Friday, May 27, 2016

Cliques, Outsiders, and Ways of Excluding the "Undesirbles" Even After High School; BYU Implications

This isn't Jillian, but it might have been for all her social interaction at BYU.

I doubt that any of us completely dodged the cliquish behavior that existed as early as kindergarten but sprang into full bloom in middle school, and by high school took on a life of its own.  From what I could tell, it existed in the boys' world as well, though it was more of a jock or wealth or "bad boys" empire, and except for the relative minority who were truly picked on.  (Bless those who truly were victimized,  and may their tormentors one day discover just how is is to be on the other end of it.) I'm not referring for the most part to true bullying here. We know bullying existed from before the time of Jesus and continues to thrive in some arenas, but I feel that we cheapen or otherwise inflate the meaning of the word if we describe it as bullying each time a person looks in an unkind way at another or spouts the most benign of insults. There was and still is bullying, but, more commonly, the caste system is alive and well in virtually every high school in the U.S., despite what teachers and administrators may choose to believe.

i was among the lucky few. I attended a high school where academics were considered important by most of the student body. This in itself caused me more than a few headaches when I took  senior AP classes as a freshmen; the seniors were less than thrilled about the idea of competing for grades with a freshman who looked more like a sixth-grader. Still, no one in the classes poked fun at me for achieving high scores on tests and papers. They simply would have preferred that I take my high scores back to the freshman classes they felt I should have been enrolled in the first place.

My high school had a bit of the reverse of the typical high school caste system. Good looks will be smiled upon in most settings, but the classic beautiful but brainless male or female was derided at my school much as the classic geek might have been at a more typical school. Excluding the intellectually impaired probably wasn't any more right than picking on a kid who dressed funny, but there was at least the rationale that in a student body with a mean IQ of 130, it was difficult for the average student to find sufficient common ground with the beautiful dimwits, sometimes more lacking in common sense than in actual gray matter, though among those I knew falling under the description, there seemed to be a dearth both of  academic prowess and of the native variety of intelligence that allows most of us to find our respective ways out of paper bags without the necessity of anyone guiding us.

My high school had its cliques, but each clique probably considered itself the most important clique, so there wasn't  a great deal of clamoring for inclusion into any one group or heartache when exclusion occurred.  I loath to dwell on this topic because it does not define who I was at the time it happened or who I am now, but I was assaulted once at school. That wasn't the action of a clique, though. It was a very poor collective choice on the part of three individuals and of a fourth who chose to involve himself in a act intended to intimidate me and/or my family after the fact. I suppose I could even call it bullying, but it wasn't; it was assault. I'll leave it at that.

Most people in high schools across the country experienced more of the tiers of cliques, with many students secretly wishing to ascend to the mutually-agreed-upon upper echelon clique, and others being unceremoniously toppled from their tops spots. Meanness was a bit more rampant under such settings. I hesitate to use the term "mean girls" (while I loved Tina Fey's movie of the same title) because my understanding is that some of those for whom it fits wear it as a badge of honor. I'd rather refer to them as sociopaths-in-training and hope that most of them miraculously snap out of it before bona fide adulthood hits them.

One thing I found funny about cliques beyond high school is that the queen bees and big men on campus moved on to universities expecting their status to continue. What many of them learned, usually the hard way, was that no one really cared much about that sort of thing at the university level. A few like-minded snobs found each other and joined fraternities and sororities, but for every un-pledged university student  derided by a frat or sorority member, there were probably two Greek system people mocked for their perceived senses of self-importance by the general population.

I wrote in an earlier blog of my experience in an undergrad class where I was told by a sorority member on the first day a class met that I could not sis in a particular seat because it was reserved for a Delta Gamma.  When the professor entered, a male student unaffiliated with the Greek system asked the professor if it was correct that certain seats were reserved for members of fraternities or sororities. The professor's face turned red. He then announced that we would sit in assigned seats, designated alphabetically, for the entire quarter. Universities are great places to find one's own community of like-minded individuals, or at least those with enough in common to socialize. For the most part, those who reigned in the cliques of high school soon found their former social systems to be obsolete. Note: this was my experience at a liberal University of California campus. Had I attended Amherst, I might have found the clique systems of high school to be thriving at the university level. I've heard the same spoken of BYU, although the criteria on which clique inclusion is based would probably be considered very different than at  a more upper-crust east coast or even southern school.

Where does this leave us now, with most of us being beyond undergraduate education, and many of us being well past the strictures of academia in general? Did everyone miraculously grow past the need for a caste system in which we would attempt to climb or claw our way to the top? My observations have led me to believe otherwise.

Note: If religion bores you, skip the next three paragraphs.

For many, the need for social upward mobility is found in the very last place it should be found, which is in church.  In my own Catholic parish, most of us show up to mass, greet a few people, and then leave. Most of us are not impacted by cliques. This becomes less true if one's children attend a parish's local school, where social hierarchy rears its ugly head in such a way as to make high school cliquism seem friendly by comparison. There are also the various Catholic societies in which members vie for leadership positions. It really comes to a head when the Catholic parish sponsors queens and their courts for particular festivals -- usually ethnic in nature. The politicking that goes on to have one's daughter named Queen of the Festa makes anything Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump has said or done appear civilized by comparison.

I highlighted Catholicism because that is what I know. Similarly, i understand the LDS structure. In the LDS system, there is a clear line of ecclesiastical authority. A man who used to be just your annoying next door neighbor who habitually left his trash cans in your driveway not just on trash pick-up day but for the following two days may suddenly become your bishop -- the man who holds the keys to your temple recommend and right to attend your offspring's temple marriage ceremony, who assigns "callings" or jobs, and who wields entirely too much power over you. The positive side of this is that what goes around often comes around. You or one of your best buds may become HIS bishop five years later. This is Karma in its purest form. The women of Mormondom have their cliques as well. High family income combined with outward appearance of adherence to church doctrine usually elevates a woman and her cronies to the upper echelons of Mormon cliquedom.  There are official positions denoting power and prestige as well. Auxiliary leaders (Primary, Young Women's, and Relief Society Presidents) are granted high status just by virtue of the positions they hold; by osmosis, their close friends, who are usually their official "counselors," also fall into these esteemed cliques. If a woman's position rises beyond the local ward or congregation level to the stake [similar to diocesan] level, her stature goes up like stock with insider-trading value  An unofficial but very real leader of LDS Female Cliquedom is the wife of the bishop. Depending upon the dynamics of her relationship with her husband and the forcefulness of her personality, she may be merely an adjunct clique leader, or she very well may be running the entire ward from behind the carefully tatted curtain. Whatever you do, do not underestimate her power.

I don't mean to leave the Presbyterians, Baptists, Jews, or anyone else out of this discussion,  but I know so little about them that it would seem futile for me to comment. Suffice it to say that most likely they operate in cliques in their churches as well.

But what of the more than 50% of the U.S. who no longer actively participate in organized religion, not all of whom, if statistics are to be believe, have grown beyond the need to assert their superiority through the pervasiveness of cliques? Some hold leadership positions in the PTA or the Garden Club. Some join Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs under the guise of serving their communities, but really just engage in puffed-chest versions of jousting for power.  Some sign on with PETA. A few are even in the Flat Earth Society. 

I'm convinced, however, that the single greatest source of displace cliquish aggression, particularly among young females who haven't totally outgrown their sociopath-in-training ways, can be found in the blogs around us. If you doubt the veracity of my words, pick a random blog - particularly one authored by a mommy (I shall refrain from singling out Mormon mothers here, though if the shoe fits, wear it,  Betty BYU!) Look at the adorable pictures of her offspring that the author has posted. Read the words of the blog, which may range from sincere desire for self-improvement to "see just how wonderful my perfect family is." Leave a comment. Word your comment carefully to let the blog author know that you are an admirer from a distance who has no desire whatsoever to look the author or her family up in real life and stalk them. Compliment her, share common ground. do all of this in just a few short sentences.

Then watch the troops rally 'round the wagons. Do not expect your comment to be acknowledged even to the extent of being asked not to read or respond there again. If the blogger herself does not go private, chances are that some of her friends and regular commenters will do so with their blogs even if you've said nothing that alluded to them in any way.  Keep in mind that you did not suggest that you knew this person in a past life. You didn't make personal comments about her body parts. You didn't offer unsolicited advice. Still, you've become a pariah. You have invaded the invisible boundaries of a clique without a proper invitation.

My Aunt Jillian, who was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, attended BYU for her undergrad years on a student-athlete scholarship, then attended the affiliated law school because she  had remaining scholarship money that could be used only at a BYU-affiliated institution. Her undergrad majors were combined English and mathematics, but she picked up a multiple subject teaching credential along the way. Because of the number of Advanced Placement classes she completed in high school, she had space to complete a double major along with an unrelated credential prior to graduating.  She had a few friends with whom to socialize among her teammates, and even in the math department, where being a Molly Mormon was not quite the norm. Once she met her future husband, she had a ready-made social life, so being an outcaste in the English and elementary education departments wasn't as painful as it otherwise might have been. In the elementary education department, she felt that she stood out like a gangrenous thumb. She was Cuban-American, raven-haired, and olive-skinned . Nearly everyone else was some shade of blonde even if not naturally so, and those who weren't blonde sported fair skin. She found herself frequently slurred as a  "Lamanite" -- a reference she didn't understand until her first semester of Book of Mormon class. (What was meant was that she supposedly descended from the evil brothers in the Book of Mormon -- who were cursed with dark skin through their own iniquity.  She was Catholic, and while she didn't wear her religious medals to class or carry around her rosary, her Catholicism served to further distance her from the predominantly LDS student body. She said she never felt that she had anything resembling a friend in the entire elementary education department, though there was a particular young woman who spoke kindly to her at those times when she would be sitting alone while others chatted before classes or seminars began.

Aunt Jillian randomly came across this woman's blog not too long ago. My aunt reintroduced herself, expressed appreciation for the kindness the other woman had extended back at BYU, and shared a bit of commonality in the current lives as experienced by the two of them. The other lady had twins. My aunt was just about to give birth to her second baby who would be less than nine months younger than her first-- not proper twins, but sometimes referred to as "Irish twins."  The other lady never responded. It's conceivable that the blogger had no memory of my aunt. If such were the case, a polite, "I'm sorry that I don't remember you, but I thank you for your kind words" would have more than sufficed. I of all people understand the importance of not leading on a potential stalker, but my aunt seemed hardly to fit the stalker prototype.

A year later, my aunt left another comment, thinking perhaps she had caught the lady on a bad day before, this time on Instagram. Her response validated something the woman had complained about, and the comment highlighted how adorable the lady's twins were. This was the comment that caused the lady's "friends," some of whom are "friends" on the Internet only and had never met the woman, to surround her with comments to her and each other, clearly blocking my aunt out of the conversation. My ant is a shy person. One wouldn't think an attorney would be reticent, but sometimes people are very good at compartmentalizing their lives. She says and does what is needed in the courtroom (or did, at least, before she was home with her babies),but in her personal life, she doesn't stand up for herself and seldom makes an issue of anything. 

An ironic aspect to this is that the blogger had recently posted about a message from a member of her high school graduating class who was reluctant to attend the class's ten-year reunion because he had felt ostracized and bullied while a high school student. The woman expressed a great deal of remorse for not have noticed that this young man had been bullied and for not in some way standing up for him. She wondered how she could raise her own children to do the right thing and to stand up for the one who was being mistreated. I would suggest to her that a good start would be not to treat my aunt as though she is a non-person even if she doesn't have the all-important LDS asterisk after her name.

My aunt will probably never again donate cent to any of BYU's annual fundraising drives. She'll likely never contact another person she knew at BYU.
I may have been assaulted, but I was actually the more fortunate of the two of us. I sustained bruises and a re-fractured bone, among other injuries too delicate to mention in this forum. I have a a scar or two to remind, me, but I can and have moved on. It's a bit harder to move on from being ostracized when one is thousands of miles from home and family, and the cliquishness continues even years after the fact when one makes an overture toward very casual friendship.

Right. We totally swallow this.

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