Category Archives: Friendship

Popular

In the popular musical, Wicked, the character Glinda takes Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West, under her wing. It’s grade school, and Glinda is the class pet. She’s pretty and talented, and everyone assumes she is also good. Elphaba, on the other hand, is bookish and solitary.

Glinda, with the intention to do a public service of sorts, decides to help Elphie make friends and be liked. She sings,

Popular! You’re gonna be popular! I’ll teach you the proper ploys when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce; I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that really counts to be popular! I’ll help you be popular! You’ll hang with the right cohorts, you’ll be good at sports, know the slang you’ve got to know…

I love this song and the way that Kristin Chenowith sings it. But as a parent and an educator, I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of popularity. Maybe that’s why, at the bookstore last week, I found myself drawn to a title I’d not heard of called Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World by Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

The book just came out and is bound to be a bestseller. For who among us hasn’t grappled with the desire to be popular, or with popularity itself? In the book, Prinstein exposes both the immediate and long-lasting effects of popularity on each of us. His research indicates that our earliest experiences with our peers imprints on us and, over time, contributes to, if not shapes, our lives. Successes at work and the quality of our interpersonal relationships and self-image can be linked back to whether or not we were accepted or rejected by our peers as children.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help revisiting elementary school memories of being included at one minute, excluded the next by the popular kid on the playground. It was all so confusing — the being in and the being out. Then, in middle and high school, it got only more confusing as the opportunities to try on popularity presented themselves.

Despite depictions in books and films about popular kids who wreak havoc on the lives of others and often on their own lives as well, Prinstein points out that popular individuals can make a positive impact on others when they bring energy and creativity to the things they endorse. There is a difference between seeking popularity for the status it confers and being popular on the basis of one’s warmth, interest in others, and likability. 

Likability, Prinstein says, hinges on the positive way that we make others feel. Likability can’t be asserted and it can’t be bought. It can only be garnered through a geniune connection with other people. While there will always be those who seek popularity for the way it makes them feel, there will also be those who don’t seek it, and yet who are popular for the way they make others feel.

I really liked Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. And in liking it, I hope to help to make it popular.

To Writers Who Dare

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People close to me know that my favorite author is Virginia Woolf. The image featured here is from a gift my friend Vicky gave to me just today with a pink sticky note attached: “Dear Jess — I saw this and couldn’t resist getting a copy for you.”

I owe my mother for my appreciation for Woolf’s writing; an English professor, my mom was the one who encouraged me to read rather than watch tv and gave me my first real books — Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I didn’t always understand Woolf’s political essays, but I always felt connected to her works of fiction. I wrote a paper in college on Between the Acts about the role of pauses in both theater and life, and a paper in graduate school on the importance of shopping in Mrs. Dalloway. I think I have read To The Lighthouse six times, each time more inspired (how did she create such a haunting, indelible text?) and depressed (when will I ever contribute anything remotely as worthy?) than I was the last time.

It was brave, then, for my friend Rachelle to give me her manuscript to read last week — she knows that I read a lot of pretty legit stuff. It’s a book about an older woman, her family and her circle of friends, and the simple but beautiful contributions she makes to her world. It’s about more than that, but I don’t want to give anything away. It’s a work in progress. It’s the product of two years of her time and more than a pound of her flesh.

I told her with some bravado that I’d be able to read it on the plane to and from Chicago and have feedback ready for her within the weekend. But even 5 pages in, I knew that I had not only overestimated my own abilities as an editor, but also vastly underestimated the weight — literal and figurative — of a real live author’s words.

Balancing her book on my thighs while I hunched over it on the plane, in my hotel room, and in my study at home upon my return, I thought about how indebted I am as a reader, a teacher, and a human being to writers everywhere who have dared. Especially those writers who, like Virginia Woolf, pioneered a space in their homes and in their societies despite commitments, subtle or overt resistance, or doubt.

For staking out a room of her own, and sharing her sometimes strange and always beautiful vision with others, Virginia Woolf remains the patron saint of writers everywhere.

Once Upon a Time

Last weekend, I visited Atlanta with two of my best friends, both former English teachers. Susan and Laura have always been like big sisters to me, giving me great advice throughout our 15 years of conversation. We try to spend one weekend every year together, and no matter where we are, we always end up at a bookstore, where we furiously ask each other who has read what, what we need to read next, and what we should leave on the shelf.

This past weekend was no different. The bookstore was Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA. We tore through the place, looking for titles the others had not yet discovered. My older daughter and Laura’s daughters were with us, and it was fun to see them being as active in their competition to suggest the best books as we were. We all left the store with more books to read than time to read them in.

It wasn’t until we returned home to Charlotte, though, that my daughter and I noticed the paper bag that our books were loaded into back in Decatur. The front side was plain enough, light blue with a yellow outline of a book and a chair. But the back, we quickly discovered, was both plain and brilliant.

“Chapter One,” it began, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”

Densely packed type that was easy enough to read covered the bag’s entire backside, listing many of the most famous first lines in the history of literature.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“All this happened, more or less.”

“I am an invisible man.”

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

There are doubtless hundreds of links to lists of “Top Ten Famous First Lines from Literature” being passed along the social media power lines as I write this blog. But seeing these famous lines packed in tight print on the back  of the bag holding our heavy stack of books nearly took my breath away.

Happiness filled my heart — I knew where these lines came from, and so did the person who designed this bag, and so did my friends, and so will our children.

For me, the idea of slipping six news novels onto an e-reader that fits neatly in my handbag has never been terribly appealing. I will always want to see and to hold tangible artifacts like books and the bags we use to carry them. I will always need them to do what only they can do: prove our existence, strengthen our relationships, and secure our legacies.

My daughter’s and my books are waiting patiently on our respective bedroom floors and bedside tables for us to pull them into our laps and minds. The bag sits on the floor of my home office. I’ve already reread it. I think I’ll reread it again now.

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Things That Last

I have a few life-long and very excellent friends, the kind I can call any time of day or once in three years and get exactly what I need – wise counsel, honest feedback, a riveting story.

My friend Susan is one of those friends and even though I don’t see her as much as I’d like to, I still count on her a lot. She was my department chair when I was a young teacher at Collegiate School in New York and sixteen years later, I am still turning to her for book recommendations and using her notes to teach Emily Dickinson’s “This Was a Poet.”

She recently pointed me to Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. The main question they take up is, how can we be better learners with better recall and powers of synthesis?

First, they insist, we stop mistaking fluency with mastery. It isn’t enough for us to be familiar with the material we’re studying – we need to be able to elaborate upon it and connect it with other things, contextualize it. We need to space out our study and vary our practice, “interleaving” knowledge over time. “A little forgetting,” they say, “is crucial to learning” because in forgetting (a little) and retrieving knowledge, we build stronger memory.

Their answers are helpful to me in my work as a school administrator, as a teacher, as a parent, and as a graduate student. And they remind me of what it is that deepens both knowledge and friendship – commitment, experience, and the passage of time.