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The Cost of Being Popular
It was too high for me
Hande Erkan
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Names have been changed.

During middle school, I was a model student. I had good grades and attendance, I was in dance and acting classes, and I received awards, including “Student of the Month.” But after 8th grade, I decided I wanted a change. I wanted to be more popular in high school.

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The popular girls at my new school seemed more like 18-year-olds than kids right out of middle school. They did things I hadn’t done—went to parties, had sex, and drank. They wore makeup and designer jeans and spent a lot of time doing their hair. Since they looked older, it was easy for them to get into clubs, which sounded exciting to me.

I wanted high school to be fun, so I started hanging out with these girls. I’d been friendly with some of them in middle school, but not close.

In the beginning, I loved the feeling of togetherness with my new friends. We had sleepovers, went out to dinner, and spent afternoons in the park. They complimented the way I dressed and acted. I felt relaxed with them, making jokes, returning their compliments, and sometimes even exchanging gifts with them.

I also loved the attention I received as one of the popular girls. Every day, other kids wanted to talk to me or take a picture with me, and everybody knew who I was. High school was going just as I’d hoped.

Under Pressure

But then I started to notice things about my friends that made me uncomfortable. They would go to strangers’ homes to drink or have sex. It felt dangerous, and I didn’t want to go along.

I also began to notice that they were my friends if I went with them, but when I didn’t, they ignored me, put me down, and sometimes talked about me behind my back.

They could be manipulative. One of them wanted me to go out with her brother, so she tried to cause problems between my boyfriend and me. Sometimes they made up stories to hurt me, like telling my boyfriend that I was kissing other guys. He believed me when I told him it wasn’t true, but I began doubting whether I could trust these girls.

One day after school, my friend Lila’s mom called her. In a threatening voice, she told Lila to come home right away. She was upset and wanted to talk about Lila’s bad attendance and grades.

‘‘Oh my God! What am I gonna do?’’ Lila worried. Because her mom trusted me, Lila asked me to go home with her so when she lied to her mother about trying hard in school, I’d agree with her. I knew I shouldn’t lie, but I didn’t want Lila to be in trouble.

We started walking toward Lila’s house, but then she spotted a Chinese restaurant and decided to stop and eat. As we ate, a guy that I didn’t know called her to invite us to a party. I didn’t feel safe going to a stranger’s house. “I’m not going,” I said.

She ignored me and called a cab to take us to the party. I told her again that I wasn’t going. She was angry, but I didn’t let Lila push me around. To this day I’m glad I didn’t go.

Was I Really One of Them?

We remained friends after that, but I started to see them differently. They invited me to join their Facebook group, and I was surprised about what went on there. They mostly talked about sex—making fun of it and their sexual partners. I didn’t find it funny that they spent so much time putting people down. My opinion of them sank even further.

My boyfriend, who is three years older than me, didn’t have a high opinion of my friends, either. He knew them a bit, and he didn’t trust them.

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When I joined their Facebook group, his reaction was a disappointed, “Oh, now you are one of them.” He told me good friends should encourage each other, but these girls didn’t do anything worth encouraging. He worried about me heading down the same path.

I noticed that my boyfriend treated me differently from how my friends’ boyfriends treated them. Some of their boyfriends just used them for sex and pressured them to cut school. I knew I didn’t want to be treated that way in a relationship. I was beginning to see that my friends’ lives were not so perfect.

My boyfriend’s concerns about me were legitimate. By the beginning of the second semester, my grades had fallen to Cs and Ds. I went to school in the morning, but I hardly ever attended my classes. It wasn’t just because of peer pressure. Someone had started an ugly rumor about me hanging out with an older boy. I didn’t want to be around people and their gossip. I was discovering the dark side of popularity.

My teachers noticed I wasn’t in class, and they encouraged me to come after school to make up work, telling me they saw potential in me. But after a few months, they stopped reaching out.

Every time my school sent a progress report home to my family, it caused a big fight. My parents were scared about what was happening to me. They compared me to my brother. “You see, your brother got an A and you got a D,” they’d say. “You’re going to regret this in the future.” But I ignored them.

Not a Failure

Then, during parent-teacher conferences, my teachers told my parents that I was in danger of repeating freshman year if I didn’t get my grades and attendance back on track. It was a wakeup call. I couldn’t believe how far I was from the girl I used to be.

During the conference, my mom gave me a look that said, “I am going to kill you when we get home.” She’d immigrated to the United States from Turkey at the age of 40 for my brother’s and my education. It must have been disappointing for her to hear those words about me. I was embarrassed.

After my parents lectured me at home that night, my brother, who is three years older, gave me a pep talk. “Mom and Dad are right. You see how I don’t hang out like I used to, because friends are just for the moment. If you don’t take action now, it will be too late for your future.”

My brother’s words had a powerful effect on me. After that conversation, I thought through all the things I’d done that year and decided that I wasn’t going to be a failure.

I did my homework that night and, with my brother’s help, started handing in my late work. I was grateful that he was willing to help me.

I began to realize that I wanted to be my old self. I started attending class, and I felt the old me, the one who loves to learn, coming back. I got serious about my schoolwork.

I also got involved in activities that interested me. I joined the newspaper club and discovered a passion for writing. I signed up for a drawing contest and I won. I joined the Student Government Congress, where we talk about what we could do to make our school better.

Happy With Myself

I stopped seeing those girls. They made up more rumors about me, like that my boyfriend was cheating on me, but I didn’t care. Another thing that helped me stay on track was keeping a strict schedule. I wrote everything in an agenda and started making less time for hanging out, and more time for my family, my boyfriend, and myself. I also made new friends who are more like me, who are responsible and care about doing well in school.

Now I am doing much better. My favorite science teacher recently wrote me a letter saying: “It is amazing to see you growing up and finding the real you. You are an excellent writer who one day will achieve your goals.” Another teacher even made a joke that maybe my twin had replaced that girl who didn’t come to class or hand in her work. I felt so good about the change in myself.

Right now I don’t have a lot of friends, and that’s OK. I’ve got my family and my boyfriend. I also have my dog, who goes crazy when I arrive home and licks me when I cry.

Now I understand that hanging out with people who are popular isn’t a good idea if they do things that make me feel uncomfortable or take me away from being the person I want to be. I’m willing to go without lots of friends until I find people I can trust and confide in without being betrayed. I only want friends who support me, care about me, feel comfortable with me, and who want to help me succeed.

(NYC-2017-03-04)