Throughout my entire middle school experience, there was not one day where somebody in my grade wasn't "literally about to cry."
This is normal, typical teenager behavior -- obsessing, fretting, over-analyzing every small detail. What I know now as I'm entering high school is this: 98 percent of what we worried about in middle school never even mattered.
It turns out that whether or not the boy who sat to the right of you in 6th grade science thought you were pretty on a particular Tuesday in January did not change the course of your life. Neither did the girl you liked who never texted you back. Or whether or not you were invited to "that" party a month ago.
But as any middle schooler knows, when you are in the smack middle of this angst, it's hard to see beyond it. It's hard to see beyond the glossy seats of the popular kids' lunch table or the glisten in the smile of the person you like. I'm pretty sure I can say that you have pondered the thought of your social standing at some point in your life. I certainly have.
I came to Calhoun (a K-12 progressive school in New York City) in 5th grade with a desire for popularity. I thought popularity was the key to happiness. Or at least that's what the TV shows and movies promised for the popular girls with hair that bounced and the nerdy girls who ended up being popular due to some sort of magical makeover.
In my naïve 5th grade mind I thought Calhoun was a place where there was no social hierarchy, or at least, if there was one, I could be on top of it. Like any new girl coming into a grade with people who have known each other their entire lives, I quickly realized I was wrong.
See, the thing is, during our middle school years, teachers and parents repeatedly tell us that if we question the status quo and listen to our hearts, we will be our best selves. And while that's true and we all strive to be our best selves, each of us still struggles with wanting to belong.
About a year ago, I sat in the passenger side of my mom's car, ranting about either not being well enough liked, not having enough friends or not being good enough (all of which are in the repertoire of things my mom has to hear me complain about... on a daily basis). It was about halfway through my diatribe that she decided to speak up. "I just think you are putting too much on the idea of popular kids."
"I am not," I spat back and that's when she said it:
"What do the popular kids have that you don't?"
By this point in the conversation, I had lost all of my ability to debate, so I just sat there in my seat and mumbled, "Stuff." What I should have said is that I don't know what the popular kids have that I don't, but it's something. We spend so much of middle school trying to figure out what makes the "cool kids" cool.
Is it whether they wear Jordans or LeBrons, have straight or curly hair, or listen to indie or pop? So maybe you go on a diet until you see chocolate that wants you. You grow a beard until you realize it looks patchy. You stop holding your parents' hand in public. The problem is that none of these things really work. The only thing accomplished by not holding your parents hands is hurting their feelings. All growing a patchy beard does is make you look young, and all going on a diet does is make you feel fat.
So why do we do it?
Well, it's hard not to when that is the culture that surrounds us. We see it when a select group of mothers get lunch together weekly, or when fathers only shake certain father's hands. We see it in the cliques teachers form, but most importantly, we see in each other. It is apparent in every dirty look, hair flip and phony smile. We see it at the empty chairs that are miraculously full when we go to sit in them. It is overheard in the whispers about who is hot and who is not. We see it on Instagram when your best friend has more likes than you do.
What we realize now that middle school is over is that if the world depended on whether or not the boy who was sitting to the right of you in your 6th grade science thought you were pretty on a particular Tuesday in January, than maybe the fretting and worrying would be worth it. But the thing is, in the long-run, none of this stuff will matter. Because in 20 years from now, that particular Tuesday will be just one of a hundred Tuesdays where you hoped a boy thought you were pretty. This is why we need to take more from our time in middle school than just a wild goose chase of popularity.
Now as I'm about to enter high school, I hope to take with me my math teacher's capability to make math fun, or my science teacher's faith that we could all become scientists if we wanted to.
I want to model my seventh grade English teacher's ability to both see the kindness and draw it out of people and remember my 8th grade English teacher's dedication to get children to be aware of all the circles of social responsibility around them. I hope to take my history teacher's way of making history entertaining, enjoyable and educational. I hope to live my dean's passion for change and my principal's belief that every single one of us will succeed as long as we remember to take charge, lead and listen to our hearts. Because in 20 years from now, I hope I won't remember my middle school years by what lunch table I sat at, but will remember it for Wednesday dance parties, the advisor who changed everything and the teachers that inspired me.
In 20 years from now, I hope we will remember Calhoun for every smile or laugh that was shared together, every song that was sung and every time we truly loved a friend.
The truth is, popular kids have a quality about them that is mystifying. It's not a pair of sneakers or a certain lip color. It can't be simmered down to "21 Ways to Be Popular" or "Popularity in 19 Days." Popularity in its simplest definition is accepting who you are and flaunting it. So go out there guys, and flaunt it.