Title: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School
Author: Alexandra Robbins
Two Sentence Summary: The high school cafeteria can be a scary place, especially for the kids who don’t fit the traditional definition of “normal.” Luckily, high school ends, and when you’re a grown up, quirky can be cool.
One Sentence Review: Robbins’ main thesis isn’t anything especially new, but her in-depth reporting and connections with her subjects make for an engaging read.
Long Review: I’d venture to guess that the high school cafeteria isn’t a place that holds neutral memories for anyone. For kids who were “cool” in high school, the cafeteria was the central social scene, a place where popularity was proven and reestablished each day. For others, the “cafeteria fringe,” the social scene among lunchroom tables was likely fraught with anxiety each day.
As journalist Alexandra Robbins argues in her book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, there’s this intense pressure for young people to feel normal, a pressure that hits students ever single day — and the cafeteria is just the epitome of that tension:
Young people are trying frantically to force themselves into an unbending mold of expectations, convinced that they life in a two-tiered system in which they are either a resounding success of they have already failed. And the more they try to squeeze themselves into that shrinking, allegedly normative space, the faster the walls close in.
In the book Robbins argues a particular theory to explain high school rejection and future success. Although it sounds quite similar to most other “things get better after high school” platitudes, it probably helps to at least offer Robbins’ definition of “quirk theory”:
Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.
In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Robbins’ follows a number of different students through a single year of high school — The Loner, The Popular Bitch, The Nerd, The New Girl, The Gamer, The Weird Girl, and The Band Geek. As the year goes on, Robbins explores how the traits that make these students (and one teacher) outcasts in high school are the same traits that will likely make them admired and successful as adults. The students are universally “good” either — The Popular Bitch is truly horrible when the book begins, The Gamer struggles to do the right thing, The Loner is so anti-social it’s almost painful. These are well-drawn, realistic, honest kids though, and that makes them fun to read about.
The hardest part about reading this book was the way the stories Robbins told about her subjects and their peers brought back many of my worst high school memories. People can be cruel to each other, especially when they’re afraid, and just reading what these kids went through on a daily basis was sad and scary. I was lucky that I had a strong group of nerd friends to shelter me in high school. I’m not sure how I would have fared otherwise.
One interesting part of the book was the way Robbins became involved with her subjects. About midway through the year, she gave each one who was interested a challenge that would force them to step out of their boundaries and address one of the problems they complained of. As I read, I questioned whether this was a good idea or not. On the one hand, Robbins is manipulating the situation she was writing about, changing students in multiple ways.
Yet by the end each of the students seemed happier — they’d tackled some of their own limitations to be more outgoing or comfortable, and their experimentation shook up some of their classmates as well. Everyone ends up better off — at least that’s the way Robbins reports it — and the book is a better read because things are changing… so maybe the involvement is a good thing. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
On the whole though, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth was a fascinating read. I don’t think Robbins’ conclusions or theories about what it means to be a high school outcast are especially novel, but her in-depth reporting in the trenches brings these theories to life more than anything more academic would have been able to. The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth brought me back to high school — in good and bad ways — and is a recommended read for anyone curious to better understand what it’s like to be a high school student today.
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