You guys are cool, I’m sure several of you were popular kids at school. Could you… ahem… share the secret to being popular? Maybe there’s a manual I can source on Amazon?
Oh, it’s not for me, it’s for a friend.
Okay, it’s not for a friend.
It’s for my son.
Feng and I weren’t high on the status hierarchy as students and heredity caught up with Mark. Six weeks into Grade 1, he’s discovering schoolyard politics, a non-politically correct—but with a limited vocabulary range—version of any workplace. There are six-year-old “alpha males” and “queen bees,” the accepted kids, the controversial kids, the neglected kids and the rejected kids.
Do popular kids even realize they draw others to them, that they are able to instill fear and loyalty?
Most nights, when I’m chopping carrots, washing rice and boiling eggs, the kitchen doubles as a classroom where Mark is doing French homework (Feng is responsible for math). And once in a while, it turns into a therapist’s office. It looks like I’m focused on the cutting board and on whatever is cooking on the stove, but in fact, I’m on autopilot and I’m all ears. Mark knows it. And it may be because we don’t meet eyes that it’s easier to connect, talk and share secrets.
“Mommy, can I be cool?”
“What, you’re cold?”
Okay, there’s one downside to chatting in the kitchen—the fan above the stove is a bit loud.
“No! I want to be cool.”
“But you are cool!”
“Jack didn’t want to be my friend today.”
“So what? You have other friends.”
“Uh-uh, everybody plays with him. And if I don’t do what he says, he kicks me out of the game. He is the boss, you know.”
“Why? Like, why is he the boss?”
Mark shrugs. “He just is.”
I don’t push further. Honestly, I have no idea why half of managers and directors are promoted to such roles despite shitty people skills and psychopathic tendencies, so I get it—there’s nothing to get.
“Okay, so Jack is the boss.”
“Yeah. And I’m not because I’m not cool.”
“So, what makes Jack cool?”
“He can run the fastest and he knows all the games. Oh, and also he said he was the boss so, like, you know.”
“Can’t you guys vote… —I mean, pick a new boss every day? Using eeny, meeny, miny, moe?”
“Nobody does eeny, meeny, miny, moe. That’s like, for preschool.”
Damn. That’s how I was about to choose the sauce for my rice.
“So, what happens if you tell Jack that maybe, he shouldn’t be the boss all the time?”
“I told you, he will kick me out.”
“Would that be that terrible if he kicked you out?”
Mark looks at me as if I were insane. “Huh yeah. I’d be all alone.”
As a 35-year-old, I’d pay to be left alone. But as a six-year-old, I guess it’s a scary perspective.
“Okay, what would make you cool?”
“Huh… bringing a gun at school?”
“Not a real one, gee. A Nerf gun.”
“Yeah, not gonna happen.”
I shrug too. I have no idea what makes some kids popular.
Mark is cute, funny, mostly kind, he learns fast and he is competitive. But he isn’t one of these kids who speaks with confidence to anyone, including grownups. He is a bit goofy, he doesn’t have great social skills in a group setting. Sometimes, he is completely clueless and it shows.
Oh, shit. Is it a parenting fail?
“I’ll teach you a few tricks to be cool.”
“Yay! What? Tell me!”
Gee, buddy, let me learn them first. My party tricks are limited. I can write Chinese characters (always impresses both Chinese and Westerners), I speak five languages well enough to jump into a conversation in English, French, Mandarin, Spanish or Portuguese, I… my fingers are very flexible, does that count?
In middle school, I was definitely lame. I wasn’t taking ballet lessons, I had glasses and the rules of popular games like tag were a mystery to me. In junior high, I was briefly popular when some of my classmates realized I could forge parents’ signatures very well. Strangely, I never did it for me but I may or may not have “helped” a few friends in need. In high school, I didn’t give a shit about being popular because after travelling to China alone at 16, I had one goal in mind—graduating with honours and getting the hell out of there (I did, on both counts).
“Mark… do you think I’m cool?”
“Yes. You have muscles.”
That… that’s a strange reply. Never mind, let’s move on, call me Hulk from now on.
I take a deep breath. “Well, I wasn’t cool at school. I was just a regular kid. And you know what? That’s okay. Because maybe you don’t think you’re cool now but you will make friends anyway, and you will be cool to some people. I find you cool.”
Phew. Who are those people who look back at their school years with nostalgia?