When I was a senior in high school I was nominated for homecoming queen along with about fifty other girls. (I think I was nominated by Honor Society but I honestly can't remember.) Everyone in the school got one vote which seems pretty straightforward, except when it came to the candidate from Spanish Club.
We were all required to take two years minimum of a foreign language class and Spanish was far and above the most popular. Everyday during Homecoming season we walked into class and Senior Lopez (who was a very lovely man) asked us who we were voting on for queen. And then he reminded everyone that Spanish Club needed to win. Because of the field trips, and the annual Christmas party, Spanish Club was the biggest club in the school. Over the next couple of weeks of campaigning, the Spanish Club candidate, whose previous claim to fame was dating the richest guy in school (his parent's estate was actually where the formal Homecoming pictures were taken of all of us) became incredibly popular. It was no surprise when she won, beating out several other girls who were heavily favored. Sr. Lopez celebrated the victory by giving us all a free day in class the following Monday.
When we returned a couple of years ago for our 20 year reunion, our former queen was nowhere to be found. She did still live locally but apparently was not interested in seeing her classmates. She and the rich guy had broken up shortly after we graduated; he was not there either. We all however talked again about her carefully orchestrated victory and how impossible it was to defeat someone with that kind of faculty support. Several other teachers at the time were bothered by the interference but no one knew quite what to do about it. Ultimately, it was high school and as these popularity contests go, I guess it was to be expected. We all survived just fine and in the end, did it really matter?
I've been thinking a lot lately about high school.
The way it works is that you are supposed to graduate and move on. You leave that environment where no one can sit at each others table in the cafeteria, where certain benches in the courtyard "belong" to certain groups, where bathrooms are accessible to only those who have special permission to enter them (for reasons that are never clear); where friendships all too often have weighty concerns of belonging and acceptance far beyond just a couple of kids getting along. Unless you find yourself in the pageant world once you leave high school you never vote for the prettiest or wittiest or sweetest ever again. You grow up and your work speaks for itself and it's not easy and sometimes you have a boss who screws you over or co-workers who try to play games or, on the larger scale, people who try to buy their way into fame and glory, but still the work is irrefutable. Bad stuff happens still, but for most of us those days of voting for friends first are left behind along with bad hair choices, bad boy choices, and forgetting your homework. And yet, I've been thinking a lot lately about high school.
There comes a point when popularity contests must be cast aside. Call them whatever you want, wrap them up in whatever pretty bow you choose, but a popularity contest has always been and always will be a case of "how many of us can we band together to vote against you". They only make the winners happy and then the winners (and the ones who threw the contest in the first place) are shocked - shocked that everyone wasn't thrilled to be included in the first place, even though they didn't win. Make it on a national scale, force the participants to be interviewed and questioned (and face the likes of Katie Couric!) and voters have a chance to make an informed choice. Informed choice is important. But in most popularity contests that is not what happens. Kids voted for our queen in return for a promised classroom party, that's all it took to gain their allegiance because most of them didn't even know the other candidates (and really - what did anyone else have to offer them?) Popularity contests are about having your friends win and you like your friends, you think they are good people, you want them to be winners.
You vote for your friends no matter what.
In a physical race they would have to beat the competition but in a popularity contest it's not that hard. They just need their friends and if you campaign the hardest - if you have the most friends rally to your side and/or if your competition splits the vote - then you can win anything. And then you get a badge or a ribbon or a button and you get the honor to say you are the winner. And while others might question your qualifications, might wonder if really you were the nominee who most exemplified the characteristics of the prize, well once you win it doesn't matter. Because you won. And now you can say you were voted the Best ..................! And that's the whole story in the end, isn't it? Just that you won. That means you're the best because that is what a contest is all ever and always about. It's about winning, plain and simple.
If you open my high school yearbook you would see a picture of a lovely girl named Renee who won Homecoming Queen in 1986. And you would think: "Isn't that nice. Everyone must have really liked her." But you would be wrong about that, because you don't know how it really was that year, in that school, for that particular popularity contest.
We all felt like we had been played that Monday after Homecoming - like we had been nominated for no reason other than to make it look like she actually won. They should have just given her the crown and taken the pictures the very first day. That's how pointless it was for everyone else and what a colossal waste of time that particular popularity contest proved to be. And the thing is, she knew it was a hollow victory but she didn't care. She wanted to win so badly that she took it anyway - she took her win any way she could.
I've never looked at a popularity contest the same since then - I look at judges and nominees and who wins and why. And I'm always a lot less impressed by the winners for obvious reasons. Mostly though, I'm just a grown-up now and I don't want to return to high school ever again. The question I never can figure out, is why some people do.
ETA: Jen Robinson chimes in with her own post: Popularity in Blogging and Book Awards: "I don't want to declare people as in or out because I like them or don't like them. I don't want to tell you "these are my 10 favorite blogs", and then not be able to include an 11th that's just as important to me. I don't want to pick between #3 and #13 in the first place, because my mind doesn't work that way."