Upending the Tyranny of the Popular Girls

My daughter is graduating from high school this week. “Tradition” brings us a full four-day palate of activities and festivities. Last night was Class Night, an evening of graduating seniors giving thanks (to teachers, administrators, and parents) as well as delivering syrupy, sentimental senior speeches. And, then there was the “Senior Slide Show,” which was really a 35-minute parade of photos of one particular foursome—the popular girls. Some photos just had one or two of them, but many of the photos had all four. Interspersed among the photos of the always smiling popular girls were random photos of other seniors from the graduating class—after all, how can you be the “popular girls” without a supporting cast of clearly “not so popular” and “unpopular”?

Somewhere in the middle of this really unpleasant experience, I found myself having a series of flashbacks to my own high school experience. I was definitely not a “popular girl” and, on top of that, I often found myself needing to explain my presence in many of my classes. I was a “smart kid” who landed in classes with other “smart kids,” but I wasn’t from the “smart kid” part of town (where the local professionals lived). Instead, I lived in a “middle” part of the town (there was definitely a part of town that was even lower down the economic scale), where “middle” smart kids lived.

After surfing through my flashbacks, and letting myself actually think about them, it occurred to me that those awkward teenage years are very likely the most important in terms of my connection and relationship with the church. During my high school years, church was a refuge—a place where I could be and become myself, where I met caring adults, where I found friendship among peers, where I learned and explored leadership, and where my relationship with my Creator grew and flourished. Through church, my awareness of being loved, of being a part of something much greater than myself, and discovering that my life had purpose and meaning, all became essential pieces in my life.

I didn’t need to be a “popular girl,” and perhaps more than that, I didn’t want to be a “popular girl.” Who would want to be at the center of teenage life? Who would want to invite such scrutiny?

At church, I found a home. I taught Sunday School, helped lead the youth group, and served on the Christian Education Committee. I developed significant and meaningful relationships with peers and adults.

The “popular girls” didn’t hold much sway over me at all. In fact, I don’t even have a clear memory of who they were in my own graduating class, although I do remember that there were “popular girls.” They didn’t capture my imagination, or much of my interest. And, now they are a muted, distant memory.

I hope for the same for my own daughter. Although she has a very different relationship with the church, and has not found the same attachment as I found, I want for her the same sense of her own self-worth, that her life has meaning and purpose, that she is loved and is part of something much bigger than herself.

The popular girls may have found a sense of love and purpose, but not the kind that will hold up well through the ups and downs of adult life. I hope for those girls too, those “popular girls,” an awareness that popularity isn’t what brings life’s biggest joys and it doesn’t provide the kind of foundation that one needs to live a life of meaning. May they, too, discover what good community can, and should, be—not based on a rigid social hierarchy, but instead on love, respect, dignity and the essential humanity of each and all.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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