It happened the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school.
Freshman year found me floundering between social groups. The shift from junior high to high school forced people into more stringently defined cliques, but there were a few of us who were not so easily accepted into one of the established groups (the stoners, the jocks, the honor students, etc.)
But when I walked through the front doors as a tenth-grader, I was firmly planted in the popular crowd. My friends were the kids that other kids wanted to be. The girls of the group were the pretty, smart girls that boys desired. The boys of the group were the sporty (soccer) ones who ranked consistently at the top of the class in grades and future earning potential. And though my grades were not so good, nor my physique so muscular, nor my face so beautiful, I was accepted as one of their own.
I felt a bit like Jane Goodall, only the apes were the cool kids, and I was the older white lady that they accepted into their midst.
So what happened?
I mean, it didn’t come into existence and suddenly cause me to be popular. Rather, I went to Montana on a mission trip with my church and came back with close relationships to the crowd that would become my crowd for the rest of my high school experience.
It was the type of trip that was custom designed to either force people to be close or drive people to cannibalism. We drove in a small church bus from Grand Rapids, Michigan to the southwestern tip of Montana, visiting some National Parks along the way. I remember the trip being hot and the bus quickly smelling of sweat, angst, and hormones.
I was one of the four guys on the trip (there were two Joshes and two Steves) among the twelve or so girls on the trip. Naturally, each guy came home with three girlfriends apiece. Okay, no, but I’m sure none of the guys would have minded.
Anyway, our crew bonded well on the road. In the absence of our normal cliques, we were allowed to show our true personalities. Senses of humor emerged. People spoke to each other who would never have spoken previously. And all it took was a bit of heat and a few days of close quarters without access to regular showers.
When we got back home, miraculously, the relationships stuck, and I was invited to join the group of cool kids at school. There was no formal ceremony or anything, and probably most of it was in my head, but I felt accepted for who I was by people who had seen me at my smelliest. That was a good feeling.
Thinking back now, I am inclined to think that the difference between my social scene from freshman year to sophomore year had only a bit to do with other kids accepting me and everything to do with me accepting that I could be liked for who I am. And so, popularity is not something that is dependent on others, but a mindset that make it possible for you to accept yourself.