Alexandra Robbins’ Revenge of the Nerds

The Walt Whitman graduate and best-selling author introduces Quirk Theory, and explains why she keeps returning to high school.

Alexandra Robbins knows of plenty of celebrities who suffered in high school: Taylor Swift, ostracized because she liked country music; Lady Gaga, mocked for her eccentricity; J.K. Rowling, bullied because she was a daydreamer.

Robbins says they’re perfect examples of Quirk Theory, a central theme in the former Bethesda resident’s latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School (Hyperion, 2011).

“Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the identical traits or real-world skills that others will admire, value, love, respect or find compelling about that person in adulthood,” says Robbins, 35, whose book examines the nature of popularity and why some kids end up the so-called “cafeteria fringe.”

A graduate of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Robbins has carved a successful career by examining the lives of adolescents, teens and young adults. Her four books have explored such topics as “twentysomethings”; sororities; Skull and Bones, the secret society at Yale; and the lives of eight students at her alma mater, Whitman (chronicled in the 2006 best-seller The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids).

For her latest book, Robbins spent roughly a year following seven “outcasts” from around the country as they navigated their social worlds and tried to remain true to themselves in the face of the rigid conformity that defined their high schools.

They include Whitney, the “popular bitch” from upstate New York who wants to leave her clique; Danielle, an Illinois junior ostracized by her classmates; Mark, a computer “gamer” from Hawaii; Noah, a “band geek” in Pennsylvania; Eli, a “nerd” in Virginia; Joy, a Jamaican transplant facing racism at a California school; and Regan, a “weird girl” we later learn is a high school teacher in Georgia.

Robbins, who began her first book while working in the Washington bureau of The New Yorker, now writes full time—when she’s not lecturing, appearing on 60 Minutes, or responding to fans online. Robbins spoke with us by phone from her Washington, D.C., home about her passion for writing about young people, her latest cast of characters and the thinking behind Quirk Theory.


How did you see yourself in high school?

In school, I would have said I was a floater. At Whitman, I had friends in lots of different groups, but I didn’t want to be close friends with anyone in one group. In that way I was a floater. Whitman does a pretty excellent job of making kids in different groups feel valued.  Whitman always seemed to do a pretty good job of avoiding the pitfalls other schools get into. I was dorky in high school and I’m dorky
now, and I’m really proud of being a dork.

Why the focus on adolescents and teens in your books?

I love talking to students. I don’t have the patience or discipline to be a teacher. This is a way to get to work with kids.

How did you decide to write about social outcasts?

So many students [that I talked to while researching and lecturing] thought something was wrong with them. They almost apologized about their social status when talking to me. Meanwhile, those are the kids that I was drawn to. It was horrifying that they thought it was something horrible because they were not in the elite popular clique.

Have things gotten worse for social outcasts since you were in high school?

The social landscape has hit a tipping point in terms of how vicious things have become. Schools traditionally have taken the wrong approach by trying to fix the bullying issue case by case. The biggest thing they have to change if they want to reduce clique warfare is the way they continuously are ordering the social hierarchy. Schools are unaware that they send messages that some students are to be elevated, like making the band practice in the parking lot so they don’t scuff up the football field.

Even administrators with the best intentions can contribute to students’ perceptions that some kids should be elevated while others should be ignored. Schools might issue a no-homework night for the boys’ basketball championships so that students are free to attend the game—but then don’t offer the same privilege for the girls’ soccer or math team championships.

Haven’t there always been students who don’t fit in?

While that’s probably always been the case, schools are more conforming than they used to be, thanks to No Child Left Behind and the ridiculous emphasis on standardized tests. Kids pick up on that. Many students are excluded in schools over differences, and yet those same differences make them awesome adults.

You write that teachers play a big role in creating and maintaining a school’s social hierarchy.

Schools pay thousands of dollars for programs [to teach students about accepting others], and the teachers themselves have clique issues. With names! Many teachers told me that it’s the veterans who form this clique environment. They pit themselves against younger teachers. One teacher clique calls itself Teachers Against Dumbasses (TADA).

Teachers and students told me that educators give popular kids preferential treatment. They give them more awards, let them get away with things, are more likely to write them passes, schmooze and joke around with them more.

I think that when certain adults go back into a school setting, they regress into school-kid attitudes. That’s why Quirk Theory [says] that the students [who are outcasts] have traits that will be admired in adulthood and outside school. That’s important.

How did you select the students you profiled for this book?

I found the “main characters” in various ways. I first interviewed hundreds of students and then I selected the ones whom I felt would have fascinating stories and also represent a diverse cross-section of high school life. Some of them had e-mailed me after reading The Overachievers. I wanted to find students who represented different aspects of social life in school. I wanted everyone who reads the book to find one facet [of a character] that they could relate to. They had to be likable and relatable people. And I love them. I hope we can all be lifelong friends.

What did your characters think about Quirk Theory?

I didn’t tell them about the theory. I didn’t want them to skew their stories by making them think they had to prove themselves.

Two of your seven characters are gay. Did you set out to focus on the social issues that gays face?

I knew about Regan [the teacher] from the beginning. I did not know about Mark [the gamer]. I don’t think we started talking about that for a few months. It wasn’t my intention to make it a focus. I thought it was important to get the message across in light of the recent  suicides of students who were harassed because they were gay or because people thought they were.

You issue a personal challenge to each student to try to alter others’ perceptions of them without changing who they truly are. And all except Eli succeed to some extent. Why did you decide to get involved?

They were so unhappy with their social lives at school. I wanted to see if something could be done to change the way people perceived them. I designed the challenges midway through the year. Because of the student personality, I figured they’d be more likely to make an effort if there was some sort of validation of doing so. Whitney [the popular girl who leaves her clique] could have tried this any number of times, but it wasn’t until there was an official challenge [that she did so].

How did you follow the students?

If I had been at the students’ sides during the school day, I would have interfered with the lives I was trying to chronicle and with their challenges. They couldn’t tell anyone about their challenges. The purpose was to change their behavior at school.

We e-mailed each other. Some kids would text me from school to tell me what was happening. In some cases I fact-checked with other people. I tried to represent the students’ voices. I feel that the parents’ voices are often represented in nonfiction. I tried to focus on the students’ perspectives.

How has technology influenced the evolution of popularity?

I call Facebook the online cafeteria. It essentially serves the same purpose both positively and negatively. On the Internet, you can be who you want to be. For students who are figuring out their identity, the Internet is a tool. The negative thing about the online cafeteria is that it makes many students feel like they have to be their own publicist all the time. It really adds pressure.

Are there more labels used by students than there used to be?

There definitely are more labels—floaters, emos, indies, scenes, rockers, Twihards [a reference to the Twilight series] and prostitots [younger, sexually active kids], among others. What’s most disturbing about the use of labels is that there are so many that classify people as outside of the mainstream. It convinces students that they’re either a success or a failure. It’s disturbing because labeling is shifting from what a student does to how a student feels [“emo,” as in overly emotional]. That’s scary. That means students are deciding how other students should feel.

Regan, the young teacher, has issues with her role as an authority figure, becoming too familiar with students by talking about her personal life and selling a CD made by her girlfriend’s band in school. Did you feel a need to advise her or any of the other characters?

I didn’t gloss over that. She clearly made some mistakes. I wasn’t glossing over anything. I wanted to show them, warts and all.

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, among other publications.

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