History has seen a score of dictators seize the reins of power and lead people who followed them in blind faith. These followers believed the dictator’s every word, modified their standards to fit his, and staunchly supported him in the face of interference from those who would not accept the “new order of the day.”
No one will deny that such a leader has an untold amount of power which, if not controlled, can be dangerous.
And yet this same situation occurs on a much smaller scale very close to us – among adolescent groups. We know from psychology that peer culture is very strong in the adolescent, that he wants to be a part of a group and will take on the standards of that group. Once he becomes a member he feels he must be just like the rest of them, in order to stay a part of the” crowd.”
I stated that these leaders might become dangerous. I don’t mean that in the usual phrase – teenage mobs who commit petty thefts and finally end up in juvenile delinquency courts. The leaders I’m speaking of use much more subtle methods. Their danger lies in the impression built up in the adolescent’s mind, their ability to change standards of conduct and break the power of parents. I know that such leaders exist, and that they can do these things, because during my sophomore and junior years in high school my crowd of girl friends was led by such a person.
Carol wasn’t an evil girl in any sense of the word. She became our leader through a series of circumstances which were not of her doing. Our high school class, like so many in small towns, had more girls than boys. Naturally the boys were in their element. They didn’t have to be polite to the girls, or to ask them out ahead of time. They could bestow their gracious attention on us when and if they pleased.
The girls in our class didn’t appreciate such an arrangement. Many times we saw ourselves almost crawling for attention from boys whom in a different set-up we wouldn’t have noticed. Our answer to this problem was to go outside our class and hunt for greener fields elsewhere.
That’s how Carol became our leader. She met some boys who were seniors, and therefore had the edge on all of us. She didn’t exactly say, ” Follow me, girls, and I will fix you all up,” but the implication was there. It is unnecessary to say that popularity with boys ranks high in the teenage girl’s values. That was all it took for us to accept her as our leader.
Another factor that helped her gain the position was that Carol had her parents under her thumb, and they could never refuse her anything. Therefore, while our parents might have refused to let us be the first to date older boys, hers had no choice in the matter.
When we all tacitly accepted Carol as our leader, we changed in a great many ways. Before, when we went out during the week to choir practice and school activities we came right home afterwards. Now we began to go downtown to a favorite cafe and sit for hours together. Carol usually had the choice seat which faced the door so she could see people coming and going. She always knew who was with whom and where everyone was. While we were sitting in the restaurant, occasionally some of these older boys would come in and sit down with us, and that way we became acquainted.
Our parents argued with us to no avail. In vain they told us that we weren’t improving our situation by these methods, that we were receiving the same treatment from these boys as we had from our own classmates. It made no difference. The standards which we had adopted from our parents were dropped. We wanted to be like Carol and do what she did.
I never had a more unhappy family life than I did those two years. My parents and I were always arguing. I fought bitterly with my mother when she condemned Carol and her standards, and said it was because she had never liked her. I remember my father one time flatly forbade me ever to go riding with one of the boys again. He said he was a reckless driver, and he didn’t care if Carol’s parents did let her go with them, because he was not her father, but mine. I cried bitterly and said that I might as well go to a convent if I were to be shut out from all the things my friends could do. He answered grimly,” You may go there too, if you keep this up, young lady.”
However, even a dictator’s days are numbered, and Carol’s were too. It started for me when a boy who liked me gave me his ring to wear. I wore it on a chain around my neck, which was the accepted style at home. But I wore the chain under my sweaters and blouses because Carol didn’t approve of Jim and had nothing but words of scorn for him. She saw it one day, and made a few remarks about it.
Then, not long afterwards, I was talking to her on the phone when she had to answer the doorbell. She came back and said, ” It was only Jim. I will have to hang up soon. “After we hung up I made two paper figures of Jim and Carol and burned them in effigy. I did it partly in fun, but I had to agree with my mother that Carol wasn’t the most honorable person in the world. I no longer liked her, but I didn’t have the strength to break from the whole group.
That summer, however, I got my first job. I met new people and gained a different insight on many subjects. I started going with a boy from another town whom Carol had never met and therefore couldn’t judge. I saw very little of her during the vacation.
In the fall, before I started my senior year, I began dating a boy who worked with me. His name was Carroll too, and it caused a general confusion at home when I spoke of him. Finally I started calling Carol by her real name Carolyn. I knew she didn’t like it, but I had changed my views on lots of things that summer, and I decided that she wasn’t good enough to have the same name as Carroll, the boy.
When I started school her mysterious power was broken. That’s how I broke it in my mind, and I imagine the other girls did it the same way. She is still in our group, but she holds no special place.
To look back on it now, it seems so stupid. I was unhappy those two years and was so much prouder of my senior year in high school. I feel these adolescent groups can’t be taken seriously enough. People may speak lightly of it’s just being a phase we all go through, but it’s one type of ” follow the leader ” which is disastrous to an individual’s self-respect.
by Keith G. Huntress