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The idea of a clique is naturally offensive to the American egalitarian spirit, but what, essentially, is wrong with it? “Just the word ‘clique’ made it sound like people were uninvited and that whole bit, mostly. Part of it was unavoidable. Someone told me I was part of a clique, and I was really offended at the time, but it was true. They were my friends, and they were the people I hung out with all the time. I guess it was part of high school. Part of it with the cliques was that you needed to have a good time within your little groups because the school as a whole wasn’t very united. We weren’t allowed to have cheerleaders; we had a cheer squad.” Though she had a rough time of it in ninth grade, after transferring in from public school, Tai is not embittered.

Jamie, on the other hand, “had fun all through high school. It was all really fun for me. I wouldn’t go back or anything, but I really enjoyed things like homecoming, all the sports. Our school was really spirited about that type of thing. I did the student-council thing. Just being involved was fun.”

Still, she grants that “I could see there were groups of people in high school that didn’t enjoy it. People are so immature in high school. You’re going through this adolescent phase and you don’t really care, or you don’t really think about the things you say sometimes, things that would hurt people. Whereas now, petty things like that aren’t important.”

The talk of cliques has up to this point had a civilized air about it, with only Jamie’s final comment to darken bright memories. When I talk to Lauren and Natalie, both of whom attended public high school (Lauren at Alameda High in the Bay Area, Natalie at Aliso Niguel in Orange County), the stories grow more familiar, more savage — especially Lauren’s.

For Lauren, the worst thing about high school was “the social groups. I went to a unique high school — it was very, very diverse. There was no majority population from any ethnic group. All the Hispanic kids stayed together, all the black kids stayed together. The Asians split into two groups, first-generation and second-generation Asian.

“There was a lot of racial intensity. The Hispanics and the blacks had some tension. First- and second-generation Asians had a lot of problems between them. The second-generation kids are called ABCs — American-born Chinese. Probably a little bit more wealthy, being second generation. The other kids from different cultures say, ‘You’re American, you don’t know anything about your cultural heritage. You don’t speak the language correctly. What are you doing?’ They had major problems, gang-type problems.”

And, of course, there were black-white tensions. “We had the NAACP come out to our school because a white kid decided it would be funny to send out something called ‘nigger applications.’ It was filled in like it would be for a black person — ‘Hair type: Nappy,’ etc. A black kid got hold of it, photocopied it, and put it in all the black kids’ lockers. Then you had a couple of people getting beaten up. Normal social-class problems you have at a normal, diverse school were intensified by the racial groups.”

“Normal social-class problems” abounded. “You got to be on top because you were white, and then money fell into it, too. We had kids from Section 8 housing with kids from houses that cost over a million dollars. The kids who could afford to go skiing in the winter stayed friends.”

After the money finished its separations, activities began dismembering the student body. “There was always the artistic group, and the Dungeons and Dragons people who wore all black, and the athletes and the cheerleaders had their own little clique.” Memberships to some of these cliques were formal, rigid, rigorous. “There was this group, they called themselves the Pink Ladies. One of the girls fooled around with another girl’s boyfriend, and right away she was out of there. She lost every single one of her friends.

“One of my friends ended up coming into our group because of that. There was a misunderstanding, a confrontation with another girl who was a grade older, and she was kicked out. All of her friends stopped talking to her. Complete silent treatment from all the guys, all the girls. It was a really tight-knit group of friends — if you were out, you were out. I remember seeing the nucleus of that group forming in elementary school. A new girl would come; they’d test her out to see where she’d fall.”

The exile sought refuge in Lauren’s circles, the Associated Student Body (“the involved students”) and the tennis team. Both were racially mixed, and the ASB drew students from different activity groups, so the acceptance rate was relatively high.

A third circle for Lauren was provided by the academic structure. “All of my friends were in the advanced classes, so that was another cutoff. We were kind of tracked, even from junior high school. I don’t know if we thought we were better than other people, but it was, like, ‘You guys don’t even know what we’re talking about, so why are we [talking]? How can you understand what stress is? We have to write a 15-page paper, you have to write a 5-page paper.’ ”

Natalie, whose least favorite memories of high school are from her freshman year, when she was shy and less “socially adaptable,” eventually achieved what might be seen as a step up on the social ladder. “Sophomore year, I was friends with a lot of guys who were in the band and stuff, because I was on the drill team, and I played violin in the orchestra. It all kind of went together.”

She met her longtime boyfriend in band, and the two of them began to drift from the group. “Then, my senior year, I was a songleader — like a cheerleader. Then my close friends were songleaders and cheerleaders, and a lot of them had become friends with the football players and basketball players. So I guess I kind of fell into that category, although some of our girlfriends were from the volleyball and basketball teams, and some of our guy friends were from the other sports.

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