Avoiding the sorting bins

I’m reading David Brooks’ “The Social Animal.” He spends a lot of time strolling along the meandering  life-paths of his purposefully uninteresting characters. The characters lie flat– tables upon which Brooks places a generous buffet of juicy social psychology theories, layers and layers of glistening cultural psych experiments conducted on college students, tart, textured neurology research pertaining to love, baskets of plump education theories, and a few perky sprigs of common conclusions about sexual selection and beauty.

This is the bit that inspired me to write this post:

The people in the executive suites believed that the school existed to fulfill some socially productive process of information transmission– usually involving science projects on poster boards. But in reality, of course, high school is a machine for social sorting. The purpose of high school is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure.

Wow, block quote. I’m feeling this enormous urge to put a citation in a parenthetical below. I’m resisting. Resisting….Resisted.

I like how David Brooks almost always writes with authority. If people are going to have opinions and write them down for other people to read, they might as well believe in what they say. And then they might as well make it clear that they think they’re right. It’s much more fun that way.

Am I the artsy one?

I don’t know why it takes me so long to get to the point sometimes. I’m sorry.

A machine for social sorting. The image is striking. Let’s say for a moment that it’s true.  It made me wonder, unsurprisingly, which chute would I have been funneled into. Into which box would I eventually have been deposited?

Am I the put-together one?

A little later in the book, Brooks describes how many distinct personalities people tend to have. People aren’t static, we’re fluid. We adapt instantaneously to different environments. People who can modulate more fluently are more popular. Sometimes I notice myself being awkward in situations I thought I’d mastered, or confident in situations I thought would leave me quivering and babbling. I interviewed an ex CIA operative a few weeks ago and was shockingly funny. I talked with a woman I’ve known for years and sounded like I’d just learned how to speak on Tuesday. The woman I’d known for years has seen me be incredibly awkward before. Maybe I still feel like a kid around her. All the CIA operative knew about me was that I work for AOL and have the ability (y’know, through my editor, of course) to get her a lot of publicity.

Am I the mischievous one?

Occasionally, in a fit of predictable twenty-something navel-gazing, I try to figure out what I’m like. Who am I? What’s my personality like? Am I charming? Am I hopeless? Am I both charming and hopeless?

The idea of having been sorted in my teens is frightening. And it’s confusing. The results might have been disastrous. I was very serious and sensitive for a long time. I cried every time I read something about racial injustice (sometimes I still do). Not kidding. Every time, it made me furious and helpless.  I was one of these people who stared out at the world , thinking, “How can people be so mean to each other?”

With other kids your age, that is an attitude that seems roughly the equivalent of a bleeding hind leg on a gazelle that stumbles into the hunting ground of a pack of lionesses.

Am I the dark, brooding one?

Maybe I would’ve been destroyed and rebuilt. Maybe I would’ve adapted and become cool. My parents didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, and gradually my dad’s business did better. So I would’ve fit into different economic classes at different times. I am pale skinned and Jewish, so I guess I look racially privileged even though a lot of people somehow still hate Jews. I have always had friends who thought I was awesome, guys who were madly in love with me, and confidence that I was interesting and worth-knowing. Maybe I would’ve had friends in all different groups. Maybe I would’ve been eclectic and fascinating and slightly mysterious. Maybe I would’ve been nerdy and overworked and ambitious and silent. That doesn’t seem like me, I’m pretty talkative. But who knows?

Would I have been sorted into the socially successful bin or the academically successful bin? Or neither? or the bin for hybrids who are both and destined for corporate greatness?

Am I the subversive one?

I don’t like the risk.

I guess in a sense I grew up confused. I had some labels, of course– you can’t not. But in general I moved from social situation to social situation without any trailing stigma. This also meant that I never learned that I deserved success, because I didn’t have a popular/cool identity to ride on. So I felt uncertain, but also open-ended. And sometimes I was fabulously popular. And sometimes I was the nerdy, quiet one. And nothing ever ended up sticking.

Am I the loud one?

Which might be why I still don’t know.

Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe it’s better if I never find out.

7 comments to Avoiding the sorting bins

  • If it makes you feel any better, I went to a public high school, was churned through the social sorting machine (if that truly exists) and I’m just as confused as you. Nothing stuck, and there wasn’t a good niche. Plus I resist fitting neatly into one nice, tidy label anyway. We certainly had the groups, and I guess I hang out in the band room the most, but the trouble is, once you leave high school there isn’t a band room any more anyway. Oh well.

  • Um yeah, Public schooled here, and I never perfectly fit anywhere. I dabbled in every group but never fully committed to any. Smarter than the dumb kids, dumber than the smart ones. Countrier than the preppy kids, preppier than the country ones. Freakier than the nerdy kids, nerdier than the freaky ones.

    And yes, at 28 I still kind of feel that way. Oh well. Maybe that’s just life.

  • Dear Kate
    I am a friend of your mother. She was the LLL leader of the group I attended. Thats how I know you. Karen told me you blog and Ive been reading it religiously. I love every single word you write and it gives me great confidence in what I do. I am a HSing mom of two lovely girls aged 4.5 and 2.5 yrs. We lived in the States for @ 10 years but have returned back to India for good in Nov’10. HSing in India is a newborn baby . Everyone sends their children to school here. School is a huge deal here , much much more important than what it is in the States. So HSing in India is very much against the system. In this sense I feel very inspired when I read your blogs especially because you have been HSed yourself.
    Your mother has motivated me in many many ways. I am in awe of her for the mother and the LLL leader she is. I used to love interacting with her during the meetings- her gentleness , her dedication used to be such an encouraging thing for me. I had natural births , exclusively breastfeed my kids and now am HSing. Infact all these things I have done have largely come from the company of LLL …When I was toying with the idea of HSing I met your mother and it was very inspiring to know that she has 3 HSed children. Wow that was so nice to hear then. I am a big fan of your mother. When I left the States she gave me a card that said the most beautiful things about me ever. No one including my own mother has ever said such good things about me. Till date I keep this card in my desk and read it whenever I feel down. You are indeed very very lucky to be born to her. In hinduism we believe in karma very strongly. That it is the soul’s karma that attracts it to a particular womb in its next birth. In that sense you have done a lot of good karma.
    Please do keep writing..Its such a pleasure to read it. I have recommended your blog to other HSers here in India. I have started blogging in a private blog and will send ya an invitation if you are interested.

    • Colleen

      I love your blog Eat the Damn Cake, which frequently leads me to reading post on this blog. You are awesome, keep it up.
      Great coincidence, my Mom was a Le Leche League leader as well! (how surprised are your friends who are pregnant or new moms with the amount of breastfeeding knowledge you have? “Oh, your nipples are dry and chapped, try some Lansinoh, fixes everything, and here is a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, it’s the best, don’t ask why I know these things…”) It was funny to read that your mom was a LLLleader as well because, when I think of homeschooled children I think of the Labor Day LLL camping trip my family would go on every year with about 30 other LLL families. (We had shirts that said ‘I LLLove Camping’ Awesome, I know.) Of the 30+ families that attended the camping trip I was one of about five that weren’t homeschooled.
      Being a public school kid I was sent through the machine of social sorting and came out the other end as… average? Not popular but not a loser, not smart but not stupid, not athletic but still participating in sports, seems like that is where most of us seem to fall. Anyway, I always loved camping with those weird homeschooled kids who didn’t own TV’s, ate food from their own garden and made their own clothes. I was always a little jealous that these children didn’t have to deal with what, at the age of 13, felt like end of the world problems (I’m not popular, my clothes aren’t from Abercrombie, I didn’t make the soccer team, the cutest boy in school doesn’t know I exist, etc..) These kids knew how to play outside, they climb trees and build fires and they read books for fun (mind blowing to me that other children did these things) There was no ‘in crowd’ just a group of kids hanging out and playing together. That’s the way it should be.
      So, be happy that you were able to avoid the socially scaring experience that is Jr.High/HighSchool… and that you know Lansinoh Lanolin Cream is the best thing for chapped lips/dry skin of any kind, Vaseline is for suckers.

  • Michelle

    I was the child of a military officer and ended up in a different high school every year. One was a regular public school, one was an all-girl Catholic school, one was an international school, and one was an American school in a country in the Middle East. So I guess I was “socially sorted” every year, sort of.

    Does this really make me (and you) totally confused because we didn’t do the typical high school thing? Or does it make us chameleons that are adaptable to any environment. I kind of like the chameleon idea – changeable, adaptable, interesting, different, slightly exotic…

    How boring it would have been to have been judged and sorted and left there for four long years.

  • Beverly

    I was sorted into the reject bin because nothing I did ever seemed to agree with what the adults in charge considered reasonable conformity. I had too much self-respect, too little respect for authority, and I thought everyone was human regardless of their skin color, mostly because the person I adored most in the world was my half-native American grandfather. None of that really sat well in an all ‘white’ community that was militantly resisting desegregation all the way into the 1980’s. I have found over the years that I fit in fairly well everywhere but at home, so long story longer, the sorting only matters if you let it define you, and I just couldn’t.

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