Walk into the cafeteria at Vista High School in San Diego, and you’ll likely need a field guide—or at least a student like junior Karen Ceballos—to identify all the different student cliques clustered around lunchroom tables.
“There are the anime lovers, the hip hop dancers, the gamers, the metal rockers, the skaters, the surfers, the honors kids, the drama kids, the emos, and many more,” says Ceballos. “A lot of the cliques are even further divided into sub-cliques, like the band geeks and the band hipsters, or the jocks whose cliques revolve around certain sports, like football, track, swim, baseball, or water polo.”
Safety in Numbers
Ceballos is one of the honors/AP students. She and her friends are pretty sure some of the other cliques probably have a more active social life because they spend less time doing homework and more time going to parties. She says she doesn’t “spend every minute of her waking life with her friends,” but she thinks that teenagers just have a natural desire to form groups, especially in the often-intimidating environment of a large American high school like hers.
“We probably form cliques because of primitive instincts that tell us that there’s safety in numbers,” she says. “No one wants to go through the horrors of high school alone, and it helps to have people who understand you and who can relate to you to help you through it all.”
Ceballos is right. Cliques in schools do provide a sense of belonging and security for their members, but the “rules” for belonging can be stifling—especially among the so-called popular groups. Usually there’s a leader or group of leaders who exert control over the group, and the number one rule is universally understood: Conformity is mandatory. Nonconformity, or simply hanging out with kids from another clique, can result in social isolation, harassment, and bullying.
Yet, grouping persists. Many teenagers, like Daniel Han, a sophomore at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va., thinks labels are misleading, but also hard to avoid.
“I’m against this whole category thing and cliques idea because it leads other people to believe that the clique you hang out with is what defines you,” he says. “But most times, it’s other people who categorize you, and you just have to accept it—whether it fits you or not.
Han thinks that he’s been labeled a geek because he earns good grades and is interested in technology and engineering. He also plays a lot of sports, but isn’t on a school team so isn’t considered one of the jocks. That’s fine by him. He’s not steered by labels and he has a small group of friends that he trusts and admires, especially one of his best friends, who Han says waves his geek flag proudly.
“He admits to being a nerd. He’s a nerd, and he’s proud. He’s into anime, art, sci-fi, and fantasy. He seems special. He sticks out from the crowd.”
Though Han and his friend don’t mind standing out from the crowd, he realizes that most teens do. They just want to fit in.
“They want to fit in and not seem to be a loner,” he says. “They care about what other people think about them and sometimes even let others dictate their behavior. But the fact is, some will have a better social life and have more friends, while others won’t.”
Alexandra Robbins, author of The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, says it’s a natural part of cognitive development for students to cluster into groups.
“They begin to form their identity based not by their family but by their friends,” she says. “Forming boundaries, judging people by external characteristics, and labeling them is all a part of students’ learning to structure the world around them.”
But students like Ceballos, Han, and his “proud nerd” friend are ahead of the curve. They recognize and understand the labels, but still hold onto their unique interests. It’s a trait that will serve them well, Robbins says.
Calling herself a “total geek” in high school, Robbins says the pressure to conform to the more traditionally “popular” cliques can squelch the creativity that makes us successful as adults. It’s what she calls “quirk theory” in her book.
“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,” Robbins says.
That which makes you different in school usually makes you a geek or a nerd, she says. But in adulthood, that which makes you different makes you interesting, fun, and often successful. Also, unlike popular students, quirky kids don’t waste time or energy on image control. After graduation, the quirky kids therefore have a much better sense of their identity.
Robbins also points out that kids who have the ability to move freely between groups will be better prepared for more success as adults—kids like Myles Kelly, a sophomore who plays volleyball for Osbourn Park High School, in Manassas, Va., and also plays on a state travel team. Katy relates to the other athletes at school, but wouldn’t call herself a “jock” or part of any particular clique.
Located about 20 miles west of Annandale, where Han attends school, Osbourn Park has the typical “popular” cliques and the sports cliques, but Kelly intermingles with all of the students. She simply looks for friends who are nice and decent people, regardless of who else they hang out with or their level of popularity.
“Floaters—the kids who can move freely among groups—are actually using a more sophisticated, adult form of socializing,” says Robbins. “The way cultures get transmitted across adult groups is through floaters, these melding kinds of liaisons.”
There aren’t as many floaters in the popular cliques, she says, because the higher a teen group is in the social hierarchy, the more likely it is to force its members to conform. The boundaries get more rigid because the students believe they have more invested in keeping others out of the group, and keeping themselves in.
Kelly has a bit of experience with this, too.
“A girl I have known since middle school will only hang out with the cheerleaders and the guys who everyone thinks are hot,” she says. “She’ll never talk to anyone she thinks isn’t cool enough for her or her friends and basically thinks she is above everyone.”
Like Ceballos and Han, Kelly doesn’t want to be labeled, but also like them, she seems wistful about the social lives of the popular crowd.
“I guess her social life includes way more partying and obsessing over guys than mine does,” says Kelly, referring to the girl who hangs with the “cool” students. “My social life has to be balanced in between getting good grades, a busy volleyball schedule, and finding a job. So she probably has more of a social life than I do and more opportunities to have fun.”
But Kelly also understands that despite the parties and the appearance of having a lot of good friends and more fun, some students are just afraid to break down barriers of cliques simply because they’re afraid to break out of their comfort zones.
“Some kids have a really hard time making new friends and feel a sense of protection with people that they’ve hung out with forever and would rather not worry about having to find new friends,” she says. “…they’re afraid to branch out and meet new people.”
But when teenagers are afraid to break away, they lose their identities, their uniqueness, and what Robbins would call their quirkiness—in other words, what makes them, and all of us, special.
“Being different is what makes you awesome,” Robbins says.
With so much pressure to conform, how can we encourage children to break down the barriers and out of their comfort zones?
Broadening Social Boundaries
Short of overhauling the social atmosphere of our high schools, Robbins has some common sense ideas for getting more kids to broaden their social boundaries:
- 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;
- 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 students 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 and for everyone.
“The label does not define the person,” says Daniel Han. “It’s time to ignore the labels and see all people as equal human beings.”