There’s a force in this world that I don’t understand. This force is wholly of human construct, yet it exerts over me and likely countless others with the same audacity as gravity or relativity. And nowhere in this world is it more prevalent than in high school, where it rules above all other physical laws with an iron fist.
I’m talking about, of course, that dreaded scourge, popularity.
What causes it? From where does it spring? How does it spread? What feeds it, and how does it ultimately die? There is no text, no class on the subject, and this fact only in turn promotes the mystical aura surrounding it. All we can know about it is what we observe. It’s like a new science, in its flat-earth stage. But perhaps searching for its wellspring is not only futile but pointless. Best we deal with its effects, which are gargantuan.
The grey area of popularity is indeed slim. Most of the time you either have it or you don’t. I describe it this way because I liken it to a disease. I would say that of course, because I don’t have it. I am remarkably free of the fungus, the sick, the tuberculosis of the popular. I live in a plastic bubble of the soul where all remnants of the virus have been forever extinguished.
It’s clear to me that those who have the disease don’t know they have it. They operate in the haze of an ignorant bliss. Without any essential self-awareness, they are free to explore unfettered the mores of behavior so repugnantly amoral that they are forced instinctively to seek out others like themselves, lest they be judged.
And so develops a code of conduct specific to their breed. Here’s where my knowledge begins to leak into theory, for if I knew their codes, their nods and glances, their secret handshakes, their sickening exchange of laughter and sarcasms, then I too would have the “ignorant disease” of popularity, and I too would walk amongst their clan. Of course, I do not, nor do I entertain any hope of ever falling ill to it.
I suppose however I have now revealed my morbid fascination with them, much like students going though a Nazi or a serial killer phase. It’s easy to be intrigued by something you can never become, and ask yourself how or why. It’s even easier for me, since my other/self was a card-carrying member and champion of the breed. Chloe, Miss Popularity Herself.
Ask yourself this. How can someone move from Malibu, California, to a small town in southeastern Ohio, and in the space of less than two weeks, become the Queen of the School to such a degree that she’s already dating the King, the starting quarterback, the Adonis, the James, and holding court over All That Orbits Around Him, which is to say, Everything? How does this happen?
I ask in all honesty. Because I don’t know. But from what I can tell, this sort of pattern, this conquest and acceptance, this stomping out the purely unpure undiseased, this happens in life beyond the high school, it’s there in the real world too, in business, politics, relationships, everything. The entire world is contaminated, and the afflicted don’t know it. The afflicted all just preen around, winking at each other, as if to say, you’re cool, you’re one of us. If someone winked at me, I’d probably punch them in the face. So nobody winks at me.
But since Chloe is their leader, and her blood is my blood, what does this say about me? Do I possess the disease latently? Will it arise in me in the future? Or am I just a carrier, cursed to carry the stricken cells, and spread them like the plague — people only using me as some sort of yardstick against which to gauge themselves. There’s Anna, they might say, stand next to her and become instantly more popular, as she herself withers away.
I fear this last possibility, for that’s exactly how I felt walking the halls of Griffin Hills High School. Chloe had her posse: James, Clarissa, Tyler, Paolo, and since I was Chloe’s sister, and new, and shy, I could walk with them, but only ever in their collective shadow. For who was I? Clearly different, as naturally different as a bird from an elephant, as planets from amoebas, as dust from a thought.
I was lucky enough to have James as a classmate in three of my six classes, the previously discussed art, biology, and now, English, which was taught by a flaky new-age nutter by the name of Ms. Bowles, who wore floor length skirts one could imagine were made of “gingham,” along with psychedelic paisley oversized men’s collared shirts, loose enough so at times one could see the greasy white tank top she wore underneath. Seriously, I’m a fashion retard, but if students have to have a dress code, what about teachers? Even I could see she was a nightmare, what with her frizzed-out super-hair, thick-rimmed try-hard hipster glasses and about a dozen woven Native American bracelets on each wrist, I mean, what sane person designs such a look? How could we listen to her in earnest? Close one’s eyes, I guess. Anyway, she didn’t really seem to care if anyone in her class was listening to her lectures or not, which suited me of course, as my reading list transcended the canon. I still had my Vodou book, though by this time I was less interested in my episode under the bleachers with the frog, and more interested in refocusing my learning on simple mind control, with James as my obvious target. I was inspired as I read, seeing how once again, just as before in biology class, I could glance up, and behold him all aglow, sitting near me. Unfortunately, and my hesitation to mention this is wholly purposeful — sitting next to James was my wondrous other/self, the bitch Chloe, who distracted James from his natural state of beauteousness, for Chloe seemed to uglify everything she contacted. The only upside was that at least my glances at James stood less chance at being noticed, as James and Chloe slipped at times into their own little bubble-world. Puke.
Bowles walked by Chloe resplendent in her cheerleading uniform and said something funny, for her.
“Clearly the mother of all uniform violations,” Bowles quipped. Chloe broke from her James flirtations and was quick to respond.
“I am the future of cheerleading at this school!” Go ahead and imagine that coming out of her as asshole as possible, because that would be correct.
“Well by-the-by,” said Bowles, “I think the universal appeal of our author in question is sacrosanct. Listen!” What the fuck? Bowles continued to pace, now lowering her stupid glasses to read from a small volume.
“‘...at the tender age of 23, Emily Dickinson withdrew from social contact, and cloistered herself in a golden tower, fettered by her love for ingenuous emotion, propelled by a singular holy vision, yet still, utterly alone.’” Now listen to this poem!”
I was listening, alright, she had me at “cloistered.” Now of course I had heard of Emily Dickinson, but only as one has heard of any other popular writer that they force down your throat at school. Plus, I wasn’t really into poetry, it always seemed to me to be overly clever, and all we ever did in class was try to figure out “what the poet was really trying to say.” If the Goddamned poet wanted to say something, then the Goddamned poet should just say it! Not smush it up in some flowery bullshit. That’s what I thought then anyway. But this Dickinson chick sounded different, right from the start. Anyone who “withdraws from social contact” deserves my ear, for at least to be considered.
Bowles read the poem.
““I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too? / Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell! / They'd banish us, you know.’”
A few total fucking assholes tittered and giggled at that moment, and I wanted to machine gun them all in the face with a bazooka. I quickly dashed aside this guttural malice, as Bowles, oblivious to her students as ever, kept reading.
““How dreary to be somebody! / How public, like a frog / To tell your name the livelong day / To an admiring bog!’”
I remember vaguely now, the laughter of students, and in particular the bitch Chloe, turning to me and pointing and either saying or mouthing something akin to “she’s talking about you” — but this memory is just fleeting now, as I was in a state of rapture at hearing the words of God. I think there were students mockingly repeating the words “frog” and “bog,” but I can’t hear them in my head anymore. I do remember that Bowles actually tried to stand up to the cretins, for once.
“Don’t laugh!” she said. “She’s pouring out her heart! Don’t be insensitive!” Bowles’ words snapped me from my reverie, and brought context back to my life. I remember seeing
James. He looked more like I wanted him to look. Respectful. Almost involuntarily, I muttered two words, so very softly.
“It’s perfect,” I said, not sure if I was referring to the poetry, or James, or both. Chloe heard me, though, as she always does, and her hideous cackle broke through everyone in the room.
“Wait!” she shrieked in my direction. “What did you say?” Bowles, for some reason, responded (why the hell did she have to pick that precise moment to get all interactive with the students?).
“Anna,” said the fruitcake Bowles, “did you want to comment on the poem?” Oh Christ! Thanks, bitch! You want me to pass some sort of snap judgment on God’s words? Didn’t I just comment? Wasn’t that good enough for you? The rest of the class of course seized on this opportunity to fuel their cruelty and heave it at me, yelling their “go on’s” and “come on Anna’s” and generally being dicks. Chloe as usual took the lead.
“Go Anna!” she belted. “Tell us what you think about the froggy bog!” That was a cunt thing to say on so many levels. But stupid Bowles didn’t pick up on it. She just kept at me.
“Quiet everyone!” Bowles yelled. “Let Anna speak!” At this point I was nearly outside my body, watching myself dissolve like frames of a movie caught in a projector. The only thing that tethered me to this world was the gentle gaze of James, so unlike everyone else in the room. He had sympathy for me.
But then even James had to look away. That was it.
Inside of me cells were dying. My being was becoming less. I got up from my desk and ran from the room.