October 16, 2007
By Linda Saslow
In elementary school and Junior High School, I was never a popular child. I was the smart kid. I was the wise cracker in MGM who everyone resented because academics came easily to me. Perhaps I raised my hand too much. Knowing too many answers was never a character trait that the other children liked. Plus, I was horrible at sports.
In sixth grade –- the year was about 1980 as I recall -- I wrote an essay about how I wanted to be the first woman president. This is a reality that seems I will not achieve now that it is 2007, I am 37 and there is a viable female candidate for the top office of the land. The essay was printed in the school yearbook. I got some sort of prize at an assembly. My parents and teachers liked the essay, my peers did not.
In seventh grade, I decided to take the bull by the horns and run for student council. I wanted to be vice president. My father thought this was a grand idea. The problem was that I was not one of the popular children. My mother bought me gingham dresses and I willingly wore them to school. I was still smart, but my friends were few. I was in no way cool. I didn’t have the right clothes and I did not listen to the right music. My hair was hopeless. My mother would only take me to her friend for cuts and she would never do the short fashionable styles I desired.
My father helped me make posters to hang at Goddard Junior High School in Glendora, California. The signs were cute with hand-drawn cartoon characters. I wrote some sort of speech and was incredibly nervous when I had to deliver it to the entire student body at a podium in the gym.
I did not win.
I was bummed about my defeat for a while, but then I realized I was still one of the smart kids, even if I could not win a popularity contest. There were places for me to fit in.
In eighth grade I became the editor of the Junior High newspaper which was still run off on an archaic mimeograph machine. Even a photocopier was too high tech for the newspaper office in 1982. I was a good writer before becoming editor of the paper, but I really started to shine once I had acknowledgement for my work. And, I had a staff and some of the kids were popular and they had to kiss up to me to get their stories printed. This I liked. I had the power that I craved. But I had been appointed by teachers, not put up to a popular vote.
For my 13th birthday my mother let me have a large party in the back yard. It was a co-party with a friend who was a bit more popular, so I had hopes that some of the cool kids would come. My friend’s mom made a cake and my mother bought one of those really long sub sandwiches.
Everyone came. I was amazed. I was suddenly not a pariah. Eighth grade proved to be much better socially for me. I had lunch friends. I was on an AYSO soccer team. I discarded the gingham dresses for jeans and corduroy pants. My mother finally relented to let me pick out my own clothes. I got my ears pierced.
The final insult cam at the end of eighth grade when I decided to try out for cheerleader. I was nervous during the audition and I was not picked to be a freshman cheerleader. It seemed that true popularity would always elude me.
At the end of my thirteenth year I moved to another city. The new city was hours away. I had to find my way in a whole new social environment. I was never especially popular in high school, but I managed to make newspaper editor again and had a small circle of genuine friends.
Having just watched my oldest child wade through Junior High, I became acutely aware again how twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are especially cruel. The competition to be thin, have good hair, and trendy clothes has not changed a bit. I doubt it ever will.