordinary growing pains into a far more sinister and permanent display. I wish that I could say to the underdogs -- and to my own 11-year-old self -- that someday none of this will matter. You can create an inner circle in the real world that is far less exclusionary and far more celebratory of the individual, regardless of his or her measurements. And if you’re shy or at a loss for words, ask away. It really does work.