The Popular Girls magically knew that seventh grade was the year you started shaving your legs, but only below the knee. Their moms bought them deodorant and bras. They were tall, often-but-not-exclusively blonde, played softball and tennis and ran track, and went to cheerleading camp.
I did none of these things. I didn’t even know about them. But before seventh grade began, I decided to try to be Popular. I heard the Popular Girls would be wearing stockings now, so I successfully pleaded for a pair. I wanted to wear make-up, too. I had in mind a thick streak of blue eye shadow from the dime store. Instead, my mother, trying to help, made me up with foundation, mascara, blush, and lipstick. She put my waist-length black hair up with bobby pins into a teased and sprayed bun.
I didn’t strike the right note. Seventh grade became a living hell, and the word “Popular” became an acrid taste in my mouth.
I know people who seem to morph: one year she’s a radical lesbian scorning the system, and five years later she’s an upper-middle class doctor’s wife driving carpool; one year he’s the CFO of a pharmaceutical startup, and five years later he’s grown a shaggy beard and lives in an old-growth Redwood tree in Humboldt County.
I don’t usually think of myself as so mutable, but I’ve recently morphed into a Popular Girl; I just beat a thousand other authors for the Grand Prize in an Internet popularity contest.
The task was simple: to spend two months bringing the most unique visitors to my website pages on the Red Room writers’ site. “Maybe I should take a stab at this,” I thought. The prizes were cool, and authors need to self-promote. Winning would bring publicity.
So I mobilized my friends. I pleaded with my mailing list to visit my site. I Dugg and I Twittered and I announced my daily blogs on Facebook. I put up picture galleries and made cheesy self-promotional videos, and it paid off; I soared immediately into first place.
I grew up believing that popularity was gauche, and competition (especially for something like popularity) was desperate and unseemly. In my Socialist, collectivist family, collaboration and cooperation were prized, and competition was the ultimate expression of Capitalism. I spent years not competing. I couldn’t catch a ball. Sure, games were fun, as long as you didn’t care. But I cared, so I didn’t play or, when our “friendly” games like Monopoly inevitably turned heated and mean, I lost on purpose.
After my sad attempts to be a Popular Girl in seventh grade, after being literally dumped in the garbage can by my entire class, I spent years trying for Provocative instead. I celebrated my non-competitive status with a sneer: “I rebel against this culture’s black and white attitude that if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.”
Yet despite my issues, my daughter Annie — always well-liked but casual about it — has developed a great attitude about competition. We play games in our house, and it’s fun. During the Internet popularity contest, Annie urged me to blog everyday; she appeared in my videos. “Competition is good when it’s fun, or when it’s something you’re passionate about,” she said. “If you’re only competing because somebody else wants you to, well, that’s unhealthy.”
“How did you get so wise?” I asked her, admiring her clarity.
I was passionate about the Internet popularity contest. I stayed in first place and thought about what it would be like to win. It would be World Ericka Day! I’d run up the stairs like Rocky Balboa and stand at the top leaping and pumping my arms in the air! I pictured what I’d wear to the fancy dinner — part of the contest winnings.
Then on the last day of the contest, the fun stopped. The author who’d been in third place all along — a friend of mine — surged ahead, and I sunk to second.
Power and need roared through me. Losing was inconceivable, devastating. “I need to win,” I said. “I need this.” And this little red caboose shifted from “I think I can,” to “I will, damn it!” and I became a huge freight train thundering through.
Annie went to a friend’s house for the night. “I don’t want to be there if Mommy loses,” she told my husband.
That day, in a last ditch effort, I asked my summer school students to visit my web pages, thus forever breaking down the walls between my writer self, my personal self, and my professorial self.
They came through for me, those seventy students. They, plus my mailing list, my Yahoo groups, my Facebook friends . . . hundreds of people visited my website pages. By late afternoon I was back into first place. At 9 p.m. I started checking the standings every five minutes. The clicks came fast and furious, and my heart surged as I realized what the people I cared about were doing for me. I refreshed and refreshed for an hour when the counter . . . suddenly . . . stopped . . . and I looked at the clock, and the long contest was over, and I was in first place.
I sat there.
“I think I won,” I said to my husband.
“Congratulations!” he said and kissed me.
“I won,” I said. I was the most Popular of all. And the only thing it felt like was relief.
Winning means getting a Yes, and this contest was important to me because lately life has dealt me a series of big No’s. I was deeply moved by the hundreds of people who worked hard to make me win, but something in me feels vaguely ashamed. To compete — especially for popularity — is something my family trained me not to do. That life and death passion I felt on that last day really should be reserved for life and death. “Compete for something that matters, not just for popularity,” that’s what my Annie would tell me.
Yet this contest did matter, beyond the career building. It was something I did for that awkward child in full 50’s make-up in a suburban 70’s middle school, trying too hard to be Popular.
Or perhaps I was just ready to morph — like that CFO turned tree-hippie, like my friend the radical lesbian turned PTA mom — from a woman afraid to compete, scornful of competition, into a Winner.