Hey, Baby. What’s Your Rung?

Here’s the way I saw the social universe during junior high and high school. Was it at all similar for you?

  • Top rung: Football and basketball players; cheerleaders/pompon girls
  • 2nd rung: Other jocks; friends of jocks and cheerleaders
  • 3rd rung: Cowboys
  • 4th rung: Smart geeks
  • 5th rung: Band weenies and choir/theater people
  • 6th rung: Stoners

Really, this list overstates the importance of rungs 3-6. It felt like below the 2nd rung, we were all lumped together as varying degrees of Losers.

Me? I was a Band Weenie, and proud of it. I wore a funny hat during marching band parades and hung out with other Band Weenies. We had cleaner fun than the Popular Kids — we weren’t cool enough for alcohol and other vices. We were more likely to TP a house (the quarterback’s naturally; the closest I could get to him) than to attend a kegger.

I got through high school without making any really bad decisions, and I suppose it was said I had a pretty good head on my shoulders. So in a way, unpopularity worked for me.

But at the time, I was keenly aware of being low on the ladder. This fact was emphasized more recently at my mmmfrtieth reunion, when I wished I’d had a dime for every time a former Top Runger asked me, “And which high school did YOU go to?”

YOURS, you self-centered princess / narcissistic musclehead!

But no, I’m over it now. Clearly. Thanks for asking.

I often wondered where popularity comes from. I mean, at what age do you get assigned a rung? Was it before 4th grade, when I moved into the school system? Was I assigned a lower rung because I was new? Then why were other newcomers allowed access to the upper rungs? Was it simply that I was not an athlete? That my jeans were off-brand and not Calvin Kleins? (On second thought, if you clicked on the link above, I bet the reasons will become apparent.)

What were the qualities that separated the Ins from the Outs? And who got to be the judge? I’d like to think it wasn’t just being, uh, easy, back in the 70s and 80s. After all, isn’t it supposed to be a recent phenomenon that kids are very, uh, body-savvy by middle school?

Now Tessa and Reed are beginning to steer their way through social strata. In the early elementary grades, the rungs assignments are not yet set and the kiddies are not yet cutthroat evil vicious eager social climbers, but I’m not exactly sure when the game begins. It could be very soon for my children. Surely the foundation for each of them is already being formed.

So this makes me think: how can I best help them navigate the emerging strata in their social lives? How do I teach them to balance their individuality (Tessa has a unique sense of fashion , and Reed is one of the most enthusiastic Jedis-in-training in this galaxy) with attempts to fit in and conform? How do I keep them from being either the hurters or the hurtees?

What are your thoughts?

  • What was your position and memories of your own ladder?
  • Where does popularity come from?
  • How will you / did you / would you help your children with these issues?

Note: this post was referenced on ABC.com.

25 thoughts on “Hey, Baby. What’s Your Rung?”

  1. I don’t think you have to worry about them being the hurters. You are raising them to be kind and good people. And, knowing who you are, they will grow up to be great people.

    I remember it very much the way you did. I was somewhere between what you term the 4th and 5th rungs.

  2. I was Low woman on campus.
    My Dh and I work to give both boys a safe place and communicate openly. Being balanced instead of a helicopter or hysterical parent is helpful as is letting them figure some of this stuff out themselves. I am still learning as I go along.

  3. I would say I fall somewhere between rung 4 & 5… although by the time I reached my Canadian Prairie high school in the mid70s, the football team had disbanded (apparently they have one again now) & there were no cheerleaders either. (You’ll have to define cowboys for me, too!) But jocks generally were at the top of the heap; as were good-looking boys & girls who were bright but not TOO smart.

    I was in both band & drama & had a blast with both — also on yearbook, newspaper and Reach for the Top (any Canadians out there?). My friends & I were known as “the Milk & Cookies Gang,” although I think people would have been surprised at what we sometimes got up to, lol. I had maybe two dates in high school that never really amounted to anything. The summer between first & second year university, my high school had an all-school reunion to mark its 75th anniversary. My boyfriend at the time (pre-dh) agreed to come with me, bless him. He was drop-dead gorgeous, and it was one of the most satisfying moments of my entire life to walk into the 1970s event beside him & see the jaws drop. ; ) : )

    I agree with Cassandra — girls can be much crueller than boys, especially in middle school. I wish Tessa luck!

  4. My son Gray has really never seemed to care very much (or, in fact, at all) what other people think about him or where he fits in. I’ve told this story before, but it really sums up his attitude.

    When he was very little (pre-school aged), he insisted on wearing all pink clothes, head to toe. I went along with his preference and, while his outfits weren’t frilly or ruffly, they obviously came from the girls’ department.

    I tentatively suggested that he might not want to wear all pink to preschool because the other kids might tease him. “I don’t care if they tease me,” said Gray. And he didn’t.

    In fact, when he came home he told me how “stupid” the other kids were for saying that only girls could wear pink. I told him that, in our family, we didn’t call other people “stupid.” But what I thought was that I was never going to have to worry about Gray being influenced by peer pressure or feeling he had to act a certain way to fit in. And that’s exactly the way it’s turned out.

  5. I don’t really see myself on that particular ladder… I was smart (in AP classes, VP of the Honors Society) but I wouldn’t necessarily say I was geek. My friends and I were part of the “just there” social rung, we got along with other groups and weren’t teased, but we weren’t considered popular either. My hubby (whom I went to school with since elementary school) was in the top rung, he was a football player and baseball player. But he was one of those guys who was popular because he was a really nice, down-to-earth guy (who happened to play sports), not because he was a social climber. It took me several years to be secure in the relationship, because I felt like I was dating “above my station” and that he would find someone who was cooler than me. Especially since *I* was the one who asked him out initially! But alas, 13 years later, I’m pretty sure he’s here to stay. 😉

    I really don’t know what makes popularity, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a theory that really sums it up well. Kids are popular for various reasons, from my DH (who was just a nice, athletic guy) in contrast to some of the girls who seemed to spend a lot of energy making the “right” friends, wearing the “right” clothes, doing the “right” activities, etc. Sounds exhausting to me!!

    I don’t know how I’ll help my son navigate it… at 14 months it’s still to far away to imagine. I guess I’ll just have to read your blog and get some tips. 😉

  6. Tessa doesn’t have too long in this happy limbo — the rungs are very much in place by middle school, but the process starts earlier (I definitely remember hints of it in 4th grade). And it starts earlier among girls than boys.

    Off-brand jeans can singlehandedly make you unpopular, but on-brand jeans aren’t enough to make you popular. Ah, junior high.

    I do think that you’re missing a rung below stoners of the non-entities. No activities, often no friends.

    My high school did not have cheerleaders, pompon girls, or cowboys (WTF?). It didn’t have rungs, actually. Most people fell into more than one category that you mentioned: drama and the baseball team depending on the time of year, smart geek on the football team, etc. My friend Ernie had higher status than anyone in the school, and he was valedictorian, in every theater production, and in one of the singing groups — plus, he was gay (though not out then).

    Very few kids at my HS made any bad decisions, but almost no very smart kids did (you had to be at least somewhat smart to get in). I used to go to Ernie’s house and late at night in his room we would… sing madrigals. Only one out of all of my friends touched a single substance before college. At 17, I was one of the first of my friends to get past 1st base.

    The joys of an elite prep school — maybe it really was worth all of the money our parents shelled out. I have friends from other elite prep schools in the area who say that everyone at their school was doing cocaine, so I think we also lucked out.

  7. I’m not really sure how to quantify my rung. In some ways, I do believe I was at or near the top (boys liked me I guess) but in other ways, I never felt comfortable hanging out in that crowd. I never liked the mean attitudes or the aggressive behavior and even all the vices…so my chosen group of girlfriends were much lower on the ladder. Which of course made the top rung girls hate me so that’s why I was kinda both popular and social outcast at once if that makes sense.

    I am SO nervous about this aspect of parenting. Children can be so cruel and my heart is already breaking for my future children to think about them going through this. One thing I do believe though, is that confidence is key. Don’t we all know people who were quirky or different or maybe even could be considered less-than-cool, but if they were confident, then people would flock to them no matter what. It’s weakness and insecurity that makes you susceptible in high school and middle school. (Though obviously, who isn’t insecure at some point during those years?)

    So I guess I hope to highlight whatever strengths my children prove to possess, to help them feel so good about themselves that they don’t CARE what that jerk says.

    That’s the plan anyway 🙂

  8. Just thinking about having to deal with this years from now terrifies me and makes my palms sweat. Ackk!!

    You seriously had cowboys in your school?

  9. I’m not really sure where I fall in that. I wasn’t as outgoing/open as I am now in my 20’s, but I had a rough home life. I had friends at school, but out of school I was busy working and dealing with my dysfunctional family. lol

    I vow to be a better parent than the two I got. (Don’t we all? lol)

  10. Oh boy.

    I still have some issues about high school — which I’ve probably written about in some cloaked form or another… I entered a private Catholic high school — one of the ‘few’ city girls — let alone poor-ish city girls from a single parent family — and that set me up to feel defensive I think — for some in my position they would have fought hard to fit in — but I? I took every opportunity to buck the system — within reason, I was smart — but I drummed up support for a pro-choice rally, championed gay-rights, spoken openly about my liberal politics in the super-conservative school. I loathed the popular people in high school — those top tier sorts (and married one later — not from my high school — but it gives me no end of pleasure laughing about the irony) — felt I had my own personal John Hughes film going on — obligatory crush on the cool blond uber-guy who made the nat’l ski team and would never look twice at me –I was, I guess, largely in the sixth rung — but in a counter-culture sort of way — not really druggie but all about the grateful dead and found myself at parties where everyone was wasted wondering why I couldn’t have stayed friends with the kids who went apple picking for fun. The difference between top tier wasted and bottom tier was simple — the top tier got wasted at their parents mansions when they were on European trips and puked in the pool — the lower rung? Someone parked their Buick Skylark in a park after hours and popped the trunk and we hung out drinking — or at a pool hall in the boonies.

    Here’s the weird part. I was smart-ish — but completely distracted by the difficulties of life at home to focus much — I felt injustices deeply — social ones — and the whole business of high school infuriated me –but later, a good friend found my blog and wrote an email — that she was always jealous that I seemed so well-liked (???!!) and that I paint a picture of this disaffected youth, but that wasn’t really the reality —

    So strange. I was voted ‘most likely to become president’ tied with ‘loveliest locks’ — so, I suppose, maybe I was queen of the disenfranchised who rose up to vote for me in those categories — raising one of their own into the ranks usually peopled by first and second rungers…

    Sorry about the book-length post.

    I actually worry about W because he’s such a jock, so gifted with good looks and coordination and a ‘cool attitude’ that came from god-knows where –that I worry he’s going to turn into someone I wouldn’t have liked in high school — we keep talking compassion and caring, and inclusion…, hoping it sinks in…it’s sort of a miracle anyone gets through high school

    Thank god it’s over.




  11. I rocked the 5th rung as well – loved, loved, loved drama. To be honest, I was so painfully timid and shy my whole life, being in drama did wonders for my self-esteem and personality. Even though I knew I was several rungs from the top, I didn’t care because I had found ~somewhere~ to belong. You’re right – unpopularity works.

    I do remember back to sixth grade and being acutely aware of the fact that I was bigger than other girls, wore clothes from Wal-Mart and didn’t get any attention from boys. I want so badly to protect my children from that kind of pain but what can I do? I certainly don’t want to encourage conformity. And I turned out pretty well in the end. As a matter of fact, I often laugh on the inside about how I married a football star and he married a drama geek. And none of that stuff mattered or defined who we were at thirty.

    But it is soooo hard to remind a teenager that those things DON’T matter by adulthood.

  12. I remember the social class system showing up in 6th grade. Jr. High which is 7-8 grade was absolutely brutal. The popular – middle of the road- and unpopular lines were clearly drawn. My mom always taught me to be true to myself and to look at some of the behaviors of those who were “popular” (who could tend to be petty and mean) and understand that they are all as uncomfortable in their skin as I was. Everyone at that age is unsure of themselves and unfortunately some people choose to pick on people to make themselves feel better.

  13. I hung out on several of the ladder rungs — played sports, was in band and got good grades. As a result, I was in several social circles.

    I recently remembered the importance of the rungs at one of my class reunions. At the reunion, there seemed to be a magnetic pull to go back to the rung from whence you came.

    There was a feeling that no matter what your life looks like now or how secure you are most of the time, once you were thrown in the room with old classmates, there were memories of “the ladder” and “the rungs.”

    With my kids now in middle school, I see them on various rungs of the ladder. I wonder where they think they are in relation to others. It is an invisible but powerful system we have in our society. Great post, Lori! Thank you!

  14. Oh, this is such a great post. I was definitely a lower rung, though what would be the friends of the theater people? I mean, I wasn’t even a theater person; I was a FRIEND of the theater people. I’m not sure when popularity is formed but I was always out of sorts with school (and I too have had people ask at reunion if I really really went to the school. Um…yes…that’s why I’m here tonight) BUT I was semi-popular at camp. It was almost entirely different kids–there were only a few people from school at camp. But at sleep away camp, I was definitely on a different rung. It was only two summers, but it made me wonder why I was so low in one place and so high in another.

  15. This probably sounds weird, but in Canada, or at least where I’m from, there weren’t football players or cheerleaders – they just were not part of our repertoire at all. There was definitely the cool kids, which contained some of the jocks and hot chicks (um, I was one of them, sorry), but the jocks weren’t always at the top. We had a bunch of us at the top or in the 2nd rung that were extremely smart but just hid the geekery well with good clothes and confidence.

    Some of the 1st and 2nd rung were mean to the lower rungs, but a lot of us weren’t. The meanness came from other levels I think – directed at the super geeks or the overweight people. And while that’s terrible, and I dread that for my kid, I can say that I think so much comes down to confidence.

    In the top two “rungs” there were overweight girls and really geeky guys, but these people had a confidence about themselves that didn’t care that they were geeks or overweight, so they fit right in. The ones who couldn’t socialize, who were too nervous or insecure – those were the folks who had the harder time of it.

    So for me, that’s what I want to teach my kid – to be as smart as you want to be, to look however you want to look, but to have confidence in that. People gravitate to those who are confident and like themselves.

  16. I walked a very fine line between #1 and #6 – seriously. scarry isn’t it. I hate the social ICK my girls see so young now, maybe we saw it too and I just blocked it out…

  17. I have to admit that when I first read the part about you being a band geek all I could think of was American Pie and the whole “and one time at band camp…”
    This is a great post though. I have no idea how you get to where you are on the whole social ladder. I can tell you I was never anywhere near the top. Not at the first highschool I went to that I attended until halfway through my junior year or the second highschool I attended after my parents moved me to Montana as a junior in highschool. I still had friends though and still had fun most of the time. I don’t think that I’m really any worse off for not being at the top of the ladder. I understand though about not wanting to have your kids experience the hurter/hurtee. Kids can be totally brutal to each other.

  18. Great question Lori – i moved during high school so I went from being a rung 4 – 5 (band girl / nerdy) to a school that was an all girls government school (I didn’t know they existed till I moved to sydney).

    The all girl school basically bred good citizens. No group trumped – there was wogs, S/E asians, all-sorts (An Indian, Pakistani, Polenesian, Maltese – ethnicities that did not have enough people to form a group o f their own) a couple of whitey groups (funnies, nerdies, arty people and groups without identifying features – boring people). I think the fact that it was a school which had people from 60 different language/ethnic groups (and about 800 kids) meant that there wasn’t a dominant culture. Certainly wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader in sight. I guess that kind of relies on a dominant white culture. I really enjoyed that school although it probably wasn’t the best academically.

    No fellas meant no audience for the girls to perform to ( that was a big change from the co-ed school) I think their was a bit less bitchiness because of this. and a lot more weirdness about being friends with boys.

    Love the story about singing madrigals! Haha!

  19. These kind of conversations embarrass and bother me all at the same time. I was in a “top rung”, as one of the girls who ruled the school, BUT, I wasn’t cutthroat and horrible as so many seem to put “us” all in. We weren’t all like that. Sure, there were times I was lumped into that kind of category because my “firends” did something mean, but alone, we were all just trying to find our way in the world.

    I think what helped me was I moved a lot. And whomever was the first group of people I happened to talk to, that was the group I was in. In the span of 3 years, I was in an average rung, the next year (different school) I was a “dork” and the next year (again, different school) I was in the top “mean girls” rung. I didn’t change. It was just the luck of the day when I attended the new school, you know?

  20. Wow. You got screwed. I was just looking at your chart again. I would say stoners were on the bottom of my school too, but rung 4 was at least rung 2, if not parallel to rung 1. And like I said, band people weren’t really separate from everyone else.

  21. Move them to a smaller school?

    I went to a smallish school with only 117 in my graduating class. The jocks were the nerds and the band geeks. There were definitely clicks, but the lines were very blurred. The extremes didn’t mix well, but the blurred edges helped, I think.

    I wasn’t one of the “popular” kids – the pretty ones who socialized outside school a lot; but I played basketball even though I wasn’t very good and was part of a group that took all the science and math classes who also made up a good portion of the popular group.

    You should have gone there – almost everyone was in band. I was odd one out on that one.

    I do not look forward to the time when these kinds of thoughts come up with LB.

  22. Wow…I don’t think I had a rung…I sort of hovered around the ladder itself, friends with anyone who’d respond in kind – jocks, stoners, band geeks, smart kids…I wasn’t invited to participate in their sacred rituals (read: keggers), but I have mostly fond memories…

    At any rate, if my own kiddos are any indication, THEY will be the leaders…because of their charisma…not their willingness to please, or give in…at least, that’s what I’m praying will continue.

    I remember very distinctly being shut out of the “cool” group at the end of 3rd grade when we adopted my sister. Who knows what caused it…maybe it was due to the fact that our lunch tables were the round ones with only 8 seats…and I was the 9th…maybe it was because even then, I was sort of just behind the trend of fashion and hair…or because even then, they knew that I wasn’t going to be the type who needed to break the laws about drinking age, or…ummmm…”dancing” with boys…

    I pray that I can instill in my kids a strong confidence in themselves, that they will be comfortable with who they are, stick to their values and beliefs, but still be compassionate and kind enough to be friendly to everyone they meet…I want them to know that who they are inside is more important than what they look like outside, and that “this too shall pass”…if that makes sense at all…

  23. My son will be starting middle school next year and I am worrying and wondering how it will all pan out. It’s so hard at that age trying to figure out where we fit in. I guess you just have to give them love and security at home and hope for the best. I’ve watched my 2nd grader this year too. He was new at his school and it was interesting watching him find his place.

  24. At my high school, rungs 4 and 6 were the same people, and my BFF was 4,5 and 6. My husband was 4 and 5 at a different school. I have never been a popular person, for a variety of reasons, so I have no idea how popularity plays into it because I still have only a vague understanding of what it means to be popular in high school. My HS was over 2000 people and always felt a bit lost. But I will say that the rung 4/6 crowd I was in felt superior to the people you put in rungs 1 and 2. We fancied ourselves as rung 1 in our own little universe. 🙂 I don’t even want to think about getting Evie through junior high because it just sucks, sucks, sucks. Maybe I’ll home school her through that and put her back in for 9th grade when it becomes cool (not popular, just cool) to be yourself again?

  25. At my school, the top rung was sporty rich, beautiful people- boys who played soccer and girls on drill team. Then, their hangers-on. I would lump band weenies and smart geeks in together. I was a smart geek, and I always hung out with band weenies and theater nerds. Mr S was a band weenie and chess club geek, though he swears he was popular. His sister says otherwise.

    There has never been a nanosecond when I though my kid would be anything but a smart geek. I don’t know what I would do with a cheerleader for a daughter. Probably be just as confused as my mother was. She and her sisters were the most popular girls in school, Homecoming Queens and cheerleaders, and all of her children are geeks.

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