Help Your Teens Find Their Social Niche
I was not considered very cool in high school. I was the opposite of cool and I knew it. I envied, and even secretly hated the “cool guys” in school who seemed to be blessed with the complete package: the physical, behavioral, social, academic, and athletic gifts that I lacked . I was not a handsome kid who had zero social skills, which consequently led to junior high and high school experience void of girlfriends. To make matters worse, I wore extremely geeky, discounted eye glasses with the caricatured black electrical tape holding the frame together for half of a school year after running into a well-positioned “pick” during basketball practice.
In fact athletics, my love for music, and appreciation for all things military served as the only substantive gravitational social platforms for me in those formative years. In retrospect, those were the things that kept me connected to the real pulse of the student population.
Oddly enough, I was able to bootstrap myself out of complete social obscurity by excelling in sports. Yes, I was a social misfit, but I was also a very good athlete. Surprisingly, this paradox kept me in good standing with the high school coaching staff during track and field, soccer, and basketball season.
To add to the dichotomy, my father instilled in me a deep appreciation for classical music at a young age and I enjoyed playing piano almost as much as I loved running the 4 x 1 relay or playing the center forward position on the soccer field. When kids in my high school were listening to Michael Jackson and Prince, I was learning to play Mozart cantatas.
Lastly, because I was a military brat, I grew up with an obsessive appreciating for the military and the discipline, values, and challenges that came along with service to your country. I enjoyed the comradely and team dynamics the most. I read World War II history books obsessively and watched the World at War mini-series every Saturday night.
So, if you mix together all those interests, a typical day in high school would find me hanging out in the band room during my lunch hour with one of my best friends at the time, Scott Hassan, who [was] talented enough to be in the band, by the way. I was not. Scott was also a brilliant computer programmer; a skill that helped propel his career and success immensely. I was essentially a band geek “groupie.” So that made me all the more pathetic to the high school social elites. For most of our lunch period, we would play the newest songs that we composed on a well-used, grand piano that looked like a city orchestra charity donation. I didn’t care. When I got the opportunity to play her, the deep, swirling, and rich sounds made me feel free. The pressure to conform to the social standards melted away for those short period of time.
During Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp in fourth period, you would find me marching on the campus drill pad, donned in my Army green and nervously double checking the spacing of my ribbons, name tag, belt buckle, and cover on my uniform before inspection. I still remember feeling sick to my stomach as the senior JROTC instructor made his way down our column during open ranks inspection. He would yell at the cadet next to me for not pressing his uniform well enough or having his “gig line” off by a quarter of an inch. Your individual inspection would always end with a quiz on general military knowledge so I would listen intensely to attempt to hear the question as the poor cadet to my right continued to take a psychological beating from the senior instructor. The pressure was unbearable. This was an open ranks inspection with vital national security implications on the line, and I was only fifteen years old.
By 4:45 P.M., you would find me on the school’s old, unpaved track running fast 200 and 400 meter sprints, and sometimes dry heaving because I didn’t take the time to eat lunch (remember, I was in the band room hanging out with the band geeks).
At the end of the day, the high school geek and social outcast who would receive zero votes in a “most popular student” election, enjoyed playing great music for an hour with his band buddies. Surprisingly, his compositions often caught the ear of some of the better members of the band who complimented him on the musical structure; even though he had no formal training. I was part of the “band tribe” at lunch. Kind of.
After lunch, I was a student of military studies and history. I wore a sharp uniform and marched in the hot sun until we learned every drill movement perfectly. I learned discipline, mental toughness, and attention to detail. I slowly became a top cadet through hard work and consistent dedication to the program. I was still unattractive, and I still wasn’t considered to be a popular kid, but I was part of the “military tribe.”
After school I was one of the fastest kids on the track and the highest jumper over the bar and I felt like a contributing member of the team. Through my hard work and achievements during track meets, I knew I gained the respect of many of the school’s best athletes. They were my “track and field tribe.”
Although I didn’t have the personality, appearance, or social gifts to be accepted into the circle of the “popular kids” in my high school, I did find my “tribes” or groups that I resonated with and in turn, they supported my talents, goals, or interests. I found that many students were so focused on the “in crowd” and what they needed to do to [be] them, they forgot how to find their own path to personal fulfillment and sense of accomplishment. They were living their lives vicariously through people they heralded as the perfect student or athlete.
I realized over time that I didn’t need to be popular to be of value. By investing in the social interaction of my tribes, I was developing those skills that would serve me well later in life. Don’t get me wrong, if your kids are popular, tell them to keep doing what they’re doing and go forth and prosper.
A study conducted in 2003 found in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine claims that people who are socially isolated possess a less efficient system to repair and maintain physiological functioning. This would include how quickly wounds heal and how efficiently they sleep. The socially isolated spectrum of that study even had a slower wound healing process and less efficient sleep cycles. Mastering social challenges in high school will equip your kids in navigating life as an adult.
However, if your child is struggling to “fit in” and may feel like an outcast; encourage them to find connections in new programs, groups, interest areas, and “tribes.” Many adolescents become frustrated because they can’t break through the social elite circles in school. The tragedy is that they spend four long years trying to please the wrong tribe. They never get to know the community of Japanese or Chinese students in your school. They never get to know the band and orchestra members, even if you don’t play an instrument. They walk right by the computer programmers who sit at their own table in the back of the lunchroom; remember these are the guys who could help them out when their laptop crashes on the night before that history paper is due. Stop by the theater and get to know the thespians and what they go through as they prepare for the next school play. Get to know the students who have physical limitations; they have unique talents and perspectives that will inspire and help them understand their challenges when they are working in the corporate world in the next four to six years.
Remind your kids that their journey through the social jungle should be their own experience, and not necessarily the one that the school’s varsity quarterback or homecoming queen is living.
Written by: Scott McGinnis