When i first picked up Jocks & Burnouts, i was very reticent; the very terms in the title reflect outdatedness. But as i dove in, i realized that this was going to be a key text for my dissertation. It’s an ethnography of American high school, looking at the categories that we all had. Jocks are the folks who participated in school activities and helped maintain the school’s status quo. Burnouts are those who loathed the school’s pseudo-parenting bullshit and did everything possible to rebel.
What i found painful reading this book is that i could not resist the masochistic desire to see how i fit into the picture. Interestingly, i found that it answered a comment that has haunted me for years. In the 9th grade, the school psychologist said that i had a 10% chance of graduating. In high school, i was neither or both a jock and a burnout. It has some history…
I spent my elementary school years in a working class townhouse neighborhood and was supervised by older kids in the neighborhood. My two closest friends were opposites – one would go on to become a national cello player while the other would become a complete burnout. I was already on the brink of getting myself into trouble.
In the 3rd grade, my mom got married and we moved to a shi-shi neighborhood in a new town. Again, i had two close friends – one troublemaker and one good girl who lived in my neighborhood. It was here where my troublemaking began. I staged protests at school and found new ways to visit the principal’s office on a weekly basis. I was bored out of my mind and acting out.
By high school, we moved back to a working class townhouse neighborhood. I was dating the King Burnout, my best friend was the prom queen and i was involved with every activity on the planet while still regularly visiting the principal’s office.
In my school, there was a third category – the smart burnouts. We certainly had jocks and burnouts but it was really the jocks and smart burnouts that maintained hegemony through their opposition, primarily because the full-fledged burnouts never even made it to school or votech to be a presence. The smart burnouts, on the other hand, were in the top classes even though they were always high as a kite. Yet, by senior year, many of the smart burnouts had dropped out or been institutionalized; the rest graduated with no record to speak of. A series of horrid events plagued them including a gang rape, a pen stabbed through one guy’s throat and far too many arrests, one of which resulted in my boyfriend getting shipped off to the Navy in return for a clean record.
Here i was, straight As in the hardest classes, involved in every activity possible, spending most of my spare time outrunning cops, partying, doing drug runs, and otherwise on the brink of complete disaster. Yet, i was always sober and was able to negotiate both the smart burnouts and the jocks, although by the junior year, i had few jock friends.
Turning back to the book. The jock/burnout divide is most clearly correlated with class. Burnouts are poorer and their parents rely on older kids for childcare, resulting in burnouts having broad age-based networks that expose them to burnout culture earlier. Jocks’ networks tend to be specifically age-based and their caretakers are adults. I went from having older kids in elementary to a grandmotherly babysitter in middle school. I went from knowing older kids in elementary to not in middle to once again in high school. Both my boyfriend and my cousin were much older and they were key features in my social life.
Unlike the burnouts in Eckert’s book, the smart burnouts were working class but not neighborhood driven. That said, they smoked, partied and skipped school. They were regularly high in class and hung out in the parking lot.
Throughout this, my mother was an amazing source of support and she never pressured me in any direction, yet she was clearly a good girl, playing by all of the rules. I hated the school actively and let them know it, but at the same time, took advantage of whatever i could while there. Read through Eckert’s lens, this mixture was undoubtedly confusing because i didn’t fit into either category.
By the end of high school, with the collapse of the smart burnouts and my boyfriend forced into the Navy, i spent most of my time with five other people, none of which fit comfortably into the binary. We were all geeks but we also created plenty of trouble together, outside of the two categories. Yet, in one incident, my neighbor and dear friend was expelled. Since she was black, she knew she was going to be expelled regardless of whether she ratted out anyone else so she took the fall for everyone.
In reading this book, i can understand why they never expected me to graduate. From the school’s perspective, i was one of the smart burnouts. The only difference was that i did activities instead of hanging out; i was also amazingly capable of doing homework during the class it was due so i never worried about that. The smart burnouts didn’t make it. Interestingly, all of that small crew of six that i finished high school with did. The one who was expelled is now a professor.
It’s weird to read a book and just cringe, knowing where it comes from. I still don’t understand how i navigated those different worlds and ended up here and i couldn’t give directions for anyone. I learned a lot by being on the edge of burnout land (or deep in it depending on perspective). That said, it made it damn hard to relate to people when i went to poshy ivy land.
I wonder how common smart burnouts are…. Eckert doesn’t really account for them but they were the defining feature of the hegemonic dichotomy in my school.