You see us as you want to see us...in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athelete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.
Dude, I love the Breakfast Club. If you're about my age, you do too. Even for a former yeshiva girl like me, the film resonated, not for its specifics about pot-smoking or criminals or even students from divorced families, but because the truth in the John Hughes portrait of high school life was the all about the essential challenge of growing up: the battle to belong vs. the yearning to be yourself. It's all about the pressure to become part of the social hierarchy, even at the expense of your own self.
Even in a smaller, somewhat more homogeneous school, cliques were so well-defined that there was just no way you'd interact with everyone. If perchance, there was a crossover, the person in the "lower" (less popular) group would question the sudden interest, suspicious of the olive branch extended, and usually for good reason. This was true not just of high school, but extends back into the good ol' days of elementary school.
Stacey (not her real name) was never what I would have called a nemesis; she was nowhere near intelligent enough to outsmart me. But this didn't matter, because she was popular, wealthy and mean, which was the highschool equivalent of being a Harvard graduate. She was the kind of girl who was sweet as sugar when she needed you (which was rarely). But when she was done, she'd shun you as if you'd brought treyf to school (although ironically, I think she was probably the one bringing treyf to school to begin with). She wore expensive, trendy moccasins, day-glo slouchy, Footloose-inspired tops and those stupid, gigantic belts that buckled down in an almost-arrow, pointing your gaze at the moccasins and in effect, making you bow your head in inadvertent deference or reverence before her.
Throughout fifth grade, she taunted me. Fat jokes galore, but never particularly witty ones. Turns out, it doesn't matter how stupid fat jokes are: they hurt just as much as the well-crafted ones. Even more, actually, since there was no thought put into them at all: I was wearing a grey jumper, therefore "elephant." I was minding my own business, therefore "fatso." The adult me might have been able to look back on a more nuanced, educated insult with a modicum of reluctant respect, but these barbs lacked the elegance of a gold-plated pistol; her jabs at me had the merciless unsubtlety of a sledgehammer.
Stacey was a queen bee, and while I wasn't quite a wannabe, I didn't want to be the subject of ridicule either, and I knew the way to do that was to become her friend. Now, if you've ever tried to become someone's friend, against their will, so they wouldn't make fun of you, you know it's like trying to spot-reduce your abs: sweaty, self-destructive and ultimately senseless. But the desire to be accepted is so immense that the absence of logic doesn't bother you.
There were times, when none of her friends were looking, when Stacey and I had bonded. There were a few moments when I totally believed her. She seemed sincere, and I was worth getting to know, so why wouldn't she be impressed once she interacted with me one-on-one? But it was all preamble, all pretense.
One afternoon, she approached me outside our sixth-grade classroom. She needed a "favor."
"Hey, Esther--we're friends, right?"
"Sure, Stacey. We're friends..."
"Well, I need your help. I didn't study for the social studies test. And friends don't let friends fail..."
"...So what I need from you is to"--and here she broke into a full-on chant that, it seemed to me, must have been in hearing range of our teacher--"move your body to the left and move your paper to the right." From the singsong, atonal timbre of her voice, I knew that if our yeshiva had had a cheerleading team, Stacey would have been its insufferable, tone-deaf captain.
Sounding extremely "after-school-special," I demurred. "Stacey, I can't. It's cheating."
She tried logic. At least, her version of logic. "Look, Esther, I'm not asking you to give me the answers. That would be cheating. I'm just asking you to sit in such a way that I can see your answers. That doesn't hurt anyone; you won't get caught, and I won't fail."
Mercifully, the bell rang and class was about to begin, and without having given a yes or a no, I was saved the effort of proclaiming a response in either direction. We lumbered to our seats and plunked ourselves down, Stacey directly behind me. "Move your duh-duh duh duh duh, and your duh-duh duh duh duh," she hummed.
"Stacey," the teacher warned. "That's enough." She handed out the papers, and I heard Stacey humming very softly behind me. Even though my back was to her, in my mind, I could still see her distinctively vicious smile, teeth barely glinting through her braces; apparently, on the popularity scale, her money/metal-mouth combo trumped the plainer and bespectacled.
I shut it out and focused on social studies--not my best subject, mind you--and tried not to think about how screwed I was. I didn't want to cheat, but I had no wish to be the scourge of sixth grade society. Stacey kicked the back of my chair in a staccato rhythm. I shifted in my seat, as if to move my body to the left and not obstruct her view of my paper. And then I did move. So slightly that I knew she wouldn't be able to see over my shoulder. And just for good measure, I put some phony answers on my paper, which I went back and erased--replacing those answers with the right ones--before the exam was over.
It was subtle, but I'd managed to subvert the instructions of the Queen Bee without actually defying her. Even if no one ever knew what I'd done, I'd know. I hadn't cheated, and I hadn't said "no" to Her Royal Pain in the Asse Majeste. I knew I wouldn't be migrating upward into ranks of the sixth-grade elite, but at least I wouldn't suffer any more than I already did. And my morality, such as it was at that early age, was still intact.
Some will argue that bullies, in elementary school, high school, the blogosphere, or anywhere else, need to be taught a lesson. But, as we know from both our own experiences and those of the John Hughes archetypes (commedia dell'arte stock characters for a new generation), we need the wisdom of hindsight to effect a clear vision of what is required.
Demented and sad, but social. That's what we all, to an extent, were. We stayed in our clique, no matter how dysfunctional the dynamic, no matter how warped the values, no matter how many compromises we needed to make to stay part of a group, whichever group it was. If we had any kind of "moment" with someone from another group, we denied any sense of real connection that might have become a friendship that didn't follow the rules of our social contract. We lived in constant pursuit of belonging.
Eventually, the search for self takes over, usually in a college environment; separated from their previous educational and social contexts, people are free to remake themselves in their own image, create the self they want other people to see, and forge friendships that cross social class boundaries.
That Saturday morning in detention at Shermer High School, there were no Staceys and Esthers, no power struggles over classroom morality and ethics. Once the walls of the social dynamic of high school were lowered, the real battle became clear: it was every student for him or herself, locked in a power struggle between peer acceptance and personal identity. At the end of the day, the five students left with new alliances, partners who would challenge their places within the social structure of high school. Monday at Shermer was going to be a bitch.
Since (smartly) there was no sequel, our memories of these characters is frozen in time. We still see them as we want to see them: emblems of our youth, polarized versions of ourselves, echoes of people we once knew or once were, striving to become aware of themselves within the physical environment and social structure of high school.
*And a happy birthday to Molly Ringwald...she's 37 today!