Joanne Palmer: Popularity’s popularity holds strong |

Joanne Palmer: Popularity’s popularity holds strong

Joanne Palmer

In 1989, Joanne Palmer left a publishing career in Manhattan and has missed her paycheck ever since. She is a mom, weekly columnist for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and the owner of a property management company, The House Nanny. Her new book "Life in the 'Boat: How I fell on Warren Miller's skis, cheated on my hairdresser and fought off the Fat Fairy" is now available in local bookstores and online at or

— My most memorable moment of middle school happened when I was sent home from school for wearing culottes on the very same day a boy I had a huge crush on asked me to go steady. Culottes were the predecessor to a "skort," which is basically shorts hiding under a skirt. And going steady meant a guy gave you a clunky silver bracelet to wear with his name engraved on it.

This memorable moment didn't last long.

The next morning I came back to school to discover the guy wanted his ID bracelet back.

That was the high point.

It took me 25 years to get over the low point.

Everything has changed about middle school, and nothing has changed. We called it junior high. There were no computers, cell phones or Internet. No one texted. We wrote notes to each other and folded the paper into a square about the size of a dime and passed them between classes.

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The one thing that hasn't changed is being popular. Being popular, as I recall, consumed my thoughts during most of my waking hours. It was hugely important to me, and judging from conversations with my son, it still seems to matter. A lot.


My son seems to be faring much better in the popularity wars than I ever did. Although he struggles to keep track of the chores he needs to do around the house, he is quite adept at memorizing his social calendar and keeping track of his cell phone. It bleats with alarming regularity — a rather obnoxious rap song — whenever he gets a text message from one of his peeps. The messages are full of vague references to "hang out" or "go tramping" (code for trampoline jumping) or an invite for a sleepover. He has no problem deciphering them or firing off a rapid response full of abbreviations such as "LOL" and "CYA."

The most popular girl in middle school was Sue Schmidt (not her real name). You know the type. Sunbeams seemed to follow her, along with a swarm of boys.

She never had a bad-hair day, and mascara never collected underneath her eyes. Sue had a perfect figure, and just the fact that she had a figure was the envy of other middle school girls.

So desperate was I to be popular that I trailed behind her on our walks to schools. I scrutinized the way she walked and thought if I could swing my hips like her, I might be popular, too. I copied her makeup, her hair and clothes.

It didn't work.

So complete was Sue Schmidt's hold on me that 25 years later when I saw her at a Fourth of July block party, I panicked.

I immediately sucked in my stomach, ran my fingers through my hair and whispered to my mother, "Mom, it's Sue Schmidt!"

My mother looked at me, shocked and incredulous. "Joanne Palmer," she admonished me, "middle school is over."


Which brings me to the story of caterpillars. In an experiment conducted by the late 19th-century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, the naturalist put several caterpillars on the rim of a flowerpot.

These furry insects, called processionary caterpillars, dutifully followed each other around and around in a circle until they died of starvation.

They were so intent on following the caterpillar in front of them they failed to see the food that was inches away from them.

Sue Schmidt, as it turned out, was a former flight attendant living in Milwaukee with her second husband.

She was still pretty and perfectly dressed, but after talking to her, I no longer had the urge to follow her.

I headed for the food instead.

Happy Independence Day!

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