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Quirk Cachet: Why 'Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth'

by NPR Staff
May 21, 2011 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Alexandra Robbins is also the author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. She says that in high school she was a "floater." The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

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If there wasn't a spot for you at the cool table in the cafeteria, fear not: In her new book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins argues that the teen losers of today are the adult success stories of tomorrow.

Robbins wasn't an outcast in high school, but she wasn't a popular kid either. "I was what's known as a floater," she tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "I could sit at the edge of most cafeteria tables, but was never a part of any one group. I was also a dork. And still am. And proud!"

Robbins, who has authored several books about young people, says she was inspired to write Geeks after meeting students all over the country who felt that there was something wrong with them because they weren't in the popular crowd. There are two messages she wants today's teens to hear, she says: "No. 1, being excluded in high school or middle school doesn't mean that anything's wrong with you. And No. 2, popularity also doesn't make you happy."

In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Robbins presents "The Quirk Theory," in which she posits that the interests and passions and idiosyncrasies that get kids teased in school are the very same quirks that turn them into cool, interesting adults. "Many of the differences that cause students to be excluded in school are actually the same qualities or skills that other people are going to admire, respect or value about that person in adulthood," she explains.

Just look at rock legend Bruce Springsteen. He wasn't always "The Boss." He was a loner in high school and started a band because he felt like an outsider. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was a daydreamer who had her nose in books all the time — not unlike some of the fictional characters she creates today. Rowling remembers being bullied in school. So does fashion icon Tim Gunn; kids made fun of him because he liked to make things ... now he makes things for a (very successful) living.

In Geeks, Robbins follows seven students through one high school year. She describes them as "the loner, the gamer, the nerd, the new girl, the band geek and the weird girl." The seventh was a well-liked cheerleader. "She was in the popular crowd, she had been a queen bee," Robbins says. "And yet she was struggling with the way her clique demanded things of its members."

Teens feel stuck in their cliques, she adds. "Students today think that they can't switch groups. But it turns out you can, you just have to give people a chance."

Though many frustrated high-schoolers find popularity to be more of an art than a science, Robbins actually spent a lot of time researching the psychological science of popularity. She explains there are two kinds of popularity: perceived popularity (based on reputation) and sociometric popularity (based on who is actually liked). Those two aren't always one and the same; just ask any teen the difference between "mean popular" and "nice popular."

When it comes to enforcing social hierarchies, Robbins argues that teachers and administrators aren't really as agnostic as they would like to seem. "There are three elements to perceived popularity," she explains. "A student has to be visible, recognizable and influential." Athletes and cheerleaders — students who generally score high on perceived popularity — are the students the school promotes as role models for the student body, Robbins argues.

For all the thousands of dollars some schools are spending on anti-bullying campaigns, by promoting some activities above others, the school is "telling students essentially who should be picked on and who shouldn't," Robbins says.

But there are plenty of positive things that teachers can do. Robbins recommends pairing unlikely students to work together in class, and making sure students from all different cliques are treated equally. Teachers should also be mindful of their own friendships at school, Robbins reminds; students are extremely sensitive to social hierarchies and can sense cliques among their teachers, too.

These days, geeks seem to be enjoying a moment in the sun: Things that were once geeky — video games, science fiction, fantasy books — are now quirky-cool. And geek-glorifying shows and movies — think: Glee, Napoleon Dynamite and Big Bang Theory — have enjoyed enormous popularity. And then there are the geeks all grown up: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs. Have geeks already inherited the Earth?

"I think in the adult world, they're getting there," Robbins says. "I think people are much more accepting and much more embracing of differences." Perhaps this generation of high school losers will prove Robbins' Quirk Theory once and for all.

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