I was not a popular girl back at school. I didn't belong to the "hot girls" clique and I didn't date. My high school crushes were not reciprocated simply because I used to be too timid to reveal even the slightest signs of interest towards the opposite sex. I was nerdy and rather geeky at times, too.
All these memories came alive last week as I was reading excerpts from a newly-published book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, by acclaimed American journalist and writer Alexandra Robbins. The critics, mostly applauding, have already labeled it an "ode to the cafeteria fringe." The book's central message is that those not belonging to the “popular caste” at school have great chances to thrive later in life. "The very characteristics that exclude the cafeteria fringe in school are the same traits that will make them successful as adults and outside the school setting," Robbins writes. The author highlights seven character types that make up the outcast camp's core - The Gamer, The Loner, The Weird Girl, The Nerd, the Bank Geek, The New Girl and The Popular Bitch.
To tell the truth, I wasn't any of these types. I was more like Robbins herself who calls herself "a floater," someone who could "sit at the edge of lunch tables of different crowds," as she herself describes it. I was, too, accepted, even liked by my classmates because I was friendly and amusing. I was smart and had mostly high grades, but I didn't think of myself as pretty or interesting, so early on I took on The Entertainer's role. Being a "funny girl" was my way to fit in and get attention.
When I was 16, I went to study at a California high school for a year and discovered that one's place in the "cafeteria hierarchy" was far more crucial in the American society than in a post-Soviet school environment. Winning one's place under the sun was hard, nearly impossible, especially for an outsider. In a U.S. high school, an entire ocean separated the popular kids from the rest. Becoming part of a selective group seemed more challenging than getting a bedroom in Buckingham Palace for a working class kid. I wasn't bullied there or even laughed at, but I didn't become an "included" girl either. A shy Russian teenager with braided hair and zero shopping mall experience (I had never shopped before coming to the States, wearing mostly the clothes my mother would sew for me) and could by no means compete with the blonde homecoming queens with plucked eyebrows and varsity football team boyfriends. I became close friends with another exchange student from Russia, and gradually both of us became sort of invisible. An exotic animal in the beginning, I became a perfect "New Girl turned The Nerd" being too timid to keep attention levels constant even though I did take mostly advanced placement classes. So timid in fact that no one asked me to go to the Spring Prom. (Oh, those tears!..)
But what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And more interesting, insists writer Alexandra Robbings. Studies reveal that the difficulties fitting in early in life could very well make one more creative, original, self-sufficient, resilient, courageous, passionate, authentic and what not. In other words, a genuine Personality. "Popular kids don't necessarily know who they are because they are so busy trying to conform. It's the outcasts who are more attuned to who they are. They are more self-aware, more real," Robbins says.
Actually, when looking at the brightest Personalities' biographies, it turns out that The Nerd might very well one day become Bill Gates, The Loner — Mark Zuckenberg, The Weird Girl — Lady Gaga, The Band Geek — Keith Richards and the Popular Bitch — Madonna. I don't really know what happened to my popular American classmates, but I do know what the unpopular kids from my Moscow school have become. An unassertive plump ridiculed during sports classes turned into a smashing beauty and a successful businesswoman. A quirky and a really skinny girl who used to be at the bottom of the class in many subjects became a talented journalist and a mother of two beautiful children, one of them adopted. A bashful outcast who would turn ruby red when talking to girls is a top manager at an international TV channel. And an artsy geek bullied by the neighborhood gang is a creative director at one of Russia’s top fashion magazines. The list could go on.
As for me, when I came back from the States and entered the Moscow State University Journalism Department, my days of not being popular (or at least fretting about it) were over. I was simply too busy. Busy and happy. Long evenings on my own had helped me explore my identity and get to understand what I really wanted to do. And I don't ever regret about not being the Homecoming Queen. It's having the personality that helps one go through life strong and actually enjoy it to the fullest.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.