Nobody gets me, and I hate my life.
How many of us, between the ages of 12 and 18, scrawled these words on our forearms with a ballpoint pen or posted them on Facebook? What could an author have said to us to persuade us things might get slightly better someday? Bestselling reporter-cum-advice-guru Alexandra Robbins offers consolation to alienated youths with a blend of nonfiction narrative and opinion journalism in “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.”
Robbins has developed what she calls Quirk Theory — a reiteration of a classic message in adolescent literature, at least as old as Thomas Hughes’s 1857 boarding-school novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”: After high school, if not by senior year, the bullied shall be first, and the bullies shall be last. She argues that the traits that cause teenagers to be ostracized by mean girls and other socially dominant types are often the virtues that help them succeed after graduation. Teachers, she says, should validate the misfits who compose the “cafeteria fringe” rather than try to make them act more like the “populars.”
To provide evidence for Quirk Theory, Robbins, whose book “The Overachievers” chronicled student life at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, follows six teenagers and one young teacher through a year of high school. In essays woven into their stories, she makes the case that the creativity and individuality displayed by her outsider subjects will make them successful later on. The protagonists are each from a different clique — there’s The Nerd,The Popular Bitch (she resolves to forsake cruelty at the end), The Gamer,The Loner and others, and at first it seems as if Robbins has managed to be present at many dramatic, private moments in their lives. But soon it becomes clear — she never states it — that she has creatively reconstructed events from her subject’s accounts. This has the advantage of giving certain chapters the feel of episodes from a teen TV drama like “Skins” because they contain the juicy things Robbins imagines her subjects saying while they are fighting and making out. The disadvantage is that the reader must guess whether a given paragraph is actual reporting or a kind of reporting-inspired young adult fiction.
For example, friends of The Popular Bitch pressured her to cheat on her sort-of-boyfriend Luke with one of their older brothers because the brother was of higher social status. “Luke’s just stoner trash,” one of the friends said.Maybe Robbins was at the party, listening. But it’s unlikely she was there when The Gamer, a bright gay kid from Hawaii, was verbally abused by his mother and had his first kiss. Those scenes are narrated with dialogue, just like the exchange about Luke.
In general, Robbins is a dogged, gifted reporter, but she is so preoccupied with holding the reader’s attention and building the Alexandra Robbins brand that she makes dubious choices as a journalist. The book contains some compelling writing on conformity that weaves commentary by the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the writer Quentin Crisp with the stories of her teen subjects. But when she argues that outsiders are often successful in recognizable ways, she falls back on specious claims about inspirational weirdos-turned-celebrities, like Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Angelina Jolie. “Fall Out Boy,” she writes, “the multiplatinum, Grammy-nominated punk-pop band that has been called ‘the kings of emo,’ is famous for expressing emotions authentically.”
Later, Robbins becomes an amateur Dr. Phil, issuing the young people challenges designed to coax them from their comfort zones. The Popular Bitch must make friends outside her Machiavellian crowd; The Band Geek must unite the outsider cliques in starting a school recycling program. Robbins recounts her dialogues with the seven subjects in a way that portrays her as a voice of wisdom. Because the title is a play on words from the Sermon on the Mount, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she has cast herself as Jesus among the apostles, giving them faith to raise up the oppressed and castigate the wicked.
I wish Robbins had just observed some outsiders and given the reader a sense of their struggles — she’s a master at getting them to open up — without inserting herself as a savior or using them as evidence for the simplistic theory that if you get meager affirmation as a kid you’ll get lots of affirmation later. Wouldn’t it have been more honest to say that a lonely adolescent might come to feel more appreciated as an adult or might not, but that the kind of validation that popular kids and celebrities get isn’t a reason for living? Toward the end, the book feels less like a document of seven lives and the questions they raise, and more like an advertisement for a guest speaker who has all the answers.
THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH
Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School
By Alexandra Robbins
Hyperion. 436 pp. $25.99