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Review: ‘The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth’ by Alexandra Robbins

Review: ‘The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth’ by Alexandra Robbins post image

Title: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School
Author: Alexandra Robbins
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

Other Reviews: Reading Thru The Night |

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  • Amy June 28, 2011, 6:06 am

    Great to see your review as I just started the audio of this myself yesterday on the drive back from the office! So far am enjoying it though you are right – ugh, high school memories 😛 heh

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:34 pm

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I think it struggles a little bit near the end, but overall it was a good read for me.

  • Care June 28, 2011, 6:30 am

    Interesting. It also makes me wonder if she plans on coming back to these kids in 10 or 20 years.

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:36 pm

      I would love to read that book — it’d be fascinating.

  • Jenny June 28, 2011, 4:35 pm

    >>>: I’d venture to guess that the high school cafeteria isn’t a place that holds neutral memories for anyone.

    My memories of the high school cafeteria are a hundred percent neutral. Things about high school were unpleasant, but the cafeteria wasn’t one of them. I am zero able to identify with that whole cafeteria misery thing that seems to be such a staple of high school movies — it’s nice to know they’re not just a cliche but are actually related to real life (just not mine).

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:37 pm

      Huh, interesting. I sort of thought the cafeteria anxiety was universal, but I suppose most things are not 🙂 I actually ate lunch in a classroom most of high school, so didn’t have much cafeteria anxiety (except days when I had to eat there, which were terrible!)

  • Ash June 28, 2011, 7:02 pm

    Sounds great! I’m sure it would bring back a few bad memories for me as well but at least I’m not in those school halls anymore! Definitely need to read this.

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:37 pm

      Yeah, it’s easier to read when you’re not in high school. And it brought up good memoirs as well, just a lot of awkward ones!

  • Stephanie June 28, 2011, 7:09 pm

    I definitely want to read this one. I loved Pledged!

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:38 pm

      I haven’t read Pledged, but I have it on my shelves!

  • softdrink June 28, 2011, 7:34 pm

    Out here in CA we didn’t have to worry so much about the cafeteria. Open campus and an outside quad meant that there were plenty of spots to choose from. I think being able to walk (or drive) off campus at lunch really changes the whole dynamics of school, and the influence that cliques can have. While we definitely had cliques, there just wasn’t that much tension between groups. The worst thing we had to worry about was the seagulls pooping on our lunches (or our heads).

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:38 pm

      That’s really nice! We don’t have anything awesome like that in Minnesota… winter, you know 🙂

  • Jeff Rivera June 29, 2011, 12:42 am

    Great review of the book. I think the cafeteria is one of the places where constant tensions between different peer groups occur. it can be the reflection of the whole human society where groups of people would eventually conflict with others due to various differences

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:39 pm

      Yeah, the cafeteria, of it’s hostile, can be a microcosm of different tensions in society. That makes it interesting.

  • Aths June 29, 2011, 10:42 am

    I’ve been fascinated by this one and it sounds fabulous! I haven’t had this much drama in high school – it was pretty smooth sailing with not so many cliques, but then I guess this is a very cultural thing too.

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:39 pm

      I didn’t have much drama either — my friendships kept me out of a lot of things — but I know how scary high school can be.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) June 29, 2011, 7:08 pm

    High school was an improvement on junior high – not great, but better. Like softdrink, we were free to go off-campus during lunch and I think that helped the high school community breathe better. Also, we had a campus that was made up of a bunch of buildings, so we didn’t have that stereotypical hallway walk of terror that is featured in movies and tv shows. That said, it was so refreshing to go to college and easily make a bunch of friends. I’ve been to my ten-year high school reunion and almost everyone seemed so much more grounded and friendly now that we’re grown up. Anyway, sorry for long comment but the topic is definitely one that I think strikes a chord for a lot of us.

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:40 pm

      So true — middle school was awful! We also had a couple buildings, and not much passing time, so the real anxious place was what to do before school started. But we all get passed it 🙂

  • Jennifer June 29, 2011, 8:23 pm

    I went to a private high school and so my high school experience was definitely not typical. There wasn’t a lot of bullying … no fighting in the hallways. Sure, there were some pretty mean stuck up kids, but for the most part, people got along reasonably well. I would say I am lucky to have more positive high school experiences than negative ones.

    However, I’m planning on teaching at a public high school. And I will be starting soon! Sure I remember what it is like to be a teen, but I feel like I might be at a loss for what I am getting myself in to. I’m glad that I will be mostly observing to start but this sounds like it might be a nice companion to my observations in the classroom. As a teacher, I think it is important to be aware of what your students will be experiencing outside the classroom.

    • Kim June 30, 2011, 5:41 pm

      I think this would be a great book for teachers. There is a lot of good information about how to help students dealing with these types of cliques and rejection.

  • Kathleen July 1, 2011, 4:15 pm

    Sounds like a really powerful read. My son is going to be a senior in high school this coming Fall so I’ve had the “privilege” to live through high school twice!

    • Kim July 5, 2011, 8:19 pm

      It was pretty powerful — it’s crazy will do to each other. I’d be curious about what a parent thinks about the book and how their student fits in.