Alexandra Robbins says she was a total geek in high school. Now she’s a prominent journalist (her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Washington Post) and a New York Times bestselling author (Pledged and The Overachievers). Her outsider status in school may have helped position Robbins for a successful career, according to her new book, “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School.”
At a time when more and more kids are bullied in our schools’ often rigid environments, the book offers hope by suggesting that what makes “outsiders” different (and unpopular) in high school is what will eventually make them successful as adults.
We caught up with Robbins to ask her about her book and about what educators can do to encourage and celebrate nonconformity and individuality.
What is “Quirk Theory”?
Alexandra Robbins: Quirk Theory is this: Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same characteristics or skills that others will respect, admire, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.
Why do quirky kids become successful adults?
AR: The most general way to explain it is that in schools, that which makes you different makes you a target. In adulthood, that which makes you different makes you interesting, fun, and often successful. Also, quirky kids don’t waste time or energy on image control, like popular students do. After graduation, the quirky kids therefore have a much better sense of their identity.
At a time when bullying has become so rampant that it is pushing some kids to suicide, why is the message of Quirk Theory so important to school kids today?
AR: It is one thing to tell students that “it gets better” after graduation; Quirk Theory explains why it gets better. The book also explains what’s going on psychologically with this age group that makes them so concerned with group identity and conformity — and why popular people are mean. The message tells students that it’s not worth it to be popular, that if people are bullying you, then it’s because you’re probably doing something *right* with your life.
How does our educational system sometimes squelch noncomformity?
AR: There are so many ways! NCLB and other standardized tests suck creativity from the classroom, which teaches kids to devalue the trait in each other. Schools also penalize students who stray even slightly out of the box. Many students have been sent home for wearing unusual clothes. Schools have suspended students for dying their hair. They’ve even punished Native American students for wearing feathers and even a bolo tie, which are culturally symbolic.
Many warn that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science. How would celebrating our schools geeks help us gain more ground in STEM education?
AR: It’s ridiculous that people complain about the US falling behind in math and science and scramble to find solutions without ever asking students how their school culture portrays those fields! If schools were to celebrate student scientists and mathematicians the same way they celebrate student athletes, then more students would be excited about the subjects. This has been proven to work in schools like St. Edmunds, where a robotics club called “The Nerd Herd” has changed the way students feel about robotics — and nerds! When was the last time a school celebrated academic team triumphs at a pep rally?
How can educators help school kids nurture their inner geek and overcome the pressure to conform?
AR: Besides the more drastic ways to overhaul the social atmosphere, here are some easy ways to help: set out loose chairs in the cafeteria so that groups of all sizes can sit together and so that floaters can mingle; try assigned cafeteria seating at least once a month; reward teachers who offer safe spaces during lunchtime for kids who dread the cafeteria; make sure that every student has the opportunity to run for student office and to vote; never discount ticket prices for dances or other school events to groups or couples; have a rotating patrol of adults (possibly parent volunteers) in the hallways between classes to monitor for aggression; and most important, reach out to kids as often as possible, even if just to ask how they’re doing and what might make their school a more welcoming place for them.
If you could say one thing to all the quirky and unpopular kids struggling to get through high school, what would it be?
AR: If you’re excluded, that doesn’t mean that anything at all is wrong with you — in fact, it probably means that you’re going to be much better off than the kids at the popular table, because being different makes you awesome.