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The High School Popularity Myth

There was always a popular girl with better instincts, more friends, and dresses I could never quite fit into

Crush City is a biweekly column following the romantic misadventures of New York City high school junior Anna Koppelman. Her conquests include studying her crush in geometry instead of isosceles triangles and making a secret Pinterest board for the wedding she is definitely going to have with her older brother’s friend. Anna may not be talking to any of her exes, but she’s happy to write about them.

I spent a good three years of my life wanting to be like Carter Cameron, the most popular girl in my middle school.

She knew how to draw roses on paper — beautiful ones that grew out of a brick fence. I would watch her doodle in class, watch the way she curved her pencil. She wore tight leggings and athletic tops. She had curly hair that she blew out for every bar mitzvah she went to. She only wore eyeliner. It was brown and smudgy right above her eye. Every guy in my grade was in love with her. Her laugh registered just under a giggle and her brown eyes were just the right kind of sparkling. She had that sixth sense that popular girls have: knowing exactly what is cool and what to do next.

She wore a tight black lace dress to Eddy Winestine’s bar mitzvah; I wore a white dress with large polka dots. I remember watching her as she danced in the circle I was never invited to join — if I had just known what to wear, if I just understood how all of this worked, maybe I wouldn’t have been sitting by myself. Becoming Carter took up about 50 percent of my brain. The other half was taken up by Noah Moretti and how I wanted to kiss him on a park bench. I wanted Noah to want to touch my boobs so that I could be like, “Sorry, I’m just not that kind of girl.” Middle school me got high off of telling myself I was socially exiled because I was so much better then everyone that they couldn’t take it.

But Noah had a crush on Carter and I wasn’t Carter. Instead I had baby fat that didn’t quite qualify as baby fat anymore, and would get really sad sometimes, which would also somehow circle back to Carter and how my life would be much better if I was just a little bit more like her. Carter was able to walk in a way I spent hours practicing in my room, only to trip when I walked outside to try it out myself.

I used to picture being popular sometimes: the parties, the tsunami of red Solo cups. I’d imagine how one would feel heavy in my hand, how I would ask for a sophisticated drink like a gin and tonic and then roll my eyes and act nonchalant when I was told there was only cheap beer. “Oh, no worries, that’s fine too,” I would say. I would then get just the right amount of drunk and flirt with a boy who was hot in a Troy Bolton kind of way. He would put his arm around me while teaching me how to play beer pong. I would act chill and unfazed when he would lean in to kiss me. I would have friends — they would be at the party, too — and we would dance in that slow, sexy way in which high school girls dance at parties.

Today, I sat in a faculty member’s office. I wanted to apply to be a peer leader, which is a position at my school available to 12 seniors who are chosen by the faculty to mentor freshmen. I emailed her because when I was a freshman, a peer leader took me to get coffee and made me feel better about myself. She treated me like we were friends, telling me about her boyfriend and getting me to laugh. It was like she cared about me having some moments of happiness at school. It was a time when not a lot of people were kind to me, and she was. I remembered it and wanted to give that back.

When I walked into the office, the faculty member asked me to sit before leaning in to interrogate: “Anna, we don’t know each other that well, but I see you and can pick out who you are, and it just never seems to me like you really have a social circle, or, like, a friend group. I’m just wondering how you plan to lead with other kids in your grade if you don’t get along with them?”

My social insecurity is a piece of a giant maze I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out. Before there was Carter, there was Naomi Levine, and before her there was Lanna Avery, who was standing in the shadow of Ariel Watson. For as long as I can remember, there has always been a popular girl with better instincts, more friends, and dresses I could never quite fit into. But I always attempted to anyway.

I have spent a lot of my life praying for other people’s affection and doubting it when it is given to me. I stand baffled in the cross section of being unable to grasp how anyone could understand me and why anyone would attempt to.

When I turned 15, I didn’t have any friends to celebrate my birthday with, so my older brother invited me to spend the weekend at college with him. He invited eight of his friends out. We got Ethiopian food and they spoke to me like they actually cared. They made fun of each other and ranted about high school. There was relationship drama and schoolwork and they let me hear about all of it. It was like I went to Rent-a-Friend and somehow got a really good deal. After dinner they took me to a party, where my brother handed me a red Solo cup with cheap beer in it. He wouldn’t let me take a single sip, but let my hands grip the sides of the cup so I could feel like I was one of them.

The faculty member at my school wondered how I would be able to lead ninth graders if I never figured out how to lead within my own grade. It’s a fair question, a simple matter of qualifications. The truth is: I am not Carter Cameron.

My adolescence doesn’t look like the ones in the movies I watch. Last Friday, for instance, I stayed home and hung out with my mom. I made hot chocolate with half a bar of 70 percent dark chocolate melted in. We had gone to the supermarket and I found these marshmallows that were cinnamon-churro-flavored. I put three of them into the hot chocolate and I drank it, even as I could feel the richness of the chocolate turning into nausea in my stomach. We watched three episodes of This Is Us. We cuddled on our living room couch and played with that Snapchat filter that makes you look like an angel. We sang Shirley Temple’s “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and laughed at how bad our voices are. I spent my Friday night chilling with my mom and I had fun. Nobody offered me pot or alcohol. I wasn’t propositioned for sex. I didn’t strip on a table with a bottle of Jack in my hand. Instead, I danced around my kitchen with my mom and I enjoyed it.

I used to think popularity just hadn’t happened for me yet, that one day I would somehow be like the character in my favorite Sarah Dessen book who spends her entire life doing everything correctly until that one summer when she meets a guy and makes some friends and suddenly everything changes. She becomes cool and fights with her mom. She blossoms into something mythical and popular. And she realizes that she had been missing out on all this young adult cheer. So I waited for that moment to happen. I promise, I really did wait for the guy, the parties, the rebel I didn’t know was inside of me. Then I realized: Maybe my youth involves a lot of nights in with my mom and bad soap operas. And that’s OK.

The faculty member wanted to know how I planned on mentoring ninth graders, how I would teach them how to act at a high school party if I had never been to one — if, in fact, the majority of what I know about them comes from scenes in Easy A. She wanted to know how I planned on teaching ninth graders how to make friends if I can’t even get along with the kids in my own grade, as if popularity equates to empathy.

I sat in her office and tried to explain myself: There was once a girl who wore too much glitter in her eye shadow. She curled her hair every morning before school and came home with mascara smudged around her eyes from crying in bathroom stalls. She crushed on seniors who never looked at her, and she couldn’t understand why nobody wanted her. Fitting in felt like some far-off goal she couldn’t achieve, and she resented all the mismatched parts of herself. There are few things harder than being a lonely extrovert. She told herself she couldn’t be happy with others if she never figured out how to be happy by herself. So she tried to be happy alone. And she was.

The faculty member nodded, still not quite convinced.

There is a notion that in order to be successful in high school you have to be popular. It’s mythical, really, the knowledge of all these qualifications — how the right kind of girl knows how to get the right kind of hair and go to the right kind of party.

But during every school year, there is always a lonely ninth grader who’s gobsmacked as to how much longer they will have to remain in their vast loneliness and unpopularity. They will count the days and then break them down into seconds because seconds feel easier to breathe through than days. They will be sure that the only way to be happy is to be like their Carter Cameron.

I want them to know that it’s not. I may not be as sparkly as Carter, but I know every bathroom stall to cry in. There is something valuable in the empathy of having been there before.

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