Coming home from school the other day, my fifth-grader son asked me, “Mom, why are certain people popular in school?” There were tears in the corners of his eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Mom, are you popular at work?” he continued.
“No,” I said.
“So, the cool people at your work, Mom, are they smart?”
“Not exactly,” I replied.
“Are they good-looking; do they dress really well?”
“No. It is just that they make themselves out to be important and they hang out with other people who also act cool. And they keep certain people out of the clique,” I was groping for an explanation.
By this time, tears were streaming down my cheeks too. For, I was scared. I was scared, because, I realized that even though I had been lucky enough to survive not being the popular girl, my children might not be so fortunate. I was grateful that I had had the resources to figure out that being cool wasn’t the end-all of everything, that academic achievement and a confidence in my own dreams and ambitions and talents would get me far. And I had been fortunate to grow up in India, where I did not face the kind of pressures my children face in America today.
Recent violent incidents like the shootings at Santana and Columbine High Schools and a young man’s foiled plot to bomb a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area, all have one thing in common; alienated youth who were not accepted within the cliques of their peers.
I cried as I tried to explain to my son why some people are more popular than others, because I realized that as an adult, I encounter cliquishness almost every day, and that even though I have succeeded despite it, it still hurts.
Cliquishness is what gets you ahead in America today. I see it at work, where it is called by a different name; “networking.” When you look closely at the so-called “networks” in most workplaces, however, you realize that they aren’t based on professional connections; instead they consist of groups of “cool” people who wear similar clothes, have the same hobbies, and hang out together in the same places after work. And a part of the “coolness” consists in excluding others.
When we moved to a somewhat “yuppie” town of Albany a year and a half ago, because of its good school district, my children and I were to discover that breaking into this new community was not easy. As a result, my older son has already had his social struggles in middle school, where alienation is the norm.
No wonder that most recent violent episodes have occurred, not in inner city schools, but in upper-middle class settings. For, despite pretensions of political correctness, most upper class parents today live exclusive lives. To them, diversity is an abstract political construct; they might oppose discrimination, but they socialize exclusively with people of the same class, race, and economic status. And by their deeds, they send to their children an implicit message; that exclusiveness is okay.
To top it off, children with learning disabilities or other special needs in most public schools today are continually subjected to “zero tolerance policies” and punishments such as not being able to attend school dances or graduations, while the rewards for good behavior happen to be scant.
Listening to George W. Bush’s words in response to the latest tragedy, I was struck by the distinctions he made between the good guys and the bad, the righteous and the evil, “the right and the wrong.” But the truth is that there is little difference between the perpetrators and the victims in many such violent incidents, except that the former happen to be social rejects, while the latter constitute the popular, cool students.
What is characteristically lacking in the aftermath of such episodes is a sense on the part of the students, the parents, and the community, that “but for the grace of God, go I.”
California police, for example, are already discussing the prosecution of the teenager responsible for the Santana rampage as an adult. Yet I know that somewhere in the soul of that juvenile is a child horribly hurt by rejection.
I do not own guns. And although my children are just as fascinated by the culture of sex and violence that pervades television, video games, and internet chat rooms today, I pray that they will not resort to violence simply because they feel rejected by their peers at times.
And every day, I praise my children’s special gifts. I appreciate my younger son’s talent for music and the arts. When the clique of high-schoolers across the street teases my older son for washing the car, I tell him that his very hard work and family loyalty will make him a good employee, husband, and father some day.
But most of all, I hope that my love will be enough to keep at bay the kind of despair that the children of Columbine and Santana must have experienced before killing some of their own peers.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.