Prologue: Into the Woods
The first step into the woods for any prey animal means going on the defensive, staying alert for any signs of danger. At any second they could be met with the sharp teeth of a grizzly bear or the even sharper claws of a hawk. For them, the best mode of defense is to form herds–or, for elk, gangs–where they have a greater degree of protection. Not doing so could mean compromising their lives.
Likewise, the first step on a new campus is always daunting. Prison gates, seas of human bodies, and the anxiety-inducing ringing of the bell are the easiest ways to strike fear into the hearts of new freshmen and even the supposed veterans. Students flock to their own friend groups, quickly reforming the same gangs as the previous year.
Luckily, Beckman starts off each school year with a welcoming orientation and registration day for all students. They go on a death march throughout the school, following the procession of their peers as they fill out forms, take yearbook photos, and prepare for the dreaded first day back to school.
The first words I, as a new student, heard about Beckman was how friendly everyone was, how eager all students were to make new friends. I was told that I would fit right in, that the student body was very diverse. If this was the case, I grew to wonder why there were so many students sitting alone in the cold corners of the school. Why hadn’t they seemed to be able to make any friends?
Of course, my judgments could have stemmed from my implicit biases that friends were inherently good things to have, that people always wanted to have them, to be around them. However, even if this were the case, there are undoubtedly many people who feel like outsiders in our “tight-knit” community.
Many people who find difficulty in fitting in at Beckman are transfer students. I recently sat down with Adi Agarwal, a high school junior and a member of the Tustin Unified School District since preschool, to hear about his experiences with the various friend groups he has considered himself to be a part of. “The social culture at Beckman overall is very stratified. People make their groups and don’t change and rarely let outsiders in,” Agarwal said. For new students, this means struggling to find their own group of friends who are eager to welcome additional members to their exclusive club.
For my time at Beckman, I’ve noticed several recurring students who don’t seem to belong to any one of these clubs. After scouring through phone numbers and email lists, I finally got in touch with four students who all had their own stories to tell, the first of whom were Jillian Devine and Bryan Choi.
Act One: Fresh Meat
Jillian Devine was a rising sophomore when she transferred to Beckman from Claremont High School, just under an hour away from Irvine. For Devine, transitioning to a new school was easy–she had switched schools plenty of times before. It was just a matter of finding the right crowd to blend into.
At first, adapting to Beckman seemed tough. After all, Devine was not used to how academically competitive the school was or the culture that was popular among students here. “I didn’t know what boba was when I moved down here. Or ramen. Or K-Pop. Oh, and the cars–there are a lot more Teslas,” Devine said. “The differences aren’t bad, though. They’re just, well, different.”
But Devine was not one to give up. Always the optimist, she ‘put herself out there’ and joined a sport, finding a welcoming group of friends on the track team. “I really only hang out with other track kids now,” Devine noted. “I don’t mean to be so exclusive, but when you hang out with people for two hours after school every day, you really get to know each other.”
After speaking to Devine for only a few minutes, her cheerfulness became quite clear to me. “Sure, I fit in! I mean I’m different compared to a lot of kids–mainly due to where I grew up–but I never felt the need to “fit in” at any school,” Devine said. “I believe that if you know who you are and what you stand for, then that’s all you need. Friends will come.”
But what about the new students who don’t join a sport? How do they find a group of friends to fit in with?
Bryan Choi was also a new student during his sophomore year, and, despite his love for soccer, Choi was not on any team where he could easily meet friends. He flitted from group to group of various grade levels before finally settling down with a small group of friends he had met through his world history class which he deemed his “best friend group.”
“I think I belong to around three or four friend groups?” Choi said. “For the most part, I do not see myself as an outsider.” But, for some reason, something about his tone made me suspect that he was trying more to convince himself that he fit in. I knew that his absence from the middle school his friends went to had prevented him from understanding many inside jokes and, at times, made him feel at least somewhat distant from his friends. This was a similarity I noticed between Devine and Choi–despite both having some trouble finding a friend group to call their own, neither of them identified as an outsider. Maybe none of them wanted to admit they were one because of whatever negative connotation the term is associated with, or maybe they all truly felt as if they fit in. I pried Choi some more, he refused to elaborate further on his personal experiences.
“In general, people don’t reach out to others, so it’s more about their own friend group,” Choi said. “Beckman is definitely more individualistic, and people value their own wants over the good of the whole school.” Choi has remained in the same “best friend group” for almost two years, demonstrating how cliques, even those composed of new students, are based on and exclusive to people with distinct commonalities.
As a result, most other new students go unnoticed by the rest of the school. “I personally don’t know any new kids, and that’s probably because the culture makes it harder for new kids to fit in since people are wary of outsiders and don’t like having new people join their friend group,” said Agarwal. “No one cares about new kids.”
Even Choi, a former new kid and awkward third-wheeler, admitted that he was fortunate enough to find his own group. “The transition could have been much harder, but, thanks to a few generous individuals, I was able to adapt,” Choi said.
Agarwal also noted how groups, like Choi’s, “stay the same, and it seems as though they always will.” Not unlike many high schools throughout the world, Beckman forms friend groups based on common interests or traits, and they generally remained fixed for the four years. This “cliquiness,” however, is troublesome even for students who have been in the school district for as long as they can remember. That brings me to Kayle Truong.
Act Two: Lone Wolf
I first met Truong in my P.E. class at the beginning of my sophomore year before I began noticing her sitting alone during lunch. I finally decided to approach her one day, thinking that both of us ought to have at least one friend. After a couple of minutes, however, it became clear to me that she wasn’t interested in making friends. She answered my questions coldly and angled herself away from me until I eventually stood up and left her behind.
A year later, I reached out to her once again to ask about her experiences with Beckman’s social culture. “I mostly identify with the nerdy kids and Asians because I am one,” Truong said. “I meet new people and friends in class, but I usually sit alone by myself outside of class.”
I was surprised to learn that Truong had been in the district since kindergarten yet did not seem to have many friends. She had met her first friend at Beckman, Chloe Tran, in her English class. “We hit it off right away mostly because we were both Vietnamese,” said Truong. “But our conflicting schedules make it difficult to talk to each other this year.” Like Devine and Choi, Truong found underlying similarities to bond with friends over, making it more difficult for people with different identities to fit in. Without the same classes in common a year later, Truong and Tran drifted apart with little left to connect the two.
Last year, I saw Truong often on the steps in the new building, listening to music, looking at her phone, or just staring off into space. It became a common sight to see her keeping to herself. “I just feel more comfortable by myself. It’s relaxing for me,” explained Truong. “I get more time to think about things like how I’m going to finish my homework, what I’ll do over the weekend–stuff like that.” As an ambivert, part of me could relate to Truong’s desire to spend time with herself. But I couldn’t help but wonder if she really was interested in constantly thinking about those mundane topics. Is every day just another episode of How will I finish my homework today?
“I’m just really shy and uncomfortable with strangers,” said Truong. “Maybe it’s because I come from a really sheltered home. My parents are kind of overprotective.” The influence of nature and nurture definitely plays a role in people’s abilities to make friends. Truong may be naturally introverted, but her parents and upbringing have also had an impact on her personality.
“I’m the only child,” said Truong, “so my mom kind of does everything for me because she’s worried I might get hurt.” Her parents warned her about speaking to or even looking at strangers when she was a toddler, which fed into her fear of and later discomfort around strangers.
“They didn’t let me see a lot of people,” said Truong, “mostly because my parents already had other things planned out for me.” As a child, Truong spent her time eating out with her parents and visiting her relatives instead of hanging out with her friends.
I decided to get in touch with Truong’s mother, Quynh Pham, to find out more about her parenting. She was very familiar with her daughter’s shyness and explained how Truong spends most of her talking and hanging out with her dad instead of school friends. She also admitted that she is protective of Kayle but was rather defensive in her response. “It’s not only me. All parents do the same,” said Pham. However, she did not believe that her parenting had influenced Truong to become shyer. “Her character is a combination from Dad, Mom, and God,” Pham said, believing that her personality was predetermined.
Even now, I continue to see Truong wheeling around her rolling backpack with her earbuds in, shutting out the noise of the chaotic hallways. Most days, I leave her to it, letting her soak in her musical peace, but, occasionally, I smile and wave, glad to have gotten to know her better since the first time we talked as sophomores.
Act Three: The Gang of Elk
In the spirit of meeting new people and making new friends, I decided to talk to Beatriz Dragojlovic, a student in my English class whom I had never spoken a word to before. I often see Beatriz sitting around the school by herself or with her sister, Julijana, and their other friend who wished to remain anonymous. Although she was not a transfer student, Beatriz had switched schools many times before like Devine. “I’ve had multiple ‘new kid’ experiences so that by the time I got to Beckman, I’d been left out of friend groups in five different schools,” explained Beatriz. “It gets tiring, so I just got used to finding one of two people to stick with and then being done with socializing.”
What’s more difficult, however, is making friends later on in high school. “Everyone already has their own space, and sometimes it’s hard to make new friends by junior year,” said Beatriz. Just as Agarwal had observed, most friend groups grow increasingly fixed as the four years pass–people become less willing to welcome newcomers.
Instead, loneliness becomes a close friend. “Sometimes, I feel like an afterthought,” said Beatriz. She is often invited to hang out with other friends but notices how she frequently gets ignored, listening in to the conversation instead of adding to it. Even when she is just talking to someone in class when the bell rings, some students stand up and leave her without another word. “It’s easy to worry that people only talk to you because they have to or that they leave so quickly because they want to get to their real friends,” said Beatriz. She learns to appreciate the small gestures, like saying good-bye, so she can rest assured that she wasn’t bothering anyone.
To be in constant fear of being an inconvenience to others can be detrimental to one’s self-confidence. For Beatriz, it depends. Over time, she became more reluctant to leave her comfort zone and the familiar company of her sister. However, she has also learned to be more observant, more calculating.
Who do I already know is in this class with me for the rest of the year? Beatriz thinks before the start of each semester. Which one of my classes do I have someone to talk to and work with, and which ones am I more alone in? Then, based on the answers, Beatriz knows what side of her personality her class will see for most of the year, whether it be her sociable or shy nature.
Sometimes, Beatriz wonders what it would be like if she finally joined a group outside her own, though years of trying have proved it to be unlikely. Even if there was a welcoming group willing to accept Beatriz as their own, she still prefers to stick with Julijana and their other friend. She finds it hard to be truly integrated into a new friend group because of their “subcultures” and inside jokes that no one else would understand. “It’s daunting for new people to try and join in because the more established groups are almost impossible to join, and it’s hard to feel included,” said Beatriz. “No one’s really to blame–it’s just how things are.”
But is no one really to blame? Is it no one’s fault that countless students can’t find a place to belong? After all, every single one of us has our own contributions to Beckman’s social culture. We could all be to blame for our unwillingness to open up. “A lot of people are wary of outsiders and don’t like having newcomers join their group,” said Agarwal. What may be the root of this exclusivity? Beatriz and Agarwal both believe that the competitive nature of Beckman may play a huge role.
That brings me back to Beatriz’s changing personality. She explains how the peers of her different classes may perceive her differently depending on how safe she feels in each classroom environment. In classes where she is struggling more, she is also more uncomfortable working with others and tends to shut herself out. “I can be super closed off and shy,” admits Beatriz. For her, it is harder to ask questions when everyone is moving at a fast pace and “hyperfocused” on getting a certain grade. “I get worried that I’ll drag everyone down.”
And, for shy people, competitiveness exacerbates their insecurities, making it seem like everyone is competing against each other to survive. “For someone with low or even perfectly average grades, a class with so many high-achievers becomes the perfect environment for shy, self-conscious people to keep to themselves,” observes Beatriz. Julijana also has plenty of her own insecurities but, being “twice as shy” as Beatriz is, declined to comment. Beatriz informed me, however, that both sisters shared the fear of letting their peers down in the case of a group project where “better students” depend on them to contribute to the assignment. In environments like those, it is harder for them to want to talk to anyone during class.
Outside of the classroom, on the other hand, it is a whole different story. To Beatriz, most Beckman students are friendly in general but find it harder to accept newcomers into their friend groups whether intentionally or inadvertently. “People might not realize it when someone doesn’t feel included,” said Beatriz. “It’s easy for shy people to just nod along, but they usually doubt their place in the group and may assume no one noticed that they were even there in the first place.” I knew Beatriz had a lot of experience with the feeling, and it rang very true in my ears. It was interesting to see her break down the perspectives of group members and newcomers, especially because she had occupied the roles of both.
With the knowledge on the two points of view, Beatriz admitted that there were always going to be some loners at every school. And even if there may never be one culprit we can blame, she agrees that Beckman students should do more to make everyone feel included. She has learned the power that small gestures can hold, and it may make Beckman a more welcoming place if everyone could check in on those who seemed like outsiders once in a while, ask about their hobbies and interests, and, most importantly, never forget to say good-bye.