Back to School The Ins, the Outs, the Freaks, the Jerks and the Nerds

The old classroom social order is still very much in place today, as it was 20 and 30 years ago.

At a meeting of parents of fifth-grade students held one spring evening last year in the teachers' room of a school in the center of the country to address social problems in the class, they discussed "closed parties," celebrated only by the class's most popular kids.

One mother at the meeting, whose son was in the class, did not understand what they were talking about and turned to ask the woman next to her. After getting a whispered briefing, she leaned back and with a dismissive movement loudly concluded that, "Apparently, there are no boys at these parties." The woman who had briefed her, who had a daughter in the class, looked at her slyly and said in a satisfied tone: "Yes, there are."

This scene, which is reminiscent of "Desperate Housewives," shows that concepts such as closed parties, "in" kids and class queens are alive and well, just like insults, jealousy and the old social order were around in the past, when these kids' parents were in school.

The difference is the attitude of the parents and teachers. The proof of it is the meeting described above, which was preceded by meetings between the parents' committee and organizational consultants. As the population of the country encompasses a broader range of people from older generations, their understanding of the rules of the game in the classroom widens. The hope is that awareness will prompt change.

Keren Shpilsher, an artist who recently held a solo exhibition called "Queen of the Class," is 28. She attended the Ziv School in Ra'anana from grade one to four and then went to the Hadar School and the Wizo France High School; as a redhead, she was not accepted. School children visited the exhibition, and Shpilsher, who was never the queen of the class and longs to be reincarnated in that role, wins their hearts with drawings such as "The way the coolest girl in the class draws." These are drawings of "Bratz dolls and every known Pokemon." She shows them how far she has come, she says, and relates where she came from.

"I have an antenna that picks up who the kings and queens are," she says. "When I speak to the groups and ask them who their kings and queens are the immediate response is that there aren't any. They don't use the word `queen,' don't talk about it, but I spot the kings right away. My radar starts to beep. Boys are easy - it's enough to be good in sports and you're already in the top 10. If you're also rich and a good student, then you've moved up another step. But with boys there's less gossip and hostility. With girls the situation is uglier. They have a mouth and powers that can't be understood."

She spots the queens based on "the trendy clothes, the beauty, the blond. You see who stands out the most, who has presence, who is the most domineering, in whom it is apparent that at home they told her she is the absolute best."

The job of class queen requires not only self-confidence, but also a decision to accept it, she says. A., a mother of four daughters who received an equal degree of nurturing and flattery at home, reinforces what she says. She describes her oldest daughter, 12, as a child with no friends in the class, but who doesn't feel alienated because of that. "She thinks that everyone is her friend, but they don't call her in the afternoon and she doesn't talk to them. She didn't get together with them over the last two months. Her younger sister, who is going into fourth grade, was crowned queen of the class, but she doesn't want the role."

Parents' reading of the map of social status and their child's place in it is not always clear and is heavily influenced by their own past. "It's hard to make an objective analysis of the children's situation that is not influenced by one's own personal experience," says Amit Peleg-Lahav, a junior high school homeroom teacher at the School of the Arts in Tel Aviv. "A lot depends on the social status of the person being asked. An adult assessing the situation retroactively receives unclear messages.

"At the younger ages, everything is transparent. A child who is fed up with a friend visiting him says straight out to him, `You have to go home now.' Afterwards, things become vague. Last year, for example, I saw two girls in the younger grades during recess playing a game whose focus was that someone was getting kissed. One kid in their class, who was not in the game, asked to join. He exposed himself to rejection out of a clear desire to join the social circle and they told him, `Go away.' It was so blatant that I debated whether to intervene. I decided not to. That's the language. Just as he asked straightforwardly if he could join, they turned him down straightforwardly.

"Afterwards everything becomes concealed," continues Peleg-Lahav. "Girls in grades three to six take the social status fight to high levels of manipulation. Take, for example, the unpleasant memory from gym classes of dividing the class into two teams. It's a measure of athletic ability, but also of your place - were you left until the end? Whoever was remembers it very well."

Second to the king

A conversation with four boys, three of whom are starting grade six tomorrow and one who is starting grade five, reinforces the feeling that the social dynamic at these ages remains as it was. The four - friendly and surrounded with many friends - did not get together with many classmates over the vacation and still they all described themselves as very popular in their classes. One described himself as the second to the king (a title that so many adorn themselves with it seems the class consists primarily of them).

As Shpilsher predicted, when the kids are asked if there is a king or queen in their class, their immediate reaction is that there is none. After talking a bit, it turns out that one kid's class does have a king and he even has a reputation, "and lots of money, a huge house, computers, a Sony Playstation and plasma screens." From this conversation with them, incidentally, it seems the king's days are numbered because he is sparking a lot of antagonism.

The class of two of the other kids has a well-liked king. "He is good at everything and very nice," says one boy, who is also his friend. "There are `in' kids in the class and regular kids," says A., who is three heads taller than the king of the class and also the possessor of nearly every Yu-Gi-Oh card printed in Israel. "I'm the leader of the regulars. The two kings mentioned are not soccer fans, a quality that is still considered an entrance ticket into the world of the accepted. Or as one mother of a child going into fourth grade at the Balfour state elementary school in Tel Aviv noted with great sadness: 'If only he played soccer, everything would look different.'"

Listening to the four boys' description of the kids who are not accepted in the class is depressing, as if time had stood still. This unfortunate group consists of: "one kid with glasses, who only joined the class in grade four, and everyone thinks he's a nerd"; "someone who helped the kid with glasses, so they like him less"; "an antsy kid who takes a lot of sedatives and everyone makes fun of him"; "a cross-eyed kid"; "a kid with a hearing aid. Some kids walk by him and whisper something to him and then laugh when he doesn't answer" and "a fat kid who eats sandwiches with a bad smell, and that's become his trademark."

The principal of a high school in Jerusalem is not surprised by the primitive division. "When I look at the breakdown today from the teacher's perspective, it very much reminds me of the breakdown in the class I was in 20 and 25 years ago - the ins and the outs, the freaks, the jerks and the nerds. The same processes lead to the same socialization. It's like smoking - the same dynamic. Kids who want to seem cool start smoking, even if there are prevention programs, despite the social awareness and the fact that teachers are not permitted to smoke in class." A. also does not believe that a teacher, especially in the higher grades, can really change the situation.

Popularity paradox

There is a paradox in children's strive for popularity. Many successful and creative people will say that what pushed them in life, what gave them their special understanding of the world was the fact that they were outside the mainstream of the "in" kids. Shpilsher says she came up with the idea for her solo exhibition on the queen of the class while she was in a cafe with senior museum executives and curators and the queen of the class was the waitress. "I left her a nice tip," she says with a bit of vengefulness.

Despite the connection between Shpilsher's success and this social failure in her childhood, she does not wish these experiences on the children she may have in the future. She is deeply caught up in it. "Today, when I see my name in the newspaper, I hope that all sorts of kids from school read it and say to themselves `so Shpilsher's not such a hard name to remember.'"

The Jerusalem high school principal argues that "children don't have the perspective adults have, that Bill Gates was a nerd and today he's a billionaire. The kid knows he's a nerd now and that's what counts. Their perception of time is that there's no tomorrow. If I'm not invited to the party/don't pass the test/get those jeans - everything will be ruined."

Yael Biber, the principal of the community democratic school opening in Tel Aviv in September, prefers to change social priorities. "I did an experiment at the democratic school in Modi'in and found that multiple ages neutralizes this issue. Instead of a class of 40 kids who are the same age in a fixed setting, the limits were not so narrow and children connect at different stages and in other places. The social framework is airy, everyone finds his own niche."

Another meeting place is the virtual world. "I heard from several children that on ICQ they have long and intimate discussions and in school they pass each other in the corridor and don't say hi," says Peleg-Lahav.