smart burnouts: my high school experience

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.

Some notes on the first chapter

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9 thoughts on “smart burnouts: my high school experience

  1. Mel

    Wow. I must get this book for I, too, was a smart burnout. But of a slightly different variety. I have the single mom, lower income thing in common with you as well as the person, in my case a teacher, who told me I probably wouldn’t graduate high school. My problem was that I was bored with all the regular subjects but interested in things like archeology, classical music, art, theatre. The curriculum favoured math, science and sports – three things I was NOT good at. The other thing that assisted in my not-fitting-in was the fact that I was raised by a radical feminist mom whose friends were all artists, filmmakers and queer activists. They were arty and weird and so was our apartment (from the books we had to the kinds of art/pictures up on the walls). It’s hard to make friends when every kid who comes over leaves with a story about Andy Warhol or the book of Japanese erotic art they spied in the bookcase. Of course, looking this over now I realise it was all GREAT and it’s helped me be who I am now. But there was never much of a category for my background – poor but cultured, crappy student but smarter than my peers (I ended up getting into all kinds of gifted programs later and finally an alternative school – lots of weird arty kids with special skills/talents).

    So I’m thankful for this “smart burnout” thing although I wish there was a better definition than burnout. Burnout conveys failure rather than difference. In my case it was mostly an aversion to assimiliation. I didn’t want to *fit* in. And my not wanting to fit in was not the product of fear or anger but the desire to be ME and not some *idea* that all my peers were subscribing to.

    I’ll have to get this book as I’m currently trying to assemble all of this stuff in a short young-adult book. Thanks so much for this post/story. Maybe some weird but cool high school student will read it and realise there’s some hope for them! 😉

  2. Irina

    hmmm… i should check it out :). Although I suspect that this particular structure depends dramatically on the current structure of a mainstream US highschool. I wonder whether things are different in private vs. public high schools, in small vs. large ones. I am certain, however, that at least your description would not apply in many cases outside the US and maybe even to non-mainstream US schools as well. After all, sports as a centerpiece of high school life is a very much US thing (as far as I know… which isn’t very far 😉

  3. Greg Burton

    *raises hand as another smart burnout* On the other hand, I was middle class in an upwordly mobile family that had been working class (dad an aerospace engineer/hs dropout).

    It may have been different in the 60’s, though – Kesey talked about the “cream and the dregs” as forming the early counterculture. And the Ivy I went to was populated by smart burnouts in ’68-70…another dropout here.

  4. chris

    The smart burnouts are incredibly common. I can barely name anyone I’ve worked with in tech who didn’t fall into that category, including myself.

    I’ve always thought of those kids as the most likely to do well on their own. They always seem to be the ones who actually know what’s going on. Knowing just how far you can bend the rules is a valuable skill.

  5. ingo

    Zephoria, you’re a great writer but in this entry you sound pretty full of yourself. I’ll paraphrase: Exceptional academic record while still living a roaring life. Wouldn’t we all liked to have done that?

    I wonder what the other kids thought of you. The mind shapes memories, you need the eyes of others to see how you really were (in addition to your introspection).

    This reminds me of Neal Stephensons “Diamond Age”: One of the three girls becomes a rebel all the way, one burns out and the third is the ‘winner’, that ‘gets it’ becomes neither one nor the other and ‘succeeds’ in staging a real revolution that improves peoples lifes. Its a fun book, but in my opinion, the third girl is just another category, not so different at all.

  6. zephoria

    Irina – This book is undoubtedly American and it’s intended as a picture of your average American high school. She does discuss how more urban or wealthy schools shift the dynamics between jocks and burnouts.

    Mel – Smart burnouts are definitely my construction but, i would suggest reading the book. It’s super easy and you’ll find it really helpful, far more helpful than my reflective post.

    Ingo – part of the point of that dichotomy has to do with the state of my school. I was bored and my school was far from challenging. Physics required pre-algebra as the only math requirement. Homework could be completed during class. The smart burnouts got lost in the system because they were painfully bored and found other ways to entertain themselves.

    I would not consider it a “roaring” life. There was nothing roaring about a party that ends with gang rape or with a racial brawl where a guy gets stabbed through the throat with a pen. I strongly doubt everyone would have loved to do that. There was nothing roaring when my classmate shot an innocent girl that he mistook for his dealer or when my boyfriend drove through a house going 80 mph drunk off his ass.

    I fully agree that the mind shapes memories and there are both experiential memories and events described here. I was by no means a popular kid – the jocks thought i was weird and i behaved far too well in the classroom to get the approval of the smart burnouts. Worse, my grades put them at risk; after calculus one day, a group of girls decided to run me over – that was just dandy. Yet, because of my boyfriend who was the burnout’s primary drug dealer, i was present at those social events. It was really only at the end of high school, with that small group, where i was accepted.

    In some way i have “succeeded” but my past is ripe with an odd mixture of rebellion and playing by the rules. I guess that’s the point of this post – it’s not simply the rebellion but the constant juggle between being part of the school and being anti-school. I was by no means the most rebellious and i did always play by the rules enough to look good on paper.

  7. museumfreak

    danah, on the comments page your “posted by x at time y” shows up in the same color as the background, making it impossible to read unless you highlight the text (FF1.0.2 / iBook G4 / Panther).

    have you read any of the rest of Eckert’s work? in particular i am thinking that the article that she wrote in Annual Reviews in Anthropology with Sally McConnell-Ginet on the community of practice model might be helpful to you (if you can’t find it easily e-mail me). they also have a new book out, but i think that might get a little too lingui-sticky. i could probably suggest some other related things since i reviewed that literature in pursuit of my thesis, but i’m realizing that I don’t know exactly what your dissertation is on.

    re jocks and burnouts: i was the perfect student, albeit with the dark disability secret, until i turned 20 . . . then i went through two years of illness, and what i call an “adolescence in fast-forward.” came damn close to being a complete burnout. and after that . . . well, i guess you can see where it got me.

    i’m going to have to read the book. i recently read another book on the topic but can’t pull the title out right now.


  8. tea

    Eckert’s book is really more about linguistic social variation that just the burnout/jock dichotomy and their accompanying social ideologies. One problem with this book, and others that deal with high school (and language and high school) is that jocks and burnouts represent sort of the margins and the middle of the social networks of a school and little of the work covers the sort of middle of the road kids (like me). I think that this is probably because there aren’t really words or labels for kids that aren’t right in the center of social life, or at the margins (be they burnouts or geeks)…there isn’t really anything to call the 1000 people in a high school that sort of show up everyday, do their homework (sometimes), participate (sometimes), and then graduate. If you think about it, that really does make up most of a school population and though most of the 1000 might orient or have feelings about the middles and margins they aren’t full fledged members of either/any of these groups.

    p.s. If you are interested in linguistics and adolescent social practice you might also check out Mary Bucholtz (her article on nerd girls in particular).

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