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The Cool Kids

August 14, 2012

What is it with all these “in” crowds?

These cool kids are everywhere, in our schools, our workplaces, our recreational clubs, probably in our old age homes.  Someone always has to be on top, lording it over someone else.  And I genuinely thought that this hierarchy stuff would be over after the eighth grade.

As a middle school kid, I, remarkably, was not a member of the in crowd.  I hung around with with a group of girls known collectively as the “Nerd Herd.”  Needless to say, this was not the name that we chose for ourselves, but it was probably pretty fitting.  I, for example, may have been the last girl in the entire sixth grade to start shaving my armpits, but my friends, I can guarantee you, were not far ahead of me.  I always wished that I knew the right things to say and the right way to pull back my hair.  But alas, this was not to be my fate.

My fate instead was to do well enough in school to eventually go to an Ivy League college, a dream for a little nerdling who had dedicated her life to doing her homework and getting good grades on tests.  As I arrived fresh-faced at my new campus, I was thrilled at my prospects.  Surrounded by other awkward nerds, I thought, I would be queen of the school.  Until I realized that everyone else there had had a similar idea.

Like an army of Rachel Leigh Cooks tossing down their glasses and donning contact lenses and designer jeans, my fellow students arose from the ashes of their former nerdy selves and began to assume the roles of their former tormenters.  They binge drank as if they were real frat boys (which, I suppose, they actually were).  They created and joined exclusive clubs for people with old money and new cocaine habits.  After vomit-clouded weekends, they sequestered themselves in the library for hours, careful to hide from their lacrosse teammates their knack for solving chemical equations.

Surely, I thought, this group of former nerds behaved so badly because they had been especially traumatized in high school and needed a little time to outgrow the hurt.  This trauma, I supposed, was the reason the sorority girl who lived on my hall freshman year would intentionally not respond to my friendly hellos when I walked past her in public.

But this strange call to hierarchy did not end when I left the hallowed halls of my college.  I was a runner in college and have continued to run competitively ever since, mainly training with running clubs.  Every running club that I have entered since then has had a cool crowd, usually composed of the fastest runners and a few good-looking sidekicks who can stick with them at least during the warmups.

Every workplace I have belonged to has had cool crowds composed of the younger people, the people who “like to go out,” and the people who have been there long enough to know the score.  One does not gain even provisional entry to this club until at least his or her second year working there.

All of these cool crowds can be dizzying.  And frustrating.  There have been times that I have taken a Revenge of the Nerds approach to this lunacy.  In college, I humiliated the sorority girl who refused my friendly hellos by coming up to her table at lunch and giving her a big hug in front of all of her sorority sisters and telling her how we so needed to hang out more since it had been way too long.  Her blush is still one of my life’s finest achievements.

In running clubs, I intentionally befriend older people, slower runners, and people with awkward social skills and always have a wonderful time with them.  But I still fume at the audacity of the speedy cool crowd to look down on my friends.

I suppose what the “cool kids” really are in any given situation are the people who have the illusion of power.  As an adult, if I wanted this power, I have no doubt in my mind that I could take it.  I’m not dumb, and I’ve been watching these people for years.  All you need is a little bit of beauty, spunk, or talent and a herd of like-minded individuals who will stand next to you physically in social settings, and you’re golden.  As for me, I clean up good.  Spunkiness-and-social-graces are my hyphenated middle names.  And as for talent, I’m a former Division I cross country runner, and I am not lacking in the requisite running club speediness.

So, why don’t I grab the bull by the horns and start my own little cool group, you may well ask.  It would be the perfect payback for all those years of being on the bottom, wouldn’t it?  But this idea has never grabbed me.  Even as a member of the Nerd Herd in sixth grade, I remember that we always had more fun.  While the cool girls were politely munching on sandwiches and criticising one another’s hairdos, we nerds were galloping and screaming around the playground with not a care in the world.

At running practices in my most recent running club, the cool group stood aloof and discussed running splits and upcoming races after the workout.  The rest of us argued jovially over which pizza joint to hit next.  We stayed there late into the night, laughing, drinking beer, and stinking to high heaven.  For me, the question of which group I would like to belong to is not a difficult one.  In fact, I wish for the cool kids’ sakes that they could have the opportunity to hang out with us.

So in the next running group I join, I will not shy away from being friendly with the long-legged gazelles with the tight-fitting Adidas running tops and blase facial expressions.  (They are actually pretty harmless, it turns out, as long as you don’t take them personally.)  But then I will turn around and show them that, though I can keep up with them during mile repeats and talk splits until the cows come home, I also thoroughly enjoy the company of the sixty-eight-year-old grandmother with the squeaky voice and the timid forty-something accountant who has recently lost fifty pounds.

People are people, and I always invite everyone to my holiday party.  But I secretly hope that if the in crowd decides to make an appearance, they will leave their coolness at the door, right by the umbrellas.

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