That high school students can be crudely rude to one another is not news to Miss Manners, however shocking the circumstances that periodically bring this to adult attention.

Cliques and gangs are the names used, when tragedy occurs, for what would otherwise be described as groups of friends with similar interests. Only then does it appear sinister that each group has its identifying symbolism, in the way of dress, hair styles, language, gestures and pecking order, just the sort of thing we respect in the general society as "culture."

The difference between normal society and high school society is that in the former, only snobs and bigots openly claim superiority and taunt the others as inferiors, while in the latter this is routine behavior.

That it can make for an unpleasant society should not be a surprise to anyone over the age of 12--not even those few whose high school careers are or were triumphant. If they are spared the cruelty of adolescence, it is only to face the cruelty of the less appreciative wider world.

Nevertheless, adult condemnation of such social dynamics strikes Miss Manners as being just as naive as the admiration accorded to adolescent society in untroubled times. And the remedies proposed for the resulting friction strike her as--well, high schoolish.

Not that there is anything wrong with pleading for tolerance and respect, heaven knows. Miss Manners is at that herself, every minute that she can spare from lying prostrate in the hammock, gaining the strength to do so yet again.

It is that the society's underlying assumptions remain unchallenged, while specific suggestions made in the hope of changing high school social life tend to be idealistic, useless and impossible.

The first is always that cliques should be abolished, and everyone should be open to making friends with everyone else. That, of course, is how cliques are formed. People who arrive at school more or less open to forming friendships then form friendships in smaller groups.

When it is grudgingly acknowledged that not everybody in the school can form one huge social circle, and that it is not unreasonable for those most interested in sports or theater or other more or less benign activities to hang out together, the next suggestion is to make everyone feel that no one group is better than any other.

Mind you, these are the same young people whose entire upbringing and education declare that the most important task for them is to feel good about themselves. True, that injunction has a certain built-in attraction lacking in the one about feeling equally good about everyone else. But even if self-esteem has made them blind to their own shortcomings, they will find it impossible to consider everyone they see to be of equal merit and appeal, chiefly because they aren't.

Finally, a suggestion is made that can be executed. As each of the school's groups has a visible identity, the symbols associated with the bad group are banned.

But symbols are arbitrary and changeable, and take their meaning from the social context. Whether wearing black is subversive or safe, depressing or chic, depends on who is doing the wearing and who is doing the interpreting. Among those who understand one another, the tiniest symbol can be used to flash a message.

Because the styles, speech and behavior of teenagers are considered glamorous, adults concede their legitimacy and many go so far as to imitate them. Even those who dislike them despair of influencing them. High school provides the dominant culture.

By being less enthralled and/or cowed, adults could do a great service for their children, who are better at being rebels than leaders. Miss Manners is not asking adults to attempt to stamp out mainstream teenage culture--only to oppose it with some mild rules and ridicule. And if they could demonstrate a higher standard of behavior, it wouldn't hurt.

1999, Judith Martin