Jock or goth — geek, nerd, slut, queer, poser, wimp, shrimp, hippie, prep, emo — or in Shakespeare’s day, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!”; walk into any high school in the United States and you could probably pick out any of these above mentioned categories — even the Shakespearean ones. Or, if you are not versed in the taxonomical nomenclature of your average high school student, talk with one.
Luke Bernard (note: some names and identifying characteristics have been changed), a high school student in a mainly white, upper-class suburban neighborhood, told me about the gangstas, the wiggers, the nerds, the geeks and the posers at his school. He said, “The gangstas in my school are the rough, tough black people. They buy the knock-off versions of the coolest brands and wear them for awhile and when they’re bored, they get a new pair.” He then told me there are a few goths, if any, and no one wants to be called a queer. He did say there are, “the wigger kids.” According to him, these are white kids who try to act gangsta. “Some pull it off well,” he said, as if a proud thespian performing Shakespeare.
Candace, a girl from the same neighborhood spoke to me about the skaters. They are to be found in the nearest abandoned parking lot, with affixed decals on their boards which promote a favorite band or political expression (“Bush Sucks,” exclaims one). “Skaterz,” as one boy from the inner city of New Orleans, told me, “Get a bad rap cuz people, mostly cops are looking to arrest us.” In one recent issue of Skateboarding magazine that he holds in his hand, there is an advice column on how to evade the police if the cops catch you doing an ollie on public property. The mag advises the best way to avoid the police is to run when you see them and hide in a secure spot.
And then there are nerds. Luke told me that a nerd is somebody who is not able to socialize with other kids and desperately tries to make friends but no one wants to be friends with them. “Not even the skaterz?” I asked. “No. There is one girl — she is so sheltered that I don’t even try to talk to her. She is trying to be someone she’s not. The geeks —” I asked him to explain what a geek was: “anybody who plays too many video games. They talk about it a lot. To the unaided eye me and my friends would be considered geeks.”
The geeks know HTML code better than they know about sex and the nerds sit around discussing World of Warcraft or The West Wing. The wimps and shrimps are bludgeoned because of their lack of height and the preps come to school with collared shirts with insignia emblazoned on their lapels — purchased by their yuppie parents. The emo kid wants to slit his wrist because his girlfriend dumped him and the poser is like a chameleon who wants to be who he’s not. “You’re a poser,” Luke explains, “when you say you’re a goth. Or when you have to tell everybody you’re cool.” Greg, a senior in high school, said that the queers limp their wrists and exclaim, with mucho drama, “O My God!” But apparently, not all gay teens are so demonstrably limped wristed. Greg is mentioning merely one possible of homosexuality among men.
But Luke, Greg, and Candace are no different from most of us when it comes to labeling others. When I was in high school, I was dubbed a nerd, because I liked to read books — but I didn’t see myself that way. I just like to read books. I imagine that is true for the guy who skates. He likes to skate. Or the girl who cheers on the football sideline. She likes to cheer. But I understood, even as a kid that there is an entire collection of labels conveniently used to pigeonhole people into little boxes, especially in an environment where the true search for self is squashed. Or, worse — killed.
Whether it be a Dilbertesque office space, the virtual geography of MySpace or a shiny Sunday School, there will be the vast and vicious panoply of name calling and storytelling. The kindling sticks and rough stones hurled to hurt are rampant in our society; and we all feel like abused Holden Caulfields. If we have been name called as a child, we cannot help to remember it with a certain sense of bitterness. And as adults, we may use different labels than the current generational code, but the idea is the same. Whether you are a square or a fag, the exclusionary nature of name calling is a rather territorial penchant human beings have, originating probably from our primate cousins. Have you ever seen Chimpanzees make fun of each other?
Whether it’s nature or nurture, I don’t know, but we perceive others through a preconceived framework that neatly sizes up our world comfortably and securely. We make up stories, some urban legends, some truth, some blurry on the dividing line between reality and illusion so that our worlds can appear less complicated than it really is.
The perceptions our stories are based on are preconceived schemes stored like templates, like cookie cutters in the brain. The brain processes external stimuli by applying learned labels to distinguish one thing from another. This way of perceiving the world is talked about in psychology as Gestalt theory. Red from black. Fat from skinny. Ugly from beautiful. And Jock from Goth.
From these basic forms, we can know that a leaf is a leaf based on all the leaves we have leafed through. We know Luke as Luke because he is imprinted in our mind as a schemata. If Candace gets a facelift — even a slight facelift — or gets new glasses, the schema shifts and we do a double take when we see them. “Hey, Candace, is that you?” “Yeah, it’s me!” “Oh! Didn’t recognize you with the rhino rims!”
What happens to these monikers, such as jock or goth, is that they develop into messy, but powerfully persistent narratives. Some of the stories we conjure up about other people are harmless. Some of the stories we create are attempts to understand ourselves. As Luke, above, mentioned about the posers. We create identities as a way to search for our own. Like the Twain tale about a prince who dressed up as a look-a-like peasant to see what it was like to be poor and insignificant.
Other stories we tell are more dangerous. The dangerous narratives are those conjured out of fear and ignorance. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinosfky chillingly demonstrated the dangerous narratives people create in their documentary for HBO, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, about three teenagers in a provincial Arkansas town who were convicted for the murder of three children in a secluded river bed, ostensibly, because they were satan worshippers and dabbled in ritualistic sex and murder. The modern-day Salem Witch trial found the boys guilty without substantial physical evidence, but a strong, powerful narrative convinced the jury they were guilty. The truth was they were “Goths.” The kids wore black and listened to Metallica. But this was enough for the town to pronounce them guilty.
Stories like the Robin Hood Hills murder describe the powerful force of narrative and the way that it replaces truth as the convenient litmus test for who is innocent and who is dangerous. The childhood ditty, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” not only is false but belies the fact that words can not only hurt but strung together into a powerful enough story, can play into the generalities we construct to make sense of our world, into myths that are ultimately destructive.