Where we sat at lunch

What were the cliques at your high school or equivalent (ages 14 to 18)?

Clarification: This isn’t a request for your particular affiliation or lack thereof; there’s loads of quizzes and “memes” where you can relive that for good or for ill. I’m fishing for descriptions of the social groups from your teen years as you observed them, whether from the inside or the outside. It’s a survey of environments: what were the groups you saw? If you weren’t at anything like a school with social groups then, none of this really matters.

I went to an almost entirely white public school in a Southern California beach resort town from 1979 to 1983. Think Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, mine were, in roughly hierarchical order:

Preppy/”Sosh” (rich pretty kids or those who could pass for rich, anyway): pink and green clothing, lots of chinos and khaki, cashmere sweater knotted around the neck, penny loafers.

Jock/Cheerleader (sports and beauty competition winners in the classic American vein)

Surfer (specific to my locale; not quite the same as jock: they were too obsessive about surfing to participate in much of anything else or deal with the hierarchy at all)

“Band-O”: marching band members as obsessive social phenomenon

Theater club: actors singers dancers and technical theater types and wannabees

Pop Music Lifestyle Subculture: at the time this meant rockabilly revival kids, metalheads, and some of the new wave stuff.

Mods and Punks: this was the early 1980s, so a Mod Ska/The Jam flavored revival was going on, and punk was a seriously transgressive style that set you apart. the two groups were pretty interchangeable because they were scarier than the other pop music identities. The mods were always high on black beauties and the punks burned things and put safety pins in their noses.

Academic/geek/nerd. You know the drill. The straight A’s crowd plus anyone who liked computers or Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction.


Total outsider of some kind (doomed).

I’m interested for a few reasons. Subculture identities are multiplying, for one thing, and most of the pop music-related ones that have appeared in the last 20 years became permanent options on a kind of menu. And high school has a huge presence in American life. Some people spend their whole lives rebelling against the slights they got in their teens. Others don’t ever move beyond the subculture they found then. If you know what clique an American middle-class person claimed at age 16, you know a lot about them right away.

35 thoughts on “Where we sat at lunch

    1. Re: Total outsider of some kind (doomed).
      I didn’t mean this as a personal call-out, and I didn’t mean to imply that I bought into the sad priorities of high school kids. I was interested to hear which cliques existed at anyone’s school in a general way; maybe that didn’t come across clearly.

      1. Re: Total outsider of some kind (doomed).
        I understand, I was just sayin that I didn’t notice the other cliques in high school. Things don’t always turn out like they seemed they were gonna in high school. πŸ™‚

  1. 78-81, NYC:
    guidos/guidettes: the dominant subculture. the disco queens and boys w/ camaros and feathered hair. tight jeans for all, fur coats for the rich girls, and dadillacs when you turned 16. lots of hairspray. fights every day between classes. they all smoked and looked 40.
    nerds: pretty much the same as everywhere.
    heads: what everyone else called stoners. they were the only group the punks were friendly with, as they sold drugs and at least listened to some sort of tolerable music.
    punks: we were few but highly noticeable. this group included the younger new wave girls. we were teased, but in a vert good natured way. everyone was scared of us. teh guidos gave me a nickname, even–sheena. my cuter friend was ramona.
    jocks/cheerleaders: no one paid any attention to these people
    preppies: the nemesis of the guido. they were often the targets of the guidos’ anger and would be beat up and picked on much more than any other group
    the kids who took alot of shop: we had no name for these kids, but they hung out together and were different from the rest of us. and about 2 years older. largely made up of “super-seniors.”

  2. Same school, a few years later.
    Mods & punks had sort of decreased to just any pop music lifestyle culture. In the place of mods, there were NewRo’s who became goths eventually.
    I don’t recall a major surfer population, but metal kids and stoners were definitely on the rise.
    I was a Total Outsider who was able to social butterfly between the Stoner/Metal kids/Geeks/Theater kids/Bandos.

  3. Maybe it’s because I went to a school of 200, with very few extra-curricular activites outside of sports, but we basically had only four groups:
    The hoodrats (stoners)- who nobody really paid any attention to.
    The “popular” group- though, looking back, I don’t know that they were “popular” with anyone but themselves. You know, the pretty kids of doctors and lawyers, who were also the jocks of our school.
    The nerds- but, by this, we didn’t mean the “good students,” since almost all the “popular,” athletic kids were also A/B students.
    The rest of us. So, I don’t really know what I would have been considered in a more diverse/hierarchied school…

  4. I went to the largest high school in Indiana, with 3000 students. This was 1986-1990. The cliques you outline here bear a strong resemblance to those at my high school, with small regional and musical differences. I didn’t take note of the exact taxonomy, and I’m not sure I could reconstruct it from memory. I myself was part of two separate cliques that had only one or two people in common other than myself – choir/theater/band and academic/geek/nerd. I divided my time more or less equally between these two groups of friends, although I suspect I spent more time ultimately with the choir/theater kids.

  5. we had basically the same thing, but we also had the beginings of the raver/club kid thing starting with cat in the hat hats, large stompy boots, and glitter (and lots of acid.) we also had the grunge kids, the hippie kids, goth kids and that’s about it.

  6. I didn’t attend high school, but if I had, I would have doubtlessly been an academic/geek/nerd. Maybe a film/literature nerd, which is like a hybrid of the theater geek (without actually being in theater) and the regular nerds, who might go so far as excelling in fields such as calculus and computers (all totally foreign to me). Also: while I have a healthy interest in genre lit and film, I’d probably never engage in anything like D&D (or the video game equivalents).
    But I’m just blathering about the degree to which I don’t fit a stereotype. Naturally, nobody fits these categories perfectly; I’m sure most surfers would protest, “Hey d00d, I care about some things other than surfing!” Right, d00d. You’re still a surfer. And I’m a geek.
    While I didn’t go to high school, I know many people who did. In smalltown Iowa, these categories tend to overlap or consolidate into larger, broader categories…just because there are fewer people. You can feasibly be one of the ten jocks in your school and one of the eight academics, because there are only fifteen people in your class, anyway. πŸ˜‰

  7. In my high school at the time (88-92, Huntington Beach), it was much the same but with a few differences. Preppies dressed a bit differently, the jock and surfer archetypes were certainly there exactly as you describe. There was a lot of crossover between band and theater and there were at least two bands (marching and jazz) that did not always see eye-to-eye (jazz band was also the theater orchestra.) There wasn’t a whole lot of music-based subculture. It was a little too late for Metal to be taken all that seriously. While there was a greater Grunge subculture in the world at the time and lots of students were in to it, it was not well represented as a specific group of people at school. There were maybe one or two kids that I’d really describe as Punk, and like true punks, they were just doing their own thing; fuck the rest of you. There were a couple of different classes of Goth-like groups (although me being part of the Goth culture may be skewing my memory toward it’s nuances and a lesser knowledge of the other cliques.) There was a sort of “happy goth” group–not entirely goth, but with a big heapin’ helpin’ of 80’s alternative, and not entirely conformant to the Goth “dress code.” I think this group morphed into candy-ravers in later years. Then there were the regular Goths–certainly dressed the part, were very into the music, some recreational drug use, etc. There were also some more hard-core Goths that were more into hardcore drug. There was a separate stoner group (pot smokers) and a group that was into harder stuff (some crossover into the hardcore Goths) that most people shunned. There was a specific group of people from various cliques (goths, stoners, etc.) that would hang out/hide out behind the “temporary” trailer classrooms behind the school (those “temporary” trailers, I believe, are still there and still used for teaching health and driver’s education.) They were the (cigarette) smokers. In the Academic realm, there were really two distinct groups. The one I guess you’d call the College-Prep Academic. They were slightly preppy in their own way, but didn’t really have the time or inclination for D&D or computers, maybe Chess Club or Math Club, because they could put that on their college application. They were all about getting into the MIT and Harvard and the like, directly without having to bother with a 2-year community college, preferably with a scholarship. The rest of the academics were the D&D, comic, sci-fi, and computer nerds (these were most of my best friends.)

  8. Because you and I are relatively close in age, and because Arizona circa 1985 was about as ethnically/culturaly diverse as Orange County at the same time–the social order in my high school was very similar to what you described. A few minor differences:
    There was a sort of “religious kid” subgroup. And an “arch-conservative” political subgroup. And a “kid who lives with anti-government parents in a cabin in the desert way north of town to avoid contact with One World Government filth” subgroup. Often members of these groups would also be members of other groups (athletes, preppies, etc).
    Also, because Arizona was a looong way from KROQ, our music-enthusiast subgroups were not as pleasant. Stoner Metal loyalty was huge. The number of clearly defined punks/new wave people were like, 10-15. (I went to a high school with a population of over 4000.) There was a pretty good-sized Duran Duran type crowd, early on. Which generally overlapped with the preppies who could afford the lifestyle presented in the Duran Duran videos.
    I was a musician, an actor, a writer, a kind of outlandish public figure/performance artiste, and a brainiac person. So I was in a lot of different groups, and/or in none. I mostly moved freely among everybody a la Ferris Bueller, and made friends with the total outsiders.
    It’s interesting how many of the responses you’re getting still seem to be charged with high school clique political subtext. Maybe that stuff never really ends.

  9. Wow, this did not answer your question at all.
    I was busy watching Ryan tie a victorian ladies mask to his face (photos later!) πŸ™‚
    Cliques in Huntington Beach in 1993:
    * Surfer dudes who were stoners- everyone liked these guys, even the straight edge kids.
    * Surfer *bros*- essentially, wannabe surfers who wore the clothes but didn’t really surf
    * Artsy kids- photo class, cigarettes, old cars, jack kerouac
    * straight edge- (most of the skaters were part of this group as well) this was just turning into a nightmare around 1993, previously it had been a cute subculture that embraced untiy, peace, and brother/sisterhood. By this time it had mostly gone to shit.
    * “the Long hairs*- I swear to you that this is what everyone called them. Just metal heads who smoked at the park after school and drew dragons on each others backpacks. Mortal enemy: New wave straight edge kids.
    * Jocks- didn’t really exist because football players all fell into one of the other subcultures. They didn’t seem to hang out together, at all.
    * Goths- We didn’t really have traditional goths, it was more the artsy kids who listened to The Smiths all the time; a semi-culture.

  10. There was that occasional person who seemed to have at least one friend in most all of the groups. I was one of those. Early identity crisis in full swing I suppose, but I liked something about each group, or found something in common with someone in each group. I was always facinated with how people interacted with each other so differently, always looking over our shoulders to see who might be near by listening. Mostly I always found that when you got to know an individual really well from any of the groups, we all turned out to be pretty much concerned with the same things.

  11. Jocks, Heads, Brains, and the usual band and drama cliquery (something about those classes just sticks people together). Substantial cross pollenation between Brain and Head factions.

  12. My high school was a very college-prep-oriented upper middle class affair, and the top of the social hierarchy were actually the academic achievers. Next were the people involved in the school’s extensive band, orchestra, and choir programs. The jocks weren’t all that celebrated that I can recall, and I don’t really remember any music-based cliques except the metal kids. Disclaimer: I was not in an ideal position for observation.

  13. You forgot the art room. We were the ones who would have been crucified if we’d been left to our own devices. Thank god a frustrated ceramic artist gave up, moved to the suburbs and got a teaching job.
    Each of us went to a school that matched our talents, and another group of oddballs rose up to fill our place once we’d moved on.

  14. My HS had pretty much all those that you mentioned. Except instead of rock-a-billy we had these like folk-hardcore kids.
    But, of course, there were sub-cliques of cliques — with the surfers (the group I was closest to), there were stoner/longhairs surfers, jock surfers, studious surfers, white pride dude surfers (the north side white boys). I know you didn’t ask, but I was a sort of surfer/skater, with three friends who were either dropped out or three years older, we all had long hair, and we were friends with all those groups (probably because we supplied weed), but still outside of them (we named ourselves the High Fivin’ White Guys).
    My school (santa barbara high school) was also like 50% latino. So we had some bronc groups, and gangster types.
    I don’t know, I ignored most people in high school. I parked off campus, ate off campus, ditched to surf, and figured out how to take all my classes during senior year at the city college. Then I watched that slideshow of high school memories about 30 minutes before graduation, and I realized how much I missed. So there’s probably some other groups that I was ignoring. It felt like my school was 30% soshes, 50% vatos, 10% surfers, and 8% band/theater kids, and 2% misc.

  15. Here’s a twist onto the high school cliques: I graduated in 1975 from a white bread school in Los Angeles (Westchester High)who decided to bus in the black kids and set an example for the rest of the communities in the time of desegregation. What was different for us is that the black community bussed in actually came from a higher socio-economic area then where the local kids came from. All our dads were blue collar and white collar workers, but the kids bussed in came from doctors, lawyers and other high-dollar professionals. Those kids came to school in much nicer cars and lived in much bigger houses and flashed much more expensive personal items then we did.
    Other then that…we had the same…surfers, druggies, nerds, jocks, and raa-raas. I made sure I had a friend in each group so my ass was always covered!

  16. 84-88, south suburbs of Chicago:
    Our cliques were by Junior High, primarily, because what school you went to before high school gave indication of how much money your parents had.
    The Palos kids had physicians & stock brokers for dads & beauty queens for moms. They all had cars the day they turned 16. They wore swatches, boat shoes, Coca-cola shirts; listened to crappy pop rock ala Aerosmith or Def Leppard; frequently went away on ski weekends.
    The Worth kids were children of tool-and-die makers, steel workers, and secretaries, and other union workers who had gigs with the promise of a phat pension. It was a nice place that raised nice kids and all evidence to the contrary was immediately disposed of. In this magickal fairyland, people actually bought Huey Lewis & the News albums (even boys, as truly sad, erm… delightful… that is).
    The Crestwood kids were internally divided and externally suspected. Almost as well off as the Palos kids, the Crestwood kids were the children of merchants — body shop owners, Mary Kay sales ladies done good. Their parents had sports cars and outdoor hot tubs. The Crestwood school was the only one in the district that bussed, so it was also the only jr high with *gasp* black kids. You can see where this one is going…
    Last, and always least, were the Alsip kids, also known as the transplants. These were children of city people who left their urban abodes during “white flight”… the parents were teachers, nurses, cops… those just barely able to afford the upgrade and who worked 60 hour weeks to do it. This was high stoner country — flannel shirts, dad’s army jacket, concert t-shirt, ratty levis. Music was metal into punk, but anything remotely wave was eschewed as fruity.

    1. **It should be noted that it was an open secret that our high school bussed kids in to improve the sports teams. Which also might be why we didn’t have the traditional jock-at-the-top hierarchy.

  17. Some that were unique to my time and place (1993-97 South Orange County).
    Duckie Boys. When I was a senior, some underclassmen got ahold of the movie The Wanderers and went nuts with the Pomade and rolled jean cuffs. They were racists. They lasted all of a year.
    Persian Mafia. They were formidable. They had money and numbers, and earned respect/envy for their exotic beauties. One day after school they put together a caravan of BMWs to ambush some Duckie Boys. My friend tagged along and said nothing came of it, but he freaked out when one Persian guy pulled out a switchblade and chain.
    Young Republicans. A coalition of nerds and hot blondes. An untenable alliance, disbanded when Bill Clinton won the high school mock election in ’96.
    Hall Rats. This was the motley assortment of everyone who didn’t have another clique, and therefore spent lunchtime indoors roaming the hallways instead of out fighting for tables in the open-air cafeteria. Included were metalheads, future comic book guys, trenchcoat mafiosos, and hippies. Escaped abuse by being completely off the radar. I was in this group.

  18. re: arcata high 91-94
    1. hippie stoners
    2. preppies who ran for student body and the cheerleading squad
    3. drama club (all theater, choir, and hangers-on)
    4. serious skateboarders
    5. white trashers/hicks aka the children of local farmers
    6. heshers (long hair, heavy metal t shirts, ripped up jeans)
    7. art punks (no violence, just the occasional mohawk for shock value)
    8. outcast exchange students that didn’t fit in anywhere
    9. loners, nerds, outcasts, etc. there weren’t that many, so they stuck together.

    1. similar list
      my list is similar
      michigan 1992-1996
      1. hippie kids/some turned borderline stoner and yuppie drug dealers
      2. metal kids/stoners
      3. preppies
      4. band kids + theatre kids (same group)
      5. musical theatre group (seperate group)
      6. grunge/”punk”/alternative/skaters
      7. the in-betweens
      9. nerds, outcasts etc.
      10. “wiggers” white kids acting black (this sounds so stupid now)
      11. gang kids
      12. transplants who were kicked out of the local catholic, christian or suburban schools – sometimes fall into the outcast/stoner/gang category

  19. I don’t know how to even approach this question. I attended four different high schools (in two different countries) and graduated early by taking a couple of community college courses. I don’t think I was anywhere long enough to get a decent sample.

  20. I went to a secular girls school (read: for the daughters of “people in show business” ie black, jews, and those who assoicated with them willingly and happily) where we wore uniforms, but the cliques were easy to spot–blue Christian Dior purses and Louis Vuitton bags all sat together, some of those were sporty-jock types, and they all wore Lanz night gowns on retreats and mexican embroidered weddingdresses on free-dress day. I wasn’t them, but they liked me okay.
    Then there were the stoner girls, who were my friends, but I wasn’t really 100% them either, nor was a I full fledged geek. I was def on the cutting edge of punk rock (perhaps the back eyeshadow and glittered saddle oxfords kinda set the style) and I managed to sneak friends into the Boomtown Rats at the Ambassador Hotel and a record company party afterwards (we went thru the kitchen. yeah)…Basically everyone liked me or was afraid of me because I was “weird” so they were nice to me. But I always pretty much felt like I wasn’t POPULAR in the blond/foxy/driving her own car/had actual dates way…high school reunions are trippy now, because i realize that even though I was a huge seldf-loathing attention craving dork, I stood out in a really memorable way and people are curious to know what became of me

    1. The Kitchen at the Ambassador
      You know that’s where Bobby Kennedy got shot, right? I think in the kitchen itself. Tell me why you don’t like Mondays…
      I worked in the building where he was pronounced dead, the 1927 building of the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Everyone said it was haunted.
      I always crushed out on the “scary” punk rock girls at my high school, because I’m also of an age where punk was “scary” only I really liked it, but was too dorky for the girl in the ripped Oingo Boingo shirt and the eyeshadow.
      She’s probably a real estate developer and a Seal fan now.

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