Reeling, writhing and fainting in coils

(with apologies to Lewis Carroll for the title). Or wot I lerned at skewl.

Of course I had one of them superior edumacation wotsits. The honest truth is I’d rather have been just about anywhere else I could think of (I had pretty little experience of anywhere else, really. My idea of ‘anywhere else’ were the bush or the beach both of which I considered running away to quite regularly.) and I imagine that if my teachers had had any alternative that didn’t involve penal servitude or the death penalty, I could have been a good reason for taking that up. I was the bane of the existence of several, something I put way more effort into than schoolwork.

I was also the class clown, and the smart-arse who was an expert at distracting teachers – two pastimes which I figured early in my passage through the splurting, gurgling, churning gut of the education system was a better position than being being a know-it-all or worse, teacher’s pet. I read a lot and fast, and math was always logical, so I’d made those mistakes early. Trust me, you don’t want to be the smallest kid, and worse, have your mother a teacher at the school — junior school — and be goody-two-shoes. I learned that lesson well and quick. By the time I got sent off to boarding school… I’d learned enough about being a social chameleon to pass distant muster.

I figure the number of ‘odd’ kids is probably way higher than even other odds, let alone the ‘normal’ ones, ever guess. Being a ‘chameleon’ is that important – and we’ve evolved to be fairly good at it. I think for a lot of kids it becomes so ingrained they become whatever they’re imitating. Casualties of the system if you like, or Darwin in action. Some eventually (by the time marriage, kids, jobs and responsibility set in) grow out of it, and gradually become independent-thinking adults. For others it’s like we’re sorbo-rubber — the minute we get out of there we go right back to being ‘odd’, because we never fooled ourselves, even if we did so with varying degrees of success to our peers.

The ‘cool kids’ or ‘mean-girls-table’ were of course adept at spotting the fakes too. They liked being the top of the pecking order, and while chameleon might let you off with a minor kicking, or if you fought back hard enough (another lesson learned), mere disdain — you weren’t ever going to be one of them. This, post school, was a serious advantage to the ‘odds’ because being at the mean-girls-table used not to be much a recipe for success in life, and they tended to stay there. It’s spread into higher academia – particularly the humanities and a fair number of professions where independent thinking is not valuable – bureaucracy, modern journalism, politics, and from there infected profession which need independent thought and real ability – from engineering to authorship. Problems result -like falling down bridges, and books no one wants to buy, no matter how hard they’re pushed.

Writing is a somewhat more complex challenge than school. At one, fairly recent stage, you had to pass the mean-girls-table and be seen to be one of them to even get in to most publishing systems. On the other hand really a lot of the present reading audience are ‘odds’, valuing originality… but also wanting someone who belonged to their set. And so many writers still suffer from ‘school’ ideas of fitting in to what the mean-girls-table demanded, not what the other ‘odds’ wanted.

That entry bar has changed. Now there is value in un-learning the chameleon behavior. On being odd, and finding that audience.

Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

35 thoughts on “Reeling, writhing and fainting in coils

  1. The thing about mean girls of every gender is that deep in their souls they know that it’s all a facade and should they drop it for the merest moment their “good friends” will turn on them and rip them to shreds.
    That very insecurity probably goes a long way in explaining why they are always so obnoxiously mean.

    1. A benefit of small town life was that the school didn’t have the population for a proper mean girls table. Everybody pretty much had to take everybody else as individuals, and cliques were fluid, with most people belonging to several any given time.
      (Don’t get me wrong, I remember a couple of kids who would have loved the opportunity to blight others in such a fashion, but the lack of stratification made it difficult for them.)

      1. It definitely makes it a lot harder for them to enforce the mean-girl-ness, since most of the power comes from your grade and then your school being the entire social network– and that requires a population big enough to thump the edge-cases, enough people that you can AFFORD to shun someone.

        I was definitely a Weird Kid at school, but they couldn’t make me care and even sympathetic teachers couldn’t enforce the misery. The worst (by philosophy) teacher I had was forced to work with me— because we didn’t have so many really smart kids who were willing to join the team jeopardy sports group that she could afford to lose me, and her best friend’s son really, really liked that sport. If I didn’t play, there weren’t enough people to field a team.

  2. I recently had a conversation with one of my old small town grade school nemeses. I had figured out a couple of reasons that I had trouble in school was that I was slow, clumsy, and a scrawny weakling. Also that I was a smart-assed know-it-all nerd before the term became popular. Also that I was prone to meltdowns and overrreactions to teasing, and that the bullies found them entertaining. Also that I was over literal and couldn’t intentionally do humor or comedy. What I didn’t take into account that I was a respectful. well behaved goody two-shoes as well. So, yes, socially at least, grade school was hell. Chameleon? Unpossible. I went for being a rock. Mean girls? I’ve had worse for better reason from people whose opinion I cared about more.

  3. *Sigh* School. Elementary wasn’t bad. But I slid through the rest of it as invisibly as possible. Still have the bad habits/lack of social skills in many ways. But if it weren’t for Indie, I doubt I’d be published at all.

    1. I owe you a review, but I’m trying to figure out how to say “How dare she! Another “now I’m on the bad-guy’s side” book!” in a nice way that attracts other readers. That’s going to turn into a sub-series, isn’t it?

  4. I did have a principal at one of the many new schools I attended as a kid ask me, “have you tried not being so weird? Maybe the other kids would leave you alone more if you tried harder to act normal.”
    I’ve heard people express shock over such an insensitive thing from a principal. But honestly, it was one of the better pieces of advice I got my whole school career. Prior to that I didn’t know I was weird. I had no idea why kids didn’t like me. Once I had that information I was able to look around my next new school and figure out what passed for normal there and fake it enough to get by.

    1. *giggles*
      It’s likely that he WAS one of the weird ones, if he was that blunt. Either that, or world-class gifted in identifying how to communicate effectively with kids.

      Usually, that advice isn’t very useful– I would guess that he was doing his job otherwise, though, and kept the kind of situations that generally prevent it from being useful from forming.

      That deserves being mentioned and praised– yay him!

      I got somewhat similar advice, but the requirement to “not be weird” would’ve been unacceptable; it was offered because it would make things easier for those who were not doing their job if I went with the flow, so they could legitimately say that “everyone” was doing a thing.

      (Short version, every stupid and OBVIOUSLY going to end poorly thing on TV, from 14 year olds getting beer from college guys on up? That was the ‘norm’. It ended as poorly as you may expect, and yes there was a literal body count, in spite of very good ER services in the area. Third or more generation wealthy families.)

      1. My principal suggested that I “try being friendly back,” when the guys were cornering me and grabbing at my anatomy (not handshake, either.) I wrote off bureaucracy at that moment, started taking obscure routes to and from here and there, and hung out with the ROTC and science kids, who decided I was their sort of Odd. I read military history, and the ROTC CO and Chief (I learned later) let it be known that I was an ally (you know, like Allies and Axis?)

        Short, overweight, refused not to act smart, not one of the “Art Kids,” female . . . Gads, it was a long 5 and a half years.

        1. ….I think I’ve mentioned that I would’ve killed him, just to prevent the suffering if my parents– or God forbid, either of my grandmothers– ever heard of such nonsense, right?

          1. Yes. I didn’t bother telling my folks because . . . Reasons that went back to Junior High. A lot was clarified many years later, when we finally sat down and talked about my teenage years.

            1. ::sympathy::
              We still have occasional “Wait, what do you MEAN XYZ was normal at school? Why didn’t you say something?” conversations, even with a very involved mom who was a teacher at one point.

              But oh holy crud.

          1. He might have been just that stupid. A year or so before I went up to our local high school, one of the smart kids properly answered some questions that one of the football meatheads blew in class. So of course they ha dto beat him senseless on the way home from school. Whne the boy’s parents complained about it, the principal just chuckled and said, “Oh, boys will be boys!”

            Those parents then called the parents of the footballers and got them yanked from the team for the rest of the year. Best players too. Guess how much fun that poor kid’s year was after that.

            1. THAT kind of a culture is exactly what a good school would’ve stepped on, way before the meathead got to the point where raising a hand against the smart kid even entered his head.

              That is a “fire the football coach” level outrage, if you’re not putting the “boys” in jail — my mom’s high school coach (that I knew her 35+ years later tells you how important that was) regularly pulled people off of ANY sport for Unacceptable Behavior.

              Being the Best must mean you know you’ll be watched closer, not given liberty to commit possibly fatal assault.

              But hey, that takes work. And doesn’t make one popular, you know. ::disgusted tone::

              1. Apparently my high school had (and still has) a nasty reputation for thuggish behavior. I certainly saw and felt my share of it while attending. While I was there the high school band was invited down to Disney Land in Florida for some big parade they do every year. They were there about two days before several members of the band got nailed by the Disney cops for basically plundering a gift store in the park. The whole band got yanked from the parade and shipped back home on the next plane. I was foolish enough to say out loud that they’d acted disgracefully and was physically slapped down for being such a snob.

              2. In my high school, the primary culture was Win At Academics (we took great pride in being in the top one percent nationwide). The eggheads were the school heroes. And there was considerable overlap with the jocks (given that participation in organized sports required maintaining an A or B average, and this was rigidly enforced), so if some dumb jock had tried to beat up one of the eggheads (and the chief egghead was as awkward and nerdy as they come), the rest of the team would have thumped his stupid ass, then the coach would have ejected him from the program.

                It occurs to me that this was an extension of farm culture, which is necessarily a sort of buddy-meritocracy (gotta help each other to survive, and bad/stupid behavior comes with penalties), and the loss of farm culture in favor of urban rat-race culture has let the bullying-and-mean-girls culture become ascendant.

    2. “She doesn’t try hard enough to get along with the other kids.”

      And I had NO CLUE what he was talking about.

    3. I’ve heard people express shock over such an insensitive thing from a principal. But honestly, it was one of the better pieces of advice I got my whole school career. Prior to that I didn’t know I was weird. I had no idea why kids didn’t like me. Once I had that information I was able to look around my next new school and figure out what passed for normal there and fake it enough to get by.

      A long time ago, someone, probably Mr. Thomas Sowell, wrote that what made America’s quasi free-markets so effective was its capacity for failure: the ability of even a largish corporation to bite the dust or have to significantly reorganize. A few years ago, in one of those DIE struggle sessions, I discovered a direct correlation between groups that have significant cultural capital, including (in general) economic and social assets, and groups that can be freely criticized and insulted. It was eye-opening, and the best evidence for soi-disant white privilege I’ve come across.

      Even at the individual level, if no-one is allowed to tell you *that* you’re failing at something (even if their analysis whyfor is shoddy) you’re at a material disadvantage with respect to those who get correction and reproof. Additionally, if you’re allowed to get away with telling yourself, or worse, if everyone around you insists, that the only reason you fail is because the Other People (or at least many of them) distrust, dislike, or have disdain for you, and also that Those Other People are naturally bad actors (bullies, etc.)… Even if their description of the Other People is true, you are so screwed! Having self-pity and resentment as your mental furniture guarantees you’ll marinate in fail, possibly for your whole life.

      It’s one of the reasons the U.S. managerial elite caste (pace Mr. Briggs, IIRC, the “Expertocracy”) and our institutions have become so very, very, fake and perverted. Our ruling class saw the utter cluelessness and lack of failure-inputs of 18th century French and Russian aristocrats and said “Hold my beer”.

  5. I was the goody-two-shoes, if that meant the kid who behaved and did what was expected of her. I generally steered clear of being a “brown nose,” however. I’m pretty sure that label was for kids currying undeserved favor from the teachers. I was favored simply because I did my work without giving trouble and often helped the teachers out by tutoring slower students. But being the self-motivated good student wasn’t something cultivated or sustained at home (I was odd there), so I learned early to be a chameleon in a different way than you describe: I mostly went for being a rock as another commenter says (always had my “nose stuck in a book,” as my mother claimed) most of the time when around family and other non-school relations. As I got older, I took some perverse pride in the fact that even these granted me a measure of respect for my bookish smarts and the perhaps more encouraging fact that I could find some way to fit in with a variety of social groups (or at least not get targeted and expelled). I don’t think I consciously thought of the word “chameleon,” but it fits, and I’ve long thought my childhood has stood me in good stead now that I’m an adult, at least once I realized that the whole world resembles my dysfunctional childhood more perfectly that I naively believed as a young adult. I never tried very hard to get published, and even though I majored in English and writing, I long ago rejected pursuing either a Ph.D. or an MFA because, as I realized later, I subconsciously knew that I didn’t fit in with those populations. Now that I’m older and know more about those so “educated” and trained, I can see more clearly that those academic fields weren’t for me, whether I chose well or was perhaps divinely guided to avoid them. But being as odd as I am, I haven’t yet found much of an audience for my writing.

    1. My greatest sin in grade school wasn’t being a discipline problem, it was reading ahead in the book. (And on a couple of occasions, knowing it better than the teacher did). Being the class “Mr. Encyclopedia” was a mixed bag of respect and jealousy. High school was better. We moved away from the Small Town to the Big City (age mates went from thirty to a thousand) which made it easier to hide in the crowd, easier to find like-minded fellows, easier to avoid mandatory classes where I would do poorly, and without the history of reasons to be bullied and shunned. But I still had victim habits and was still an Odd. As I got out of school and my social circles fractured and became less organized, when I finally wanted to stand out…I couldn’t.

      1. Being the class “Mr. Encyclopedia” was a mixed bag of respect and jealousy.

        Was it just me, or did it seem like “read the next paragraph and has basic reading comprehension, maybe even remembered what we read in this same @#$@# book last week” was enough to get tagged as Mr. Encyclopedia?

        I *did* know a lot of weird stuff, because it’s fun, but usually what got commented on was things that were RIGHT THERE. Right now!

        1. I my case, I was exceptionally book smart. As in…within a few years I was scoring on the 99th percentile on the ACT and PSAT. Not that it mattered to anyone once I got out of high school.

    2. I read a lot after gym, so the other girls would walk by and stick pins in my butt. That was one of the few times I told my parents I was having trouble and my Dad suggested I tell them weird stories. (Yeah, Dad was probably Odd). That resulted in the gym teacher deciding I needed to be moved to “adaptive PE,” (I.e., PE for the handicapped) and that resulted in my parents making a pilgrimage to the principal’s office.
      Junior high was painful. Once I got to the new high school, I actually almost got popular. Accepted, anyway.

      1. “PE” became a thing right about the time I started school, one of the things I hate JFK for.
        That was his “President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports” which he managed to impress into the school systems.

        PE was an extra-special kind of hell through most of my time in school. For some reason it was an elective in high school.

    3. Huh. When I was in school, it never occurred to me that I was supposed to fit in. But we had enough Odds among the Celebrated Eggheads (see above) that I didn’t stand out that much, even being a year younger (skipped first grade, best thing that ever happened to me). Plus we Eggheads were sort of aristocracy in that school’s culture, so if we were eccentric, I guess it was just expected. 😀

      The school culture also made getting a grade below your known usual capacity embarrassing, because test scores and grades were posted, along with the GPA list.

      1. I don’t think most kids think consciously about “fitting in” until middle school, but that’s also probably an individual development issue. I certainly didn’t think about trying to fit into a group. I was just aware that some kids picked on me. By middle school I’d become painfully aware of all the ways that I didn’t fit in (and it wasn’t only or even primarily about academics). It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that there was a coherent “egghead” group in my class, and looking back on it, I suspect that I was one of the foundational members because I was so focused on doing well in school — college was my way out of my family and the limits of my hometown, and it was going to be managed through my own merits. As far as I knew, there was no such group before or after (my younger sister was two grades behind and there was definitely no camaraderie around academics for her). It was a relief and rather nice to find that at the end of my high-school career, I’d earned respect for being nerdy — I ended up being voted “most likely to succeed,” which I took as a compliment from my age peers.

  6. Grade school was Hell. So was Junior High, because I was as close to a bottom bitch in the school hierarchy as you could get, short of having actual “bathed this morning, clean clothes, and still have a bad smell” mental illness. Far too smart in non-academic ways, far too much ADHD, far too nerdy, and far too careful to get roped into some of the places I could have gone, like theater kids or goths.

    High School was a private school, and we didn’t have enough people to have distinct tables, let alone a Mean Girls table.

  7. I was an odd and an odd protector. Jocks learned to go after easier prey, as I was big enough to give them trouble, and skilled enough to make it very painful. Groups would still take me down, but I would go after the leader and take them out. Add an aggressive father who had been a heavyweight golden gloves, and my odds were mostly protected. The mean girls were harder to deal with, but we odds together came up with meaner ways to get them to lay off. Silver nitrate on their towels, Nair in their shampoo, etc. Bad things happened to those who bullied us, so we eventually were left alone.

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