In cycling and other team sports, the tribe bands together for a mutually beneficial effect. But the school tribes of lockers and staplers, of hallways and paper clips are different. Presumably, school is a place for academics, in which kids drive themselves (or not) to succeed, and as a teacher, I grade and, sad to say, "rank" kids by their performance. But there is a second school within each school -- a school of cool, with classes on social standing, and bookshelves with thousands of pages of "like." Kids are cued to this at a very young age and are driven to achieve (or perhaps rebel against) social rank. Robert Wright writes that the pursuit of social status is a zero-sum game. Not every kid can claim cool or popular. And to capture such a title is to take it from another. To this end, kids jockey for social order, and the means to do so can be, well, just mean. And this is the flip-side of the interdependent tribe: the individual who bands with others and by any means necessary, captures the flag of cool and medal of power. When bad boys and mean girls plan and plot, this initial, individual urge of self-interest is magnified exponentially: the end, social slaughter for the victims and social currency to the victor.
I once tutored a bright, young Park Avenue girl. The mother felt ambivalent about the tony girls' school her daughter attended and confided to me that her 8th-grade daughter was caught in a complex web of social politics. 8th grade, mind you. So I sat with this clever, quick girl and asked her about her courses and interests. At one point, she turned to me and made the following admission:
When I first get to school on Monday, I meet with my friends for coffee in the cafeteria. Each Monday. Early. Other girls are there as well. Each of us finds out from the others just what happened during the weekend, and then my friends and I meet and discuss just how we can use this information to our advantage.
I was speechless.
Her mother, a very good parent, pulled her out of that girls' school and enrolled her into an experimental school downtown. Her daughter balked, "The kids are sort of weird - really creative. I don't know if I'll fit in." I thought, sure, those kids are "weird," if we understand weird to be kind and silly and gifted and strange -- a tribe to redesign a brave, gentle world. In this new world, she would be far, far away from the coffee-clutch of hounds fighting over the same boney-bit of gossip.
So when my students tell me that middle school or high school is hell, I no longer doubt them.
In this tale, a mother saved her girl from the fashionable trend of becoming cruel. But other kids don't have anyone looking out for them. Some are raised on entitlement and conformity and secure their power by taking out anyone who might upset the order. They fight for power and the status quo; and it's not always a fair fight.
When I began to write this entry, I was 54 miles away from The Cranbrook School, the Michigan prep school Mitt Romney attended in 1965. Cranbrook was the site of his "hijinks and pranks." Upon his return to school, Romney took note of a new student, John Lauber, who had bleached his hair blond and cut it to fall over one eye asymetrically. One of Romney's friends recalls the future republican front-runner commenting, "He can't look like that. That is wrong." Soon thereafter, Romney huddled together 5 friends to pursue, tackle, pin to Lauber to the ground, as Romney, scissors in hand, sheared Lauber's hair. These five men, a judge and a lawyer among others, each regretted the incident separately. But Romney, the pack leader, told a different tale. At first, he denied the incident, and then, after media pressure I suspect, he offered a vague, generalized apology.
But none of this would fly today. My hope is that teachers would see it, hear about it, and question it. My hope is that other students would report it. My hope is that a parent would intervene. My hope is that those boys would be punished, regretful, and reformed.
It is said of John Lauber that he never reported this incident to his family. Of course, he didn't. And it is said that he continued throughout his life to bleach his hair that same blond. I guess he knew it looked "right."