My mother didn't raise me to be No matter how hard you try, you can't
February When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity.
This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise.
Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us. My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: Being smart seems to make you unpopular.
To someone in school now, that may seem an odd question to ask. The mere fact is so overwhelming that it may seem strange to imagine that it could be any other way.
Nor does it harm you in the real world.
Nor, as far as I can tell, is the problem so bad in most other countries. But in a typical American secondary school, being smart is likely to make your life difficult. The key to this mystery is to rephrase the question slightly. One argument says that this would be impossible, that the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart, and nothing they could do could make them popular.
If the other kids in junior high school envied me, they did a great job of concealing it. And in any case, if being smart were really an enviable quality, the girls would have broken ranks.
The guys that guys envy, girls like. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him.
Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Of course I wanted to be popular. There was something else I wanted more: Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers.
In general, to make great things. At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important.
To them the thought of average intelligence is unbearable. But most kids would take that deal. For half of them, it would be a step up.
And that, I think, is the root of the problem.
Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.
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Rick Vetter Department of Entomology, University of California, Riverside, CA.
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