"We were too socially marginal to catch a mass psychogenic illness," replies Sarah circa 1984. "To catch conversion disorder from the Queen Bee you curry favor with, you would first have to curry favor with a Queen Bee. We would sooner have burned down the school, except that would have required looking up from whatever we were reading."
She could be a real a brat, that old self, but she's not always wrong.
Okay, maybe I could have resisted an outbreak with a cheerleader for its Patient Zero. But in one of my favorite episodes of Radiolab (which is the best of all possible podcasts), there's that piece about the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, and the description there is of an utterly pervasive mass hysteria. I speculate that there was no equivalent social status to Geek in rural Tanzania in the early 1960's, but if there were geeks in Tanganyika, they were probably laughing along with everybody else.
All this comes up because one of my back-burner writing projects is an essay on the question people love asking of homeschoolers: What about socialization? I may have something original and useful to add to this topic, despite the fact that nearly all homeschoolers in America have to field that question (and many of them have posted or published their thoughts about the experience), and despite the fact that my kids are not yet of school age. But I'm not going to write that essay yet--no, definitely not--because I have other writing obligations that must come first.
My bratty fourteen-year-old former self wants to say, "What about socialization? Yeah, what about it? I served my sentence in public schools, and I'm not exactly a paragon of socialization, am I? I'm the walking wounded, here. You can't write me off by saying my future 42-year-old self turned out okay. Every useful thing she knows about social skills, she had to learn by unlearning her entire school experience."
She's got a point, but even in a Seurat painting, a point is not the big picture.
So I read, among other things, Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World. Though my own kids are boys, I have three nieces and an endless succession of students, and I would like to have a clue about what they're up against. Whatever it is, it'll be different from what I saw in the mid-1980s.
Wiseman describes a social order of brutal stratification, brutally maintained by those at the top, and brutally resisted by those unable to settle for less. In her account of things, teenage girls regard their status relative to one another as the measure of their human worth and of their odds of literal survival. Protecting their status from attack is so all-consuming a project that they rarely have energy left to care about anything else. Perhaps the most crazy-making part is that the fastest way to lose status and friends is to admit to having a hard time: "In girl world, everything must appear effortless." That sentence was the first thing I thought of when one of the girls in the Times article insists that she was not under stress when she took sick--insists to the point of saying her mother's long series of brain surgeries was "a walk in the park."
Is Wiseman right? I have no idea. I spent those years of my life misdiagnosed with a terminal illness, so my take on all that stratification was, I'm going to be dead in five years, and you want me to spend what time I have left fretting about how my shoes affect my image? Seriously? My disdain for normal status markers--and I confess, it was disdain--was infuriating to the normal female classmates who wanted to solidify their social positions by attacking mine. According to Wiseman's interpretation of girl world, those girls may have been suffering just as much from feeling their status threatened as I was from being misdiagnosed with a nonexistent spinal cancer. Okay, maybe. Let's go with that, because then I can feel all gracious toward those people now. Anyway, I had a handful of amazing school friends, of both genders--well, more than both genders, though I didn't know at the time--and instead of gossipping about the mainstream social structure at our school, we talked obsessively about all the stuff geeks talk about. Books, science, films, games, how to survive various technological and fantastical apocalypses, politics, religion. Does that mean Rosalind Wiseman oversimplifies the kids she studies and teaches, or does that mean we were demographic anomalies?
What I can say about Queen Bees and Wannabes is that, if Wiseman is right about the unrelenting, overwhelming stresses that come with being a normal teenage girl, then the amazing thing is not that epidemiologists think there are (according to that NYTimes article) hundreds of outbreaks a year of mass psychogenic illness in the United States, half of them in schools. The amazing thing is that such outbreaks are not happening every year, in every school.
Snarky young 1980's-me insists on adding, "Maybe they are."