Chris Labrum
Poverty & Prejudice: Gangs of All Colors

High school marks a time of extensive and sometimes rapid growth for adolescents. A step up from junior high, the unfamiliar environment subjects students to vast array of new experiences, problems and decisions. Two of these decisions, which are inextricably linked to many other aspects of high school life, are the decisions to make friends and to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Though people have secured friendships before high school, often these relationships tend to fluctuate or end completely, and new ones emerge. Students must choose which peers to hang out with and why. This leads to the formation of social groups, or cliques. Cliques can range from a group of acquaintances to the opposite extreme-gangs. Either way, the fundamental questions still remain: what do teenagers get from forming cliques and how do the cliques operate. In pondering these important questions, one must look at a multitude of divergent, influential factors, including drugs and alcohol and their availability. Others of significance are social and economic status, race and gender, public versus private schools, and extracurricular activities. Although contributing factors often change, the goal of scrutinizing these is to possibly come to an authoritative conclusion-"This is the way it is." Thus, by examining my own personal high school experience and those of many of my classmates, mainly white and black middle class students, I will attempt to tell it like it is. In doing so, I also will hopeftilly expose some of the major misperceptions and stereotypes that often accompany and plague this heightening issue.

* * *

The bell rings signaling the end of the last class of the day-Friday-the weekend has arrived. As most people stroll down to the cafeteria on their way out of school, the most universal, high school question pops into their heads: where is the party at tonight? There are other aspects of high school life of course, but the what, where, when, and how of the party scene dominate. Most students ignore the "why" for reasons of difficulty in answering the question. The most common responses, if uttered at all, would be: "It's fun," "I don't know" or "There is nothing better to do." Nonetheless, the first order of business for most high school students is to seek out a place to party that night. Thus, as I walk into the cafeteria myself, I am bombarded with the question: "Hey Chris, what's going on tonight?" And, of course, I would be asking this question to everyone else: "I'm not sure; what are you guys doing tonight?" The usual response was: "Man, we're trying to find a place to drink tonight." Next order of business, after securing a spot to party, would be to obtain the drugs and/or alcohol to consume that night. This is an easy task. Besides having older siblings that are willing to buy the goods for teenagers, fake ID's are abundant because of easy accessibility. Now, not anyone can benefit from the fake ID's. A person of my looks and stature would still get laughed at if I attempted to use an ID, as I look much younger than I am. However, there are always numerous students in high school who appear as though they could be adults. These students get their hands on the fake ID's and are usually an insuperable pair. For awhile, my friends bought beer in Chinatown of downtown Seattle because the stores never seemed to have a clue or a care. But, eventually, they would be able to buy from gas stations and QFC's even. Bottom line: if it was not my friends, no matter, there was always someone to buy alcohol.

Upon walking into the cafeteria, I can immediately identify different social groupings within the high school. Somewhere there is always a large group of guys or girls that are acting loud and obnoxious. These are usually people of the "in-crowd." People not of the "in-crowd" would not be so clamorous, for fear of someone from the "in-crowd" making fun of or harassing them for being "stupid." Thus, a group of students are always gathered that are the smarter, more dedicated students that are considered "weird" because they are socially challenged. They do not make a lot of noise; they just keep to themselves throughout the school day. On the other hand, the boisterous groups of people show more confidence because they are the "in-crowd"-the cool ones. They consist of some athletes, some conformists, some very out-going people, or some semi-rebellious people. It is more complicated than that but there are a few general rules: 1.) If you study all the time, and do not get out much, you do not fit in the popular crowd. 2.) If you do not study all the time, but are too rebellious and getting into trouble, you do not fit into the popular crowd. 3.) If you are just plain weird, meaning weird clothes, actions, and words, you do not fit into the popular crowd. To be in the popular crowd, you had to be able to have a good time, relax a little, party a little and go against the rules a little. Intellectuals were welcomed into the popular crowd, if they were also very social, out-going and/or good-looking. That is where the superficiality of high school emerged. Anyone who was considered very handsome or beautiful could be a member of the in-crowd. Troublemakers who cared nothing about school and ended up in juvenile hall were not popular. Members of the in-crowd still exerted effort in school, but that was not their focus, yet neither was rebelling. Lastly, students who were just different, who dressed in all black, or who acted strangely were estranged from the popular students. This shows four of the major categories of students in the high school: 1). Popular's-athletes, socialites, partiers and visually pleasing students, 2). Intellectuals-strictly focused on education, 3). Delinquents-apathetic troublemakers, 4). Anomalies-weird outcasts. Though these can be considered larger cliques, there also were smaller cliques among these categories. These smaller cliques were the group of friends that one belonged to underneath the larger classification.

It was determined that Aron Jones would be holding the party at his house. He had a prime spot for parties, as his house was at the bottom of a long drive, near the water, and isolated from its neighbors. I can expect to see a wide range of people at this party, but there is one group of people that will have no representation-the orthodox intellectuals. Otherwise, because of the possibilities of alcohol, drugs, sex, music and dancing, there will be all sorts of cliques there.

My friends and I will attend the festivities even though we are considered "intellectuals." This is what characterizes the clique in which I fit. We formed a synthesis clique, a hybrid clique. My friends and I were all in the advanced placement classes. Presently, we all attend top ranking universities. However, we also matched our interest in school with our interest in social lives. We showed seriousness but also levity in school. We had many relationships with other students but also many teachers. We studied when we needed to but also ventured out at night. We experimented with alcohol, drugs, and sex, but never allowed these physical pleasures to overwhelm our devotion to our education. This was the clique with which I bonded the most; however, I did have friends in other groups. They were at the party, too. One clique consists of the top athletes. But many times, they are the top athletes of their respective sports. For example, the basketball players hung out with each other. The football players arrived together, etc. Always at the parties were the relentless drinkers and druggies. Many of my friends were dedicated to partying and having a good time. They, in turn, let school slide. These hardcore partiers usually formed a clique. I experienced this first hand, for during my freshman year, I drank heavily. Because of this, I made friends who I would go out with frequently. However, when I slowed down my drinking habits and applied more attention to school, trying to find a balance, these friends became distant. They no longer called me as often, and soon not at all. This clearly shows that drinking and drug habits help in forming cliques. This idea emerges with marijuana too. Those that smoke marijuana in mass amounts unite. Now, often the stereotype that these "druggies" are grunge-looking, punk rockers. Many times pot heads are like this. Nevertheless, I have a few athlete friends who smoked weed incessantly. You could not see it from the outside looking in, but they could have been considered "druggies." In fact, similar to what happened to me, I had a friend who was an athlete. He smoked marijuana a little, but drank a lot. Soon, he began smoking more marijuana than drinking, and slowly but surely his group of friends started shifting as well.

Also making an appearance at the party were some delinquents, who usually drank and did drugs in defiance of the law and their parents. These kids had no care for school and usually ended up in Crest. Crest was an extension of my high school for troubled and slower students, who needed extra and more intimate assistance. Often, these kids engaged in all of the worldly pleasures: cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, sex, and heavier drugs like ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, and sometimes cocaine. But in addition to their defying authority, another reason was to appear "cool." This reason for alcohol, drug and cigarette use is the most prevalent among all students, not just the delinquents. Students will deny "appearing cool" as the reason, but alcohol, drugs and cigarettes all start as experimentation at parties to be cool, to fit in, to do what others are doing, to do what the older people are doing. Peer pressure is a complete hoax, however. The pressure is applied to oneself by oneself No one forces another to use drugs. It is the pressure that one puts onto oneself to fit in, to be liked and to be cool. An HBO documentary on gangs and drugs taped a young teenage gang member in response to the question, "Why you do drink, do drugs, and gang bang?" The boy repeated, "It's for the glamour; it's for the glamour." Eventually, after much usage in search of notoriety, one becomes hooked on these drugs. After one is hooked, he will tell you that it is not about being cool. This is true. It was at only at first, but now the poor kid is simply addicted. But not only are they addicted to the effects of the drugs internally, but they become addicted to the effects of the drugs externally. Like I mentioned earlier, I entered the popular group by drinking. Students gain friends, acceptance and confidence when they drink. Though these gains only occur in such a superficial high school community, since alcohol and drugs are so accessible, students will always, always, always continue to engage in partying because of the internal and external effects. And though there exists many grim internal and external effects, students either possess the mentality that nothing will happen to them, or they allow the physical pleasure they receive to dominate their mindful side. In philosophical terms, students allow their 'appetite' to dominate their 'reason.' The missing element is the 'will.' Students must tap into their 'will,' which will help control the 'appetite.' This is what belonging to some cliques does, though; it represses the individual's 'will' and replaces it with an indifference stemming from the group concept.

In addition, there really exists no difference between public and private schools, though there exists a stereotypical misconception. Private schools are supposed to embody responsibility and excellence in all areas, and of course, money. Public schools are treated unfairly. It is assumed that academics and drugs are worse at public schools. However, there is overwhelming evidence that shows that private schools have just as many problems as public schools. In fact, many private school students use and sell more drugs than public school students. This may stem from the fact that private school students have more money and more responsibility. The money disparity between public and private schools is obvious. They simply have more money to spend on drugs and alcohol. Plus, they feel burdened by stereotypes. They are supposed to be rich, responsible, intelligent, trustworthy, upright students. With such high expectations and standards, many students are more intensely compelled to rebel against these standards than public school students. Often, public school students, who are not expected to be upright and intelligent, rebel against their families because of family conflicts, not because of ridiculously high expectations. However, another sad reason for such widespread drug and alcohol use among all students is the lack of other things to do and places to go. Many former classmates express a startling statement: "I would not be able to have fun without drinking and drugs."

Though drinking and drugs fit into the equation of cliques, the primary factor behind cliques is having things in common with other classmates. The reason drinking and drugs influence cliques is because of the level of their use. The heavy drinkers form a clique. This is because they have that aspect in common. The strict intellectuals form a clique because they have that aspect in common. My friends and I formed a clique because we had a comparable combination of intellectuality and sociality. Accordingly, many other factors can contribute to the formation of cliques, like economic status, race and gender. In my high school, most students were fairly if not filthy rich, so there was no clique comprised of wealthy students. In regards to gender, the formation of cliques works the same for girls amongst girls. Then, once the cliques are formed amongst girls, members of girls' cliques will intermingle with the corresponding guys' cliques. In regards to race, one clique separated itself from the rest of the school. The Asian students at my high school formed a tight-knit group that always congregated together. They had customs, cultures and interests in common that they wanted to preserve. Another example of race and economic status is the situation with the inner city gangs. These teenagers have those two major things in common. The gangs are often separated by race and location: Latino, Black or Asian, and most often they exist in destitute neighborhoods. Thus, they form groups that gel together because of their similar circumstances, characteristics and interests. This provides the feeling of belonging to something. It provides relief that there are others like you. Joining a clique or a gang eliminates the fear of being alone, of being different, of being hurt. Though trite, the saying-"Safety in numbers"-applies to this issue. One can not only get physically hurt but also emotionally and spiritually hurt by others. Thus, belonging to a certain group of people that represents YOU precludes the possibility of you getting torn apart by fists or words. Until students discover and accept themselves internally, which sometimes takes a lifetime, they will continue to fall victim to the superficiality of high school. They will continue to allow external factors to define their existence.

However, cliques are not entirely harmful, as some parents and counselors may claim. Like gangs, sometimes cliques can provide a family for someone who otherwise might not have loved ones. Though belonging to a clique provokes a superficial confidence, once one gets a taste of confidence, it breeds more confidence. This can do wonders for teenagers with self-esteem problems. Instead of having to turn strictly to drugs, alcohol and sex in order to fill their void, they can fill it with other peers who are undergoing similar situations. Additionally, "clique" always carries unfavorable connotations. However, cliques only form with those that fit into that specific clique. Like I established, the people have things in common. Why is this wrong or harmful? People congregating who share interests and characteristics together? Often, parents complain about cliques making it difficult for students to change schools and adjust and assimilate into a school's society. Yet, in making friends, one has to seek out those that he or she will get along with the best. This is like cliques. If a new student enters the school, the hard part is finding which clique would best suit his or her needs. This is the painstaking part of every new environment-making new friends that are the right friends. I do not believe it is possible for each and every student to bond with each other, thus eliminating cliques. There will always be differences between students-different interests, different goals, different characteristics, etc. In the words of Too Short, a music artist/entertainer, students must "get in where they fit in." Superficiality permeates the high school years, but this is because of the maturity level of many of its students. Once students learn and grow and are put out on their own in college, cliques and shallowness disappear.

As I made my way to the bathroom, I encountered the owner of the house, Aron Jones. I asked him, "Hey, so where did your parents go?" (Most parties that occur happen when a student's parents go out of town for awhile or go out for the night.) His answer surprised me, but did not bother me like it would most authorities. He said, "Oh, my parents are just upstairs in their bedroom." This evokes the controversial issue of parents allowing parties to occur in their homes. In fact, it is illegal to provide a place for minors to drink. However, like a drug and alcohol counselor I spoke to a few years ago, some believe that this system is actually safer. The counselor, a former drug addict, once said to me that she thought many drugs should be made legal, and that this would help the drug problem. This is because many people do drugs in rebellion. You do what someone is telling you not to do. When your older brother says, "Don't touch that!" What is your first instinct? Your first inclination is to touch whatever he is protecting. Though this is playful, it is the same concept. Also, if the drugs are legal, the government can regulate them. This is the same with the parent issue. The grim fact is that teenagers will drink and do drugs no matter what. There is no stopping them. Thus, some parents adopt the attitude that if their children are going to experiment, they want it done in their house. This way they can regulate the situation like the government could. They could ensure designated drivers. They could eliminate the unsafe sex and experimentation that occurs at random parties. Basically, the safety of each individual of the party is increased with the presence of the parents there. Some skeptics, however, cannot forgive the fact that those parents are condoning illegal activities. And, of course, accompanying every controversial issue are some instances when horrible things happened after a set of parents allowed a night of debauchery transpire at their house. Harmful or beneficial, this idea is another experimental solution to the problem confronting many teenagers and their parents in this day and age.

After talking with the host, I found my friends in the back room playing pool. They were listening to some rap music on the stereo. I realized that all of the friends that I was most intimate with liked basketball, listened to rap and R&B music, and dressed fashionably. We all excelled in academics and enjoyed dancing and athletics. We also indulged in alcohol occasionally. I walked upstairs to where some other people were hanging out. Most of them were dressed much more raggedly. The majority was smoking cigarettes, while some were taking hits from a bong. The music that blared from their stereo was alternative music. Many of these people I would see on skateboards or on "the corner" of the high school smoking cigarettes. I traveled to the basement where I encountered a big group of people huddling around a table playing drinking games. All of them were uncontrollably drunk. Many times these people would skip school to drink, or even bring alcohol to school to drink at break. School was low on their agenda, but they maintained above moderate grades. Though all of these people comprised the "popular" group, as no unpopular students would be found at such a party, they were still separated within that classification. Some were considered more popular than others. Each had his or her own smaller, tighter knit group of friends than the party as a whole. These groups within groups make up the intricately complicated society of high school cliques. When I look back on my experience, however, I feel compelled to assert that the system is not so maleficent. Though I was immersed in the society, I can see that, though I strayed early on, in the end I discovered my true friends. That "clique" that I belonged to, I still belong. My most intimate and trustworthy friends will forever be from high school. I may make more, but I will always preserve the ones that I have developed. All I did was struggle through the friendmaking process until I discovered the people that best fit my character. Though I say "struggle," cliques were not harmful for me, but rather helpful. They forced me to look closer at the people I was getting involved with to uncover their true personalities and qualities. As far as I can detect, cliques may operate mysteriously and frustratingly but not detrimentally.



Works Consulted

Baker, Isaac. Personal Experience. Northwestern, 1999.

Fortune, Stephanie. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Freeman, Trey. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

HBO. Gangs and Drugs Documentary. Washington DC, 1999.

Kass, Dorean. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Keszler, Elissa. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Labrum, Chris. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Ling, Aaron. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Vossoughi, Shirin. Personal Experience. UCLA, 1999.

Wells, Ryan. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

Willock, Jason. Personal Experience. EDGE, 1999.

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