Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Junior High Eco-System

It is harsh and ironic justice that many junior high boys grow up to be fathers of junior high girls. What we didn’t notice or understand in our early teens comes back to demand our full and constant attention, without offering any hope that our advice or responses will be useful, or even desired. As men, we are only marginally more equipped to deal with the problems of junior high girls than we were as boys. Nonetheless, my daughter has been able to teach me some very basic concepts about the junior high eco-system, even if she does so indirectly, and without intending to.

Like most junior high boys, I was blessedly oblivious to the complications of social interaction. Dominance for boys is determined by physical prowess, or sometimes by the willingness to do gross things in front of others. If someone offends you, you have a fight, and then afterward you are as likely to be good friends as bitter enemies. There may be a cruel simplicity to it, but if you want to improve your social standing, there is at least a clear, intelligible path for making it happen.

While the boys are hitting each other over the head with blunt objects, junior high girls spend their time sharpening their many daggers. Unlike boys, they don't parade them around to let everyone know how big and powerful they are. They keep them politely hidden, while making sure they are easily accessible, and then lie in wait. They need not use them often, but when they do, they are efficient and merciless. Fear rules all, and there is no such thing as a permanent friend or a temporary enemy.

Fashion, rumors and music-icon tastes are the methods of domination. Girls seem more committed to pack-like behavior at this age, with the alpha-girl’s social importance much more pronounced than in boy-packs. Occasionally, a stray is caught, bound, and gagged, to increase the size of the pack and offer more protection to its members. Moving from one pack to another is dangerous, as one must gain the protection of another pack before the original pack’s protection is withdrawn. Another danger is that changing packs creates a radioactive decay of undesirability, and each subsequent move decreases the likelihood that any other pack will accept you.

Shunning also seems to be a key part of the eco-system. Each pack seems to require at least one member be shunned on any given day. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but packs seem unable to survive without it.

The method of shunning appears to be logic problems. An example is below:

  • A and B are very good friends.
  • A tells B that C is not a very good friend.
  • B decides not to talk to C in class one day.
  • C asks B why she is not talking to her.
  • B tells her that people told her she is not a good friend.
  • C asks who told her that.
  • B doesn’t want to say.
  • C insists it is only fair that she has a right to know.
  • So, B tells C it was A.
  • C confronts A and says that B said that A was spreading rumors about her.
  • Now C is mad at A for “spreading rumors” and mad at B for believing them.
  • A is also mad at B for telling C that A told B that C was not a good friend.

Question: Who is wrong and should be shunned by A and B’s pack, and how many phone calls and hours of discussion will it take before the shunned person is allowed full-member privileges again?

Bonus Moral: Being suspicious that someone is not a good friend is all it takes for everyone to be a bad friend with everyone else.

This sample logic problem is one week’s worth of drama, and is pretty straightforward. The answer is that it takes hundreds of phones calls and 14 hours per day to sort out who should still be mad at whom. In the end, it is the person with the lower current status who is wrong and should be shunned. She will remain shunned until someone else messes up in a subsequent week’s logic problem, and then her status will move up one hard-earned notch.

Beyond all the physical body changes that happen to everyone at this age, I am convinced there is also some kind of virus that attacks only the higher-functioning members of the species, which is why girls have an especially hard time with it. I plan to learn more about this Junior High Girl Syndrome in the coming years, but I suspect its subtleties might continue to elude me. Nonetheless, I am trying to accept my penance for being a junior high boy without too much complaint, and hope to finish my sentence in 5 or 6 years, when my youngest daughter reaches the middle of high school (JHG syndrome is not actually limited to Junior High – it can stretch well into high school for the persistent cases).

Luckily, JHG Syndrome has not totally corrupted my daughter yet. She’s more volatile than ever before and prone to a lot of yelling and crying (much of it understandable and necessary). But underneath it, she still shows signs of being the sweet and giving person she has always been. I hope her recovery is swift, painless, and non-lethal.


John said...

I never associated middle-school girls and k-maps before, for which I have to consider myself fortunate.

Tim said...

It sounds like these "bad friend" accusations are kind of like the "communist" tags used during the McCarthy era.

Thank God I don't live in that ecosystem. Instead, I prefer the adult Larry David-esque world of constant worry and anxiety over who I've offended now.

Brownie said...

Which leads me to the question: Since I am neither a girl, nor in junior high, why should any of this concern me?

Answer: It just plain don't.

But I did get a few good laughs.

dw said...

It should concern us because, sadly, too many social circumstances function the same silly way--offices, schools, churches, and, certainly, on-line discussion forums.