The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

by Alexandra Robbins
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

by Alexandra Robbins


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These intertwining narratives "beautifully demonstrate . . . that the people who are excluded and bullied for their offbeat passions and refusal to conform are often the ones who are embraced and lauded for those very qualities in college and beyond" (The New York Times).

In a smart, entertaining, reassuring book that reads like fiction, Alexandra Robbins manages to cross Gossip Girl with Freaks and Geeks and explain the fascinating psychology and science behind popularity and outcasthood. She reveals that the things that set students apart in high school are the things that help them stand out later in life.

Robbins follows seven real people grappling with the uncertainties of high school social life, including:

The Loner, who has withdrawn from classmates since they persuaded her to unwittingly join her own hate club

The Popular Bitch, a cheerleading captain both seduced by and trapped within her clique's perceived prestige

The Nerd, whose differences cause students to laugh at him and his mother to needle him for not being "normal"

The New Girl, determined to stay positive as classmates harass her for her mannerisms and target her because of her race

The Gamer, an underachiever in danger of not graduating, despite his intellect and his yearning to connect with other students

The Weird Girl, who battles discrimination and gossipy politics in school but leads a joyous life outside of it

The Band Geek, who is alternately branded too serious and too emo, yet annually runs for class president

In the middle of the year, Robbins surprises her subjects with a secret challenge — experiments that force them to change how classmates see them.

Robbins intertwines these narratives — often triumphant, occasionally heartbreaking, and always captivating — with essays exploring subjects like the secrets of popularity, being excluded doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, why outsiders succeed, how schools make the social scene worse — and how to fix it.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is not just essential reading for students, teachers, parents, and anyone who deals with teenagers, but for all of us, because at some point in our lives we've all been on the outside looking in.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781401310776
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 01/17/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 592,231
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.16(d)
Age Range: 18 - 12 Years

About the Author

Alexandra Robbins, winner of the prestigious 2014 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Pledged and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. She has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Times, and other publications, and has appeared on numerous television shows from 60 Minutes to The Colbert Report.

Read an Excerpt

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

By Alexandra Robbins


Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Robbins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-0202-3

Chapter One


Danielle, Illinois | The Loner

When the bell rang, Danielle slowly gathered her books as the rest of her class scrambled out of the room. She reluctantly made her way into the hall, slinging her green messenger bag—backpacks were too commonplace—over her shoulder.

The hallway was already beginning to empty as people disappeared into classrooms. Students didn't acknowledge Danielle and she didn't acknowledge them. She walked with her head down, slouching her five foot ten frame, her dark, shoulder-length hair shielding her face.

Stone Mill High, a large public school in a middle-class, racially diverse Chicago suburb, had a small cafeteria, which was why its two thousand—plus students were divided into four lunch periods. Usually juniors were allowed to leave the building during lunch, but not on the first day of school. Tomorrow, and probably during the rest of the year, Danielle would avoid the cafeteria altogether.

Danielle wandered the halls for as long as she could, stopping to take a long drink from the water fountain and to pick up a form in the main office. Then she tried to walk nonchalantly past the cafeteria's floor-to-ceiling glass wall, as if she just happened to be passing by. She could see students arranged predictably throughout the room. In front of the window sat the lucky students who had sprinted to the cafeteria to grab the small tables so they wouldn't have to sit at larger ones with students outside of their social circles. Behind them, underclassmen sat in rows of long tables. Goths, emos, and scene kids flanked the left side of the room, closest to the lunch detention area. Preppy popular students claimed the far corner of the cafeteria.

She scanned the room, searching ideally for any acquaintance at the end of a row whom she could join without intruding in the middle of a group. She couldn't find a single person she liked. On the bright side, she also didn't see Tabitha, the person she liked least at school, who would have been sitting among the preps.

The cafeteria had not been kind to Danielle in the past. She didn't think much anymore about the flick flick of projectile Skittles that a handful of "friends" pelted at her after they ousted her from their lunch table in sixth grade. She was still haunted by seventh grade, however. Until that year, Danielle had dressed like the tomboy she was. In seventh grade, she decided to start shopping at the stores other girls chattered about—Hollister, American Eagle—in order to fit in.

Her strategy didn't work. Classmates grew even more hostile toward her. Former friends started a note fight. One girl wrote a message so painful that when Danielle's mother came home from work that day, Danielle was uncharacteristically curled up in a fetal position on her bed. The school summoned the girls' mothers to meetings, and when administrators saw the notes that Danielle had written in retaliation, they penalized both girls by barring them from the middle school honor society.

Meanwhile, half of Danielle's class had joined the "I Hate Dominoes Club," which people discussed in front of her. In a last-ditch effort to conform to the crowd, Danielle let students in her gym class persuade her to join the club too. Only a few moments later, she discovered that "Dominoes" was a pseudonym (she never found out why). The club's real name was the "I Hate Danielle Club." Danielle had joined her own hate club. Her classmates thought this was hilarious. When Danielle underwent dermatological surgery later that semester, the club leader said she hoped Danielle would die from the anesthesia.

On the last day of school, Tabitha, Danielle's supposedly closest friend, passed her a note that said she didn't want to be friends anymore. Danielle told Tabitha it was dumb to end their friendship just because rejecting Danielle was the cool thing to do. That weekend, a group of girls called her from a party to which she hadn't been invited. They crowded around the speakerphone, telling her to stop "threatening" Tabitha. Danielle never forgave her.

Danielle hated reflecting on that year, but not because of the cruelty. She was most chagrined now because she had "joined the group, unaware that it was my own hate club, because I thought that since everyone else was joining, I should too. I wish I hadn't been so stupid in thinking that I needed other people's approval, even when I didn't even like most of them."

Because of that incident, Danielle withdrew, unwilling to trust anyone at school. She stopped talking to most people her age. Outside of school, for the next few years, she hung out only with four other girls: Mona, Paige, Camille, and Nikki, none of whom had many friends besides each other. Danielle liked these girls about 50 percent of the time; they could be funny and they usually got along. But they tended to neglect her such that Danielle often felt like an outcast even within her own tiny group. She stuck with them because they had been friends since kindergarten, even if the only thing they had in common was their past.

Danielle had other acquaintances, but they were "just school friends," because "I don't know how to ask them to hang out, and I suck at doing one-on-one things with people I've never hung out with before," she said.

Danielle turned away from the cafeteria window and meandered down another hallway, attempting to quash her anxiety. If I don't find someone I know, I'm going to end up standing alone at the front of the cafeteria. She hid in the bathroom for a few minutes, washing her hands to kill time, then waited by the sink until she decided to go to the library. On the way, Danielle bumped into Paige's freshman sister and followed her back to the lunchroom. They sat at the last of the underclassman tables at the far right side of the room.

That was how Danielle found herself spending the first lunch period of her junior year sitting silently among a bunch of freshmen she didn't know and, with the exception of her friend's sister, didn't especially like. She left early to spend the rest of the forty-minute lunch in the snaking line of people waiting to see the guidance counselors to change their schedules. It was going to be another long year.

* * *


CAFETERIA FRINGE: People who are not part of or who are excluded from a school's or society's in crowd.

What could motivate kids to be so heart-crushingly cruel that they convince a girl to join her own hate club? In the decade I've spent examining various microcosms of life in U.S. schools—from the multitude of students pressured to succeed in school and sports to the twentysomething products of this educational Rube Goldberg machine—a disturbing pattern has emerged. Young people are trying frantically to force themselves into an unbending mold of expectations, convinced that they live in a two-tiered system in which they are either a resounding success or they have already failed. And the more they try to squeeze themselves into that shrinking, allegedly normative space, the faster the walls close in.

The students outside these walls are the kids who typically are not considered part of the in crowd, the ones who are excluded, blatantly or subtly, from the premier table in the lunchroom. I refer to them as "cafeteria fringe." Whether alone or in groups, these geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities are often relegated to subordinate social status simply because they are, or seem to be, even the slightest bit different.

Students alone did not create these boundaries. The No Child Left Behind law, a disproportionate emphasis on SATs, APs, and other standardized tests, and a suffocating homogenization of the U.S. education system have all contributed to a rabidly conformist atmosphere that stifles unique people, ideas, and expression. The methods that schools and government officials claimed would improve America's "progress" are the same methods that hold back the students who are most likely to further that progress.

In precisely the years that we should be embracing differences among students, urging them to pursue their divergent interests at full throttle, we're instead forcing them into a skyline of sameness, muffling their voices, grounding their dreams. The result? As a Midwestern senior told me for my book The Overachievers, high schoolers view life as "a conveyor belt," making monotonous scheduled stops at high school, college, graduate school, and a series of jobs until death. Middle schools in North America have been called "the Bermuda triangle of education." Only 22 percent of U.S. youth socialize with people of another race. U.S. students have some of the highest rates of emotional problems and the most negative views of peer culture among countries surveyed by the World Health Organization.

Too many students are losing hope because of exclusion or bullying that they believe they're doomed to experience for the rest of their lives. It is unacceptable that the system we rely on to develop children into well-adjusted, learned, cultured adults allows drones to dominate and increasingly devalues freethinkers. In 1957, theologian Paul Tillich told a graduating university class, "We hope for nonconformists among you, for your sake, for the sake of the nation, for the sake of humanity." More than half a century later, schools, students, and sometimes parents treat these nonconformists like second-class citizens, squelching that hope. There is too much pressure on children to conform to a narrowing in-crowd image, when we should be nurturing the outsiders who reject that image. In large part, those are the individuals who will turn out to be the kinds of interesting, admired, and inspiring adults who earn respect and attention for their impact on their community or the world.

Or even the celebrisphere. Author J. K. Rowling, who has described herself as "a squat, bespectacled child who lived mostly in books and daydreams," was bullied in school because she was different. Her heroic wizards and witches, who have entranced millions of readers worldwide, "are plainly outcasts and comfortable with being so," she has said. "Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit!"

Musician Bruce Springsteen was so unpopular in high school that, "other people didn't even know I was there," he has said. He started a band because "I was on the outside looking in."

Television host Tim Gunn, who identified himself as "a classic nerd" in school, was "crazy about making things: I was addicted to my Lincoln Logs, Erector Set, and especially my Legos," he has said. "Between my stutter and my fetishizing of Lego textures, I was taunted and teased." Now Gunn is a fashion world icon precisely because of his eye toward "making things"—and his catchphrase, "Make it work," has become famous.

All of these people exemplify what I call quirk theory.

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.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren't really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn't necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He's just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can't play basketball. She's a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To investigate the cause and consequence of the gut-wrenching social landscape that characterizes too many schools, I followed seven "main characters"—real people—for a year and interviewed hundreds of other students, teachers, and counselors individually and in groups. I talked with students from public schools, private schools, technical schools, schools for the arts, boarding schools, college prep academies, inner city schools, small rural schools, and suburban schools. They have more in common than they know.

While for previous books, I acted merely as an observer, narrating stories as they happened, with this book I crossed a line. In the middle of the school year, I surprised my main characters by issuing them a challenge that dared them to step outside of their comfort zone. If successful, I hoped these experiments could bring them closer to the school experience they genuinely wanted.

To understand why the cafeteria fringe will be much better off after leaving the school setting, it helps to know how they become outcasts in the first place. Throughout the following chapters, I explain in what I hope is entertaining prose the psychology and science behind questions such as: "Why are popular people mean?", "Why is seventh grade the worst?", "Why are outsiders better off after school?", "Why do social labels stick?", "Why can't groups get along?", "Is popularity worth it?", and "How can we improve the school experience?" To explain these student group dynamics, I spoke to experts and reviewed hundreds of articles and books on psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other sciences. Much of what I learned was unexpected.

Slip with me a few tiers down below the in crowd—below the cliques that include people who say, as one popular girl told me, "I'm not friends with losers"—into a world of students who are overlooked, disparaged, or completely dismissed. Descend to the plane where beneath the gridded, rigid hallways of robotic social hierarchy runs a parallel labyrinth humming with a current of new ideas, alternative philosophies, and refreshing points of view. Here is where you'll find the people who are brave enough to be true to themselves, where you'll encounter the interesting and innovative minds that eventually will drive the engines of creativity and progress. Peer behind their labels. Immerse yourself in these forgotten corridors to meet the denizens known as the cafeteria fringe.

Mark Laurent (Blue), Hawaii | The Gamer

Mark, better known among students as Blue, was hanging out with his usual friends at the arcade, their typical after-school activity. Well, "hanging out with" wasn't exactly accurate. While the rest of the guys huddled around Street Fighter, Tekken, and Battle Gear (for which Blue held the machine record), Blue was absorbed in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. The others made fun of Blue for playing Tatsunoko, calling it a "button masher" because it involved only four buttons and a joystick. Blue was one of the few people he knew who could "see the beauty in the game." The skill in Tatsunoko was to know when, where, and how to attack your opponent. Choosing combo breaks took precision, rhythm, and imagination. Gaming was an art, really; at least some games were. It just didn't look that way from the outside.

That was one of the reasons why last year, as a junior, Blue founded Arwing, Kaloke High School's first gaming club. He wanted to change people's minds about gaming—and gamers. He wanted to demonstrate that gaming had integrity and valor, that it could be elegant. He had no idea that the results would be disastrous.

At first, Arwing thrived. One hundred seventy people signed up within weeks. Blue, as president, assigned his friends to the remaining officer slots and cajoled them to accompany him to a local senior citizens' home to play Wii Sports with the residents. Blue made posters to advertise the club. One read, GAMING IS MAINSTREAM, GAMERS ARE MAINSTREAM, IT'S THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SURPRISED BY THIS THAT HAVE SUSPECT SOCIAL LIVES.

Quickly Blue's friends grew apathetic toward the club, as they were toward most things. They said they would build the Web site and then didn't. They ruined an event because they didn't hand out the promotional fliers for fear of looking "stupid." One day at the mall, Blue was sitting with his friends when he put his head down on the table and fell asleep. When he woke up ten minutes later, they were gone. Thereafter, Blue's friends started ditching him for fun—at the mall, at school. From their posts on Facebook and Twitter, Blue could see when they went out together, intentionally excluding him. He was closest with Jackson, who attended a neighboring school, but even Jackson was less likely to socialize with Blue unless Ty and Stewart were there, if not Herman and his two followers.

Blue tried not to let this treatment faze him. He had become accustomed to social setbacks in middle school after his closest friend, who had nicknamed him Blue after a Pokémon trainer, moved away. Uninterested in the superficial chatter that dominated classmates' typical middle school conversations, Blue turned to technology and other solitary pursuits. He discovered outlets such as speedrunning video games: beating a game as quickly as possible, from beginning to end. (He could beat Portal, a game that took decent players at least two hours to win, in twenty minutes.)


Excerpted from The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins Copyright © 2011 by Alexandra Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Meet the Cafeteria Fringe....................3
Chapter 2 Quirk Theory and the Secret of Popularity....................45
Chapter 3 Why Are Popular People Mean?....................75
Chapter 4 In the Shadow of the Freak Tree....................105
Chapter 5 It's Good to Be the Cafeteria Fringe....................138
Chapter 6 Challenges....................179
Chapter 7 Misperceptions....................208
Chapter 8 A Brief Introduction to Group Psychology....................229
Chapter 9 Why Labels Stick: The Motivations of the Normal Police....................249
Chapter 10 Changing Perceptions....................279
Chapter 11 Two Steps Forward, One Step Back....................307
Chapter 12 Popularity Doesn't Lead to Happiness....................343
Chapter 13 The Rise of the Cafeteria Fringe....................360
Chapter 14 Cafeteria Fringe: Lucky and Free....................394
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