The Popular Table, Part 1
I had excellent friends in high school.
They were smart and funny and generous. We went to basketball games, and talked about boys, and complained about parents. We sat at the same lunch table every day and laughed and cried over our tunafish sandwiches.
But still, there was this tiny disloyal part of me that wanted to sit at a different table.
The Popular Table.
That was the table two up and one over to the left from where I sat. That was where Janie sat. With Beth and Libby and Marcia and Jeanie.
How I longed to have sloppy joes with those girls.
There were five levels to the social hierarchy that was high school.
1. The Very Popular. This is where Janie was Princess. She held court. Janie was blond and blue-eyed and unblemished.. She had fair isle sweaters to match her heather a-line skirts. She had expensive loafers. And most amazing to me, her house had ivy growing on it.
Janie and her friends had all the main parts in every play and every club and every dance. They held the starring roles in Life.
2. The Fairly Popular. This was the next echelon. The girls in this group were pretty enough to have attention from the athletes, or had some special talent that got them the supporting roles in plays and runner-up recognition in talent competitions. They usually had dates. They didn’t sit at the Popular Table, but they giggled with the Very Popular in the hallways and bathrooms. They could move through the other strata both up and down – without self-consciousness or cross-contamination.
3. The Acceptably Average. This was most kids, including me. We sometimes had boyfriends, but mostly we just dreamed about boyfriends. We had two good outfits and three more that were pretty bad, but we could get through the week. We always did our homework. Most of our parents were hard-working factory folks who didn’t chauffeur us around. We walked.
4. The Oddballs. Artsy-types lived here. And the nice, but very shy. The girls whose parents didn’t speak English. The girls who wore clothes their mothers made. These were interesting people. I liked these girls. Of all my Acceptably Average group, I was the one most likely to cross the line occasionally into the Oddball category. I wrote poetry – good enough poetry to win little awards, but that made me precariously close to Oddball.
But I didn’t want to permanently join the Oddball group. I wanted to sit at the Popular Table. I wore a record-short-skirt to my 1969 National Honor Society induction. I thought it might thrust me to the Popular Table. But it was a statement better suited to the Oddball Table.
5. The Ostracized. There is always someone at the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s unfair, but who ever said high school was fair? These were the girls with absolutely no social skills. Or on the other hand, had such an abundance of social skills that antibiotics were often required.
There was one girl in my homeroom with huge breasts, and she squeezed the left one quite emphatically every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance. I wanted to tell her to stop it, that the boys laughed at her, but I couldn’t be seen with her. I just hope she married someone with an appreciation for her breasts and her patriotism.
I wish that high school was like a morality play (or a Hollywood movie) – where the Very Popular are also very nasty and get their come-uppance one day. And get fat. And that the Ostracized transform into swans.
But Real Life isn’t usually like that.
Most of the pretty girls are still pretty. Most of the ostracized are still outcasts. The oddballs are still eccentric. And the average are still average.
Almost no one is a mean girl. Most everyone – at every table – is just A Girl.
I remember getting a call from my best Acceptably Average girlfriend the day my grandmother died. Karen couldn’t wait to tell me about Biology class. Janie the Magnificent asked Karen where I was, and Karen told her about my grandmother’s passing. “That’s too bad,” said Janie. “I like Nancy. She’s cute.” Well, ohmygod! Karen and I were both thrilled. Janie thought I was cute. It’s been forty-four years, and I still remember it.
And I admit it. I’m still trying to sit at the Popular Table.
But I have also realized that the Oddball Table is really fun.