John W. Santrock wrote at length about a study that classified elementary school students as “popular,” “neglected,” “rejected,” or “controversial.”
As I read Santrock’s book, I realized that any child or adult I ever liked would have been primarily “controversial.”
“Popular” is not necessarily a good way to be in elementary school. While college students and adults may become “popular” because of their charm, beauty, and talent, elementary school students don’t usually have these things, or have any idea which students are likely to develop them later. Elementary school students who were “popular,” the study showed, were the ones who gave out material rewards. If your parents buy you lots of cool toys and allow your friends to play with them, therefore, you will probably be “popular.” However, although people who are “popular” in elementary school are nearly always people who have extravagant parents, people who are "neglected," "controversial," or even "rejected" in elementary school are more likely to become popular as adults.
“Neglected” students are the ones nobody notices. What being “neglected” implies for a student’s future is not clear. People who are “neglected” in elementary school may be extremely quiet because they don’t feel well, or don’t speak English well...or they may just be naturally quiet people who would rather have one or two real friends than be part of a noisy crowd.
“Rejected” students are the ones other students actively dislike. The best thing about being in this category is that it usually won’t last long.
“Controversial” students are the ones who have actually said or done things that some people liked and others didn’t like. In middle school, this includes just about anything. People who will have interesting adult careers are likely to be “controversial.”
Everybody does some genuinely stupid or embarrassing things during their middle school years. People who are bored and want to have a “school enemy” will always find a few things to say that embarrass another kid. It’s unlikely that anyone will get through four years of life without getting chewed gum stuck to his or her shoe, missing an easy catch and causing the team to lose a game, or having some visible, revolting medical problem like acne or diarrhea.
The trick is to do some “controversial” things that will distract any potential enemies’ attention to things that mean more than chewed gum on a person’s shoe. For the benefit of middle school students who would like at least to be teased about something besides glasses or braces, here’s a Top Ten List of Controversial Things Middle School Students Can Do With Pride:
1. Know what you do and don’t enjoy. If other people want to play a game you like, play well, be a good sport, and give everyone a real game. If other people want to play a game you hate, leave them to it, and find something you’d rather do. Spend at least half of your total free time doing something you enjoy and do well, like music or gymnastics.
2. Get to know people who are unpopular for reasons that you think are stupid reasons not to like someone, such as having to wear a back brace, or speaking with a foreign accent.
3. Ignore someone who is trying very hard to be “popular” by doing things you don’t like, such as talking about body development or “boyfiriends and girlfriends” all the time, or smoking, or making snippy remarks about someone else’s braces or foreign accent. Look at this person as if something were stuck to her or his shoes. With any luck at all, this person will think something is stuck to his or her shoes, and bingo, you're cooler than this person is.
4. If you’re lucky, you will have at least one teacher who is tough, but fair, and makes you work. Other students will make nasty remarks about this teacher. Don’t say anything until someone looks at you or calls you by name. Then say, “Nahhh, he’s all right by me.” Then change the subject.
5. At some point in your middle school career, somebody will probably have a family emergency. You’ll know it’s a real emergency because a member of the family will come to pick up this person at school. The family member will not be well groomed or well dressed, will seem ill at ease, may be crying. When Mean-Mouth Mike starts making fun of this family member, loudly say, “That’s not funny. Speaking of funny things, how many saw/heard/read...” and mention a movie, book, or TV show that you thought was funny. (Even if nobody else knows or likes it, the point is changing the subject, not fighting with Mike.)
6. The first day someone who is new in town and/or different from everyone else in some way joins your class, ask that person to play a game or eat lunch with you.
7. Let people from your school see you pushing your five-year-old sister around on your bicycle. Wave, smile, and ask them if they want a turn. If they say, “No, I don’t play with babies,” cheerfully say, “That’s too bad, because we’re waiting for my Dad to take us to the circus.”
8. At some point in your middle school career, somebody in your class will probably start to look like a high school student. Rumors and gossip will start going around about this person (a) beating people up, (b) having sex, (c) with adults, and so on. Actually, you notice that Tall Paul has become very quiet and stopped hanging out with friends. Show that you don’t believe the rumors by acting friendly toward Tall Paul. You don’t have to hang out with him after school if you don’t want to. Just inviting him to join a game, showing that you’re not afraid of him, will make enough of an impression on the more timid types in your class.
9. Make your own lunch and book containers. Make at least some of your own school clothes.
10. Take up a collection for your favorite charity at school. Be sure to pick something that everyone will agree helps people in need, such as a food pantry, library, or emergency service. Your school probably has a rule against collecting money for one particular church or political campaign.
Chances are that someone who wants to relieve the boredom by having an enemy will tease you about doing these things. It’s important that all you do, unless of course you have to defend yourself from a physical attack, is smile pleasantly. Let someone else be the one to say “Mean-Mouth Megan thinks she’s cool, but she’s nothing but a fool.” You always knew that. It's cooler just to be cooler than Megan than to lower yourself to Megan's level by quarrelling with Megan. Try, if possible, to be kind to Megan.