Were you ‘popular’ at school?

Earlier this year my hairdresser asked me, ‘Were you in the popular group at school?’

I didn’t know straight away how to answer. Not because I was embarrassed to acknowledge membership of a particular group, but because I wasn’t aware of having been part of any group.

Over the twelve years of my school life, my closest friends included a boy friend, a quiet and mysterious friend, a couple of arty friends, a tomboy friend, a sporty friend, a couple of punk rocker friends and a geeky friend – possibly someone from every ‘group’ in variously defined classroom hierarchies or social structures.

I don’t know why I was such a butterfly. Maybe because I’m simply a bit unconventional, nonconformist, never really fitting in to prescribed structures. Maybe because I’m like a metamorphic rock, having passed through different phases over the years (unlike sedimentary rock types, who add layers of depth, and igneous rock types, who seem always to stay the same in essence.) Or maybe it was because I didn’t spend much time with other children till I started school, and so missed out on the ‘puppy socialising’ where bewildering social structures are learned. For whatever reason, I’ve always been on the periphery of things. I used to worry about this until I realised that I enjoy engaging with a range of cultures and activities, and being free to come and go.

At school I made friends with people because I liked them, and for no other reason; no other reason ever occurred to me. I remember one friend saying to me, ‘It just makes you feel so good, doesn’t it, when Polly smiles at you.’ I felt baffled. Polly came from a wealthy family, and tended to dominate the room. She wasn’t nasty; just not my type. Why would I be rapturous about being smiled at by someone I didn’t particularly like?

I’m not claiming to have been immune from friendship angst. The time when I was ostracised by my three best pals over a spontaneous quarrel was memorably painful, and seemed to go on for ever. And sometimes there were people I wanted to be friends with more than they wanted to be friends with me, and the sense of rejection I experienced was painful (and still is, because that still sometimes happens).

But it never occurred to me that there might be people who wanted to be friends with me more than I wanted to be friends with them, and that this might have caused them any pain or sorrow. Kids don’t think of that – at least I didn’t.

Since my hairdresser asked me that question, I’ve been thinking and talking with old friends and new about popular children. I’ve learned that ‘popular’ can mean many things to many people, and that so-called popular children often have a different notion of what it means to be in that group than everyone else does.

Some children are naturally much more aware of power dynamics than others. The ones who are aware of power dynamics – the ones to whom it matters – invariably think that everyone is as conscious of all the manoeuvring as they are; whereas plenty are largely oblivious to the relationships of children who aren’t their own friends.

A popular child can, of course, be someone who is so kind, or funny, or interesting, that everyone wants to be friends with them. But they can also be the ones who have the wealthiest families, and therefore the most expensive clothes and haircuts, and others want to be friends with them hoping that some of the glamour will rub off.

‘Popular’ can also mean the ones who are the most extrovert, most dominant, most confident; natural leaders, often with a sense of entitlement. Or it can mean the ones who are so terrified of the implications of not being in the ‘popular group’ that they use fear and manipulation to create a circle around them, and see to it that ‘outsiders’ are ridiculed and despised to make the contrast clear.

And of course there are some children – often with good and enduring qualities – who are the regular butt of insecurity-driven teasing, exclusion or cruelty. I sometimes hear the childhood stories of the adults they’ve become, in coaching sessions, or when I run workplace sessions on bullying.

One of the best things that any children can do is to recognise that social hierarchy is largely a matter of perception. It doesn’t matter (at least, it doesn’t need to) if children you don’t particularly like don’t particularly like you. It’s fine that some children have a few close friends, some have lots, and some move from friend to friend as they grow and change. Any approach is fine, as long as it brings considerably more joy than sorrow (and ideally considers others’ feelings too).

It’s often too late for many children, by the time they learn these things about friendship. And sadly, some never shake off the labelling. Because although the manoeuvring becomes more subtle, many of these playground principles are still around in adulthood, and throughout our lives. When we fully accept our own unique way of approaching friendship, and disregard others’ hierarchy perceptions, we can experience friendship with joy and fulfilment, whatever our playground.

 Silhouette, group of happy children playing on meadow, sunset, s‘I have learned that to be with those I like is enough’ – Walt Whitman


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