Why being one of the cool kids doesn’t necessarily last the distance.

He didn't much like school, my husband. Got out of there fast. Chafing for life. Reckoned the world could teach him more. There was this one teacher, though. She told him, 12 years old, rebellious and randy, that the girls he was so cockily catting around were not the ones he'd want to marry. He brings it up now and again. And I cringe every time - because it's outrageously offensive, and because, in recognising the vile sexism of her lesson, I have to also recognise its grain of truth. He married me, but he would never have fancied me then.

I was the first person at my school to get a pair of hi-top Chuck Taylors, my dad was an artist and my mum a lesbian, and so because these things counted for something at my liberal, inner-city intermediate, I hung out with the cool kids. But I wasn't one of those girls, the hot girls, the girls the boys all hankered after. I know I wasn't because my friend was, and I was sick with envy.

Who decides who gets to be popular? What does it mean to be cool? In the requisite blandness of a school hall, on an early summer's day at the end of last year, I attended my son's primary school graduation concert, and I saw just how painfully early popularity and coolness are established. There was a lot of horrendous lip-synching, a lot of dire interpretive dance, and a few moments of genius. There was also a slide show: each child held a sign on which they had written what they want to grow up to be.

All Blacks and Silver Ferns mostly, the odd actor, a couple of "don't know's". It was the roles they already so clearly filled though that made me curious. How, at age 11, could it be so patent who were the jocks and who were the nerds? How was it already decided who were the outsiders and who were the leaders of the pack? And now my son is at intermediate, those labels are even more firmly affixed.


A friend, clever, funny, and good-looking, told me about meeting one of her idols recently - a woman her age who has scaled the heights of their shared field, a woman, whom my friend described as "just the epitome of cool". She said she desperately wanted to impress her, but despite trying her very hardest, felt as if she saw straight through her. Saw "my shop girl with bad foils". I know there are many who idolise my friend, but that's the thing about popularity and coolness my son and his peers have yet to figure out. While it seems set in stone, it can be surprisingly fluid.

Who decides who gets to be popular? What does it mean to be cool? Photo / Getty Images
Who decides who gets to be popular? What does it mean to be cool? Photo / Getty Images

When I was a teenager there was this guy who had it all - the car, the job, the girl. He deigned to speak to me once and it fuelled my fantasies for a year. A little while ago I ran into him, depressed, broke, unhealthy, a grotesque mockery of his former self. What happened, I asked a mutual friend. Nothing, she said, he just got found out. On any given day, my estimations of my own coolness can turn on a dime. "Yeah," I might think, checking my reflection in the hall mirror on the way out the door. "Loser," I think half an hour later, when the husband of my fabulous new friend blanks me at the school gate.

Waiting to pick up my son sometimes, I watch the children spilling out on to the street, all the cliques and all the posturing. It is the loners who compel me, though. It doesn't matter, I want to tell them. It doesn't matter that they're all flirting with each other on Instagram, while you're still hunting Pokemon, because, my little friend, it can all turn on a dime.

Following on

Last week's column on birthday cakes reminded Jayne, "Of the year we went to bed at 1am after finishing an intricate tip-truck cake, only to wake up to find the cat had licked clean a large portion of the icing. With very little time 'til the party started, we iced it over and hoped none of the 3 year olds got sick!"

I'd like to thank, too, all those who wrote to say that, unlike Julie, they are not yet over me banging on about my anxiety. It meant a lot.