In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins recounts the lives of six high school students and one new teacher. It's hard to decide which one of the students I grew most fond of: Danielle, the loner; Noah, the band geek; Eli, the nerd; Joy, the new girl; Blue, the gamer; Whitney, the “popular bitch;” or Regan, the weird girl.
Each one, in his or her own way, is a smart and creative individual. With passion for their interests and strong inner feelings, these seven individuals have much to offer.
But in spite of, or maybe because of their talents and individualism, they exist in the “cafeteria fringe.” Even Whitney, who is part of the in-crowd, feels that she has to continually prove herself and fights daily to keep her spot in the party car.
At times I was shocked at the cruelty with which kids treat each other. For years, shy and quiet Danielle has yearned for friendship only to be continually rebuffed. Having just about given up, she is begged by several kids to join a club. Danielle is hesitant, but could not say no to what she thought was a gesture of friendship. Only after she joins is she informed that it's a "hate Danielle" club. She is duped into becoming a member of a club formed to hate her.
Midway through the year, Robbins gives each student a challenge. Working from the theory that a person can change other people’s perceptions of them, she encourages them to break out of their comfort zone and find students they are in sync with. The intent is not for the student to change himself/herself, but for there to be a change in how others categorized him. For some, it seems an almost indomitable task; but if there's one thing this group has in common, it's perseverance.
Robbins intersperses the story of these seven young people with research and studies about popularity, bullying, and the need for fitting in. It pretty much boils down to one dirty word – conformity. Conformity is easier for the brain to deal with, it is easier for parents to deal with, and it is easier for schools to deal with. Robbins lets it be known that teachers and school administrators are just as guilty in creating the “normal” that students dare not veer from. She points out how school systems turn free-thinking five-year-olds into people with strict codes of acceptable behavior, dress, thought, and interests. It is the schools who are just as culpable as the students in generating negative feelings about the cafeteria fringe.
If there is one thought that Robbins would like people, particularly young people, to take from this book, it is that the traits, behaviors and interests that make a teen unique and are keeping him from finding acceptance at school are the same traits that will help her find success once she has moved on. It is the non-conformist who has the break-through discoveries. The strong passions that are ridiculed in youth help provide determination later in life and the inner knowledge that is gained by being an outsider helps a person explore new roads.
A teenage library patron noticed that I was carrying this book with me the other day. She commented that it was required reading for a class she took this summer. I was delighted that this young woman was willing to share with me her thoughts about the book. If only I could have sat in on her class discussions so that I could have heard many more youth reactions.