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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."

comments

I just started my senior year, and I think the reason popularity contests happen this way is because no one really cares.
Last year, a bunch of us nominated and voted for two of the smartest kids in our school, and they won over the popular kids. But was that really better?
There's no criteria for Homecoming, so it has to be a popularity contest. No matter what, whoever wins will only win based on the fact that a bunch of other kids wanted them to, for no particular reason, other than liking them.
I don't even care this year. lol I'm just ready to graduate.

I'm glad you're ready to graduate Tashiana! I guess you should read this post as a cautionary tale because from what I've seen lately, it doesn't end at high school and those popularity contests can invade all facets of your life - even the professional ones.

Recently in my kiddo's class, the teacher asked who was interested in student council and then she put those names in a hat and picked 2 winners (1 boy, 1 girl) at random. I could hardly believe it. There was no election or popularity contest. My experience with these contests was more like yours, Colleen, with the powers that be reinforcing the status quo.

Good post. I hear ya.

john williams

all this from a girl who wore "go for it!" across her chest for a solid week during one of those silly campaigns... you have a deeper understanding of the whys than you're letting on, red. i miss high school because i was blissfully clueless about this and many other things. now that i've eaten the apple from the forbidden tree (i.e., grown up?), i'm jaded in a lot of ways that *make* me miss high school... but don't mistake that for wanting to return there.

great post with a nice balance of introspection and wit.

Susan:

Wow! That's amazing!

The only way to separate the popularity issue from awards is to focus on the judging, ala the Cybils. It's all about not doing a "People's Choice" version of winning but actual looking at the nominees with a practiced and careful and qualified eye. That takes a lot of time though, and most folks just want their ribbon.

And again - they don't care how hollow the victory as long as that ribbon is theirs.

And JOHNNY!!! Oh wow. That campaign was the 9th grade to everyone who did not grow in our little podunk FL town and Johnny was running for class president. And yes, "red" was a nickname for me way back when. Seems like forever doesn't it? I miss ya always.........

Colleen, I liked this post so much that I responded in depth on my own blog. Thanks for this. I think that you're completely right!

I really like this post.

And it makes me really thankful I was home schooled, haha.

I was nominated for my university homecoming court, on a lark, by the advisor of the club of which I was co-chair. On paper I made a very good queen, meaning I had excellent grades, participated in lots of extracurricular activities and my advisor liked me a lot. I was also a super butchy lesbian. I had a great time being interviewed by the wife of the university president, and made a grand statement about how meaningful it was that an out lesbian could be nominated for such a public status symbol, and how that never could have happened a decade or two earlier. To this day, I wonder if I was elected to the court because the committee was afraid to say "no" to the poster child for LBGT rights, or because they really thought I deserved it. Whatever that means. =)

In any case, it was fun to ride in the fancy car across the football field at the game!

Good for you Maggi - and way to turn a popularity contest on its ear! And yes - "because they really thought I deserved it. Whatever that means."

Colleen, I remember as a child and then as a teen wanting to be accepted so badly, but not wanting to do what it would take in order to fit in with one of the popular crowds. It wasn't so much that I wanted to be popular as much as I wanted to be part of a solid group of friends. I gravitated toward high-fantasy novels where the main characters were champions of the less fortunate and appreciated the hidden talents of the misfits who joined them on their adventures. Now that I think of it, I still love those kinds of books.

Thank you for your post. I don't often comment, but I read your blog regularly.
--Farida

Very cool Farida - and a way to keep living your life too. Thanks!

Can't be worded in a better way.

Nicely put. I particularly like the way you say "you grow up and your work speaks for itself." I'm quoting you in a piece I'm writing about why book bloggers are so shy about making negative comments these days.

At least "favorite blogs" is clear what it is. List them or not, include 5 or 7 or 12 -- you're stating that its a subjective, personal list. While "best" infers something objective; something that is not clubby; something with clear criteria and standards. Can "best" be the result of 1000 blogs, yet only 20 odd winners and more than half those winners part of the group running the "best"? And that those associated with the group got 2/3 of the "best" awards?

(Standing up and applauding)
I couldn't express it any better. High school was over more than 30 years ago for me. I didn't get it then and certainly don't need to somehow recreate the "traditions" now, as an adult. I was rather disappointed with this last week. The only good thing was finding some new, interesting blogs... most of which were not winners.

Yes Liz - my favorites are likely not the same as yours and on and on. But "Best"? That suggests a whole other thing and it simply is not helpful. (And when you factor in that so many "Best" are part of the organizing group....well then it gets very sticky indeed.)

Glad you found some blogs worth following in all this Lori - which I wish had been the whole point in the first place.

Thank you very much for the well-expressed and thoughtful comments you made about popularity contests. I added many blogs to my google reader because I learned about them from the blogger awards but I would like to express how much I enjoy reading so many blogs that did not get awards. I think the Cybil awards are a great addition to the book awards world, and I truly appreciate the efforts to keep this process transparent and collaborative. Thanks to everyone.

It was interesting reading this for two reasons: a) I didn't go to high school (I was homeschooled from fourth grade on and ended up going to college when I was 16) so I missed out on a lot of the high school popularity games and b) I just returned from accompoanying my father to his 45th high school reunion. After the trip, he and I discussed how different the 45th anniversary was from his 20th. At his 20th, he said people still seemed to feel a need to prove themselves on the same grounds they had to prove themselves in high school--people were still playing the same kind of popularity games, in other words, and still feeling a pressure to look good. But this time around, what interested me was that most of the class was retired or planning to retire in a few years and the most important thing in their lives seemed to be family. (It was a very small class in South Dakota, so there were only 17 out of the 33 graduates there--I actually got to listen to all of his fellow grads listing their accomplishments in life, and none of them seemed to be concerned about much except how many kids and how many grandkids they had.) What interested me the most, though, was the fact that 20 years hadn't changed the politics of high school--people had to get 45 years beyond graduation before they relaxed about it all!

Speaking about the book world...Sometimes it feels like high school to me, that it's partly a popularity contest. As an introvert, that's tough on me. I'll be really interested in reading that post on blogs and popularity.

Great post! Thanks!

That is so true J.L. and exactly what my 20 year was like. It was okay and there were some really fun moments (seeing old friends I had missed) but overall there was a ton of posturing going on. It was ALL about how you looked and what you had. I am honestly not all too sure I will go to the next one (a combined 25 year with several classes) just because in balance I'm not sure that it was a good time. (It was three years ago and I still don't know - go figure.)

I'm now looking forward to my 45th!

So how do you acknowledge people who do a good job, those who may be unknown? Or are you saying, we should just stop trying to acknowledge each other, period?

I hated high school, I was just below all the "popular" stuff. I didn't even know who they were because I didn't hang around them. I was an unknown to them too. And you know what, I'm still an unknown. Not even my family reads my blog. And I don't personally read the "big blogs." So why do I bother to spend hours every week writing posts and responding to comments? So when a committee of imparital people said they liked my blog, it seriously made my day. My week. My month.

I agree that trying to name "best" is always arbitrary. But that's why my google reader swelled to a greater size before "best" was announced. I can go and find blogs that I like, and I'm grateful for a list of blogs that others find worthwhile so I can find them easier!

I don't think recognizing is always bad. For example, I'd never have found your blog otherwise.

I recognize people all the time by linking to them and acknowledging what I have learned/liked about their posts. I recognize them by working with them on mutual events like the carnivals or Susan's spotlight on multicultural lit in August or the One Shots we do, etc.

As to the awards - there are a lot things I just didn't like. But at the end of the day though, if you won then you won by popular vote. And if that makes you happy then more power to you. My post just illustrated what "popular vote" means to me and why I am not generally a fan. I prefer to do things a different way and I just wish that "Best" had not been introduced to this event in the first place.

And after seeing where the comments have gone at Jen's - and where they might go here, I'm closing this post. Best wishes to everyone and you can always email me if you wish to.