The nerd? The stoner? The jock? Today's teens claim the old labels don't apply in high school anymore. But the popular kids? They live on.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Bethesda-area high schools definitely had their cliques: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the brains, the stoners. Everyone “stayed in their groups,” a 1978 Walt Whitman High School graduate says.
Decades later, children of alumni from that era say those stereotypes no longer apply.
“I don’t think you’re going to find people here who’ll say they’re part of a clique,” a Walt Whitman senior says. Like others interviewed for this story, she spoke only on the agreement of anonymity, adding: “Who wants to be part of the worst of teenage culture?”
But is her assertion true? Last spring, Whitman AP psychology teacher Sheryl Freedman asked her students if cliques exist at the Bethesda high school. At first, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Then the students backpedaled, saying none of them belong to the rigid, exclusionary cliques often portrayed in movies and on TV. Instead, they find their friends through the sports teams, clubs and other organizations they join. And because they participate in so many different extracurricular activities these days, their groups aren’t mutually exclusive.
“We’re in multiple social circles that often socialize with each other,” says the Whitman senior, who, despite her assertion about the nonexistence of cliques, describes herself as part of the artsy crowd. “It’s not like you won’t talk to people outside of your social circles,” she says. “You just won’t go out of your way to do it.
“We’re not outright mean, but you hang with your friends and don’t worry about the other 300 people who are outside your comfort zone until you’re face to face with them on a class project or something.”
Today’s high school students may not have stepped out of The Breakfast Club, the 1985 movie about teens, but they do acknowledge one clique that seemingly has crossed generations: the “popular kids.”
“They have lots of money and they party a lot,” the Whitman senior says. “But they don’t really have that power over other people that stereotypical teen movie popularity seems to include. No one’s going crazy not being in their group. They just happen to be friends with each other and happen to perpetuate some teen stereotypes.”
These days, the “popular kids” tend to drive Mercedes and BMWs, party hard and come from the wealthiest families, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac says. “You’re especially cool if you have a party house and your parents are cool,” she says. “A lot of the girls with divorced dads get the house to themselves and throw parties.”
Other kids aspire to belong to the group, she says. But “even if you’re a member of the group, they’re mean to you. I was friends with them, and they didn’t invite me to half of the things they did.”
One girl in the group “is the sweetest girl when it’s just us in class,” she adds. “But when I go to a party, she’s drunk and obnoxious to me because she’s surrounded by the other girls.”
Julie Baron, a licensed clinical social worker who has counseled local teens for more than eight years, has seen the phenomenon. “There do tend to be sub-hierarchies within the larger hierarchy that determine the different social roles of a group’s members,” says Baron, who grew up in the Bethesda area.
“Many groups have members who are ‘in’ but also viewed as dispensable.” These members can be used to send warnings to others in the group. Depending on their behavior—their loyalty to the group’s leaders, for example—they can be bumped from the group.
“What is power if it’s not proven to work on others?” Baron asks.
At Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, one senior girl says that members of the boys’ lacrosse, soccer and football teams are automatically considered popular. Similarly, at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville—or “JDS,” as students call it—the boys’ basketball players determine who’s popular and who’s not. “The boys make mean comments about a girl—and because they play basketball, everyone believes what they say,” one JDS student says.
Just as at other schools, the student adds, the in-crowd at JDS can be mean. “What defines the popular kids is how much of an asshole you can be to everybody else,” the student says. To become a member of the popular group, “you have to first be treated really badly by them. If you survive, you’re a member of the group.”
The student admits to spending a good part of high school being treated “like crap” before becoming popular.
Even Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which prides itself on being clique- and bully-free, has its divisions, according to one high school student there. “The kids who have been there since pre-K, the really, really smart kids, the theater kids, the kids who party—they all hang out in separate groups,” the student says.
And the mean girls? They’re at Sidwell, too. “They’re rich and extremely judgmental. They’ll call someone ‘a loser’ for wearing nondesigner jeans,” the student says. “They need to be mean to be at the top, to put others down to have more power. They make it completely clear who’s cool and not cool.”
A few years ago, the student says, five of the most popular Sidwell girls named their group “Kenya,” an anagram using the first letters of their first names. When other girls tried to sit with them at lunch, they were turned away. “It’s a Kenya-only lunch today,” someone in the group would say. “But you can sit with us tomorrow.”
They had a group Facebook page that other students knew about but couldn’t join. Their “Kenya Adventures” photo album was visible online, though, with pictures of the things they did together.
Similarly, 20 or so of the most popular and socially powerful girls at Churchill last year started calling themselves the “CHS Betches,” the Churchill senior notes. Their group’s Facebook page often featured photos from their parties—“the ones [other] people weren’t invited to,” the girl says—and their blog offered advice on how to act (“A fake smile and not so discrete dirty look”) and where to go for graduation dinner (“Make a reservation at the Palm if you want to see at least 10 other Betches”), and issued judgments of other girls’ prom dresses (“Were you intoxicated when you picked this?”).
In her 2011 book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (Hyperion), 1994 Whitman graduate Alexandra Robbins writes: “Treating other cliques as inferior creates a social distance that allows popular girls to feel exalted and invulnerable.” To be nice to students with a “lower” social status means possibly undermining their own popularity by treating these students as equals.
Britt Rathbone, a licensed clinical social worker who has counseled Bethesda-area adolescents for 25 years, sometimes hears teens say there’s more fluidity among groups now, less us vs. them.
“But when I ask them who they sit with in the lunchroom, I find out it’s rigid: The skateboarders sit here, the soccer team sits there,” he says. “The lunchroom is the best way to figure out what’s really going on.”
The Wootton senior says she used to avoid lunch because of that. “You can’t just sit down at any table you want to. You can’t just get up and move,” she says. “You wouldn’t be welcome and it would be so weird.”
Teens “do not easily allow each other to change their minds about social labels,” writes Robbins, who once described herself as a “floater” between social groups. “Labels stick because people want them to stick. It’s easier to sort out your social world when everyone stays in her place. Consistency is less taxing than inconsistency.”
Rathbone has seen this in his own practice. Teens are “so focused on the group they perceive as higher up in the social scene, it becomes their mission,” he says. But when those teens get rejected, their self-esteem may plummet.
“I tell these kids, ‘It doesn’t matter if the lacrosse team says no. So you can’t get into that group—let’s just get you into a group.’ But they won’t go to the math club or join the band even if they love algebra or playing the clarinet,” Rathbone says. “As an adult, you know when you go to a cocktail party full of people, you’d probably only hang out with a handful. You’re not going to hang out with everyone. It all just becomes so compressed in high school.”
Even those who finally achieve the exalted status of being in the popular group may find themselves uncomfortable once they’re there. One recent Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate who was friends with the “mean girls” realized during her sophomore year that she couldn’t be herself around these so-called friends.
“In that clique, you’re always on edge,” she says. “You’re always aware of what you say. It’s impossible to be yourself when you’re thinking like that all the time.” So she started spending time with a friend outside the group and pulling away from the mean girls.
“They were in shock,” she says. “Girls fell out of the group not by their own choice, but because the other girls pushed them out. They just couldn’t believe that anyone would want to leave voluntarily.”
Rathbone reminds struggling clients that the “popular kids” aren’t always as confident as they appear. Often they’re caught up in looking good in an attempt to cover up insecurities, to protect themselves. “Those who can stand apart start to develop a meta-perspective,” he says. “They can start to see the dynamics in these groups, and that can be very beneficial.”
The Wootton senior was lucky enough to see it. Freshman year, everyone wanted to be friends with the popular kids, she says. “They had power. Everyone wanted to be them.” But the attraction faded.
“The kids are still in the same group, but what was popular then isn’t valued in the same way now,” she says. “Now I think about how lame they are. They just get really drunk and take pictures.”
Time to Share
If you had any doubt that kids influence one another, consider this: Teenagers today typically spend 60 hours per week interacting with other teens vs. 16 hours with adults, according to University of Virginia psychology professors Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen in Escaping the Endless Adolescence (Ballantine Books, 2009). And when they’re not interacting in person, they’re texting on their phones or going on Facebook to find out what other kids are thinking and doing.
In both her private practice and in the high school workshops she conducts a few times a year, Julie Baron tries to help teens recognize their schools’ social hierarchies and the teens’ roles in them.
“No one wants to admit they’re mean,” says Baron, a licensed clinical social worker living in Bethesda.
When she asks students if they’ve been bullied, most hands go up. When she asks if they’ve been socially aggressive toward someone, most hands go up again. Baron says students admit to the behavior because they think of it as a one-time incident. “But when you add up all these incidents, you see a culture where bullying happens all the time,” she says.
She also finds that many teens deny the existence of a social hierarchy—at least at the start. There are different social groups, they say, but no one thinks about “better than” or “less than.”
Teens who hold this view are usually the ones “on top” socially—the privileged kids—she says. “Part of the definition of being privileged is that you don’t realize you are,” she says. “You’re blind to it.”
The outliers, of course, are only too aware of what’s going on. They often feel invisible, with no place for them socially, Baron says.
During her workshop, Baron draws a box and has teens identify the characteristics of popular vs. unpopular kids, then writes the words inside or outside the box. For example, “long hair,” “thin” and “the right clothes” often show up inside the “popular girls” box, with “fat,” “bad skin” and “bitch” appearing outside the box. As they study the visual representation of their social attitudes, many students begin to see how differently they treat those inside and outside the box.
Awareness, Baron says, is the first step in changing the social landscape.
When Someone's Watching
How much do kids care about what others think of them? Laurence Steinberg, an adolescent development expert at Temple University in Philadelphia, conducted an experiment recently to find out. He had teens perform a simulated high-risk driving task while lying in an MRI machine. When researchers told them that other teens were watching the experiment—whether they actually were or not—the subjects not only took more risks, but their brains’ reward systems showed greater activation than when they thought they were performing the task unobserved.
“If adolescents made all of their decisions involving drinking, driving, dalliances and delinquency in the cool isolation of an experimenter’s testing room, those decisions would likely be as risk-averse as those of adults,” Steinberg writes in the April 2013 issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Gabriele McCormick, a freelance writer who lives in Urbana, is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.
Check out the photo gallery below to see the high school photos we dug up of our staff.