Deconstructing High School Hierarchies

Adult ISH examines jocks, theater nerds and other high school stereotypes.

Deconstructing High School Hierarchies

YR’s Adult ISH podcast kicks off season 7 with host Nyge Turner and the pod squad revisiting cringeworthy high school stereotypes, including their own former roles in the social pecking order. Plus, Nyge talks to Monica Clark, Ph.D. (of YR Media!) who taught a college class on youth subcultures at Temple University. Together, Nyge and Monica ask the question: are cliques good, evil, or somewhere in between?

Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!

Episode Transcript

(Sound FX in the style of a pep rally, featuring a drumline and horns)

Nyge: Welcome everyone to Season 7 of Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. 

(crowd cheers)

Nyge: I am your host Nyge Turner. Alright, settle down, settle down. (crowds fade)

And we are back!! We have so much planned for this season but we thought we would start off with a time in all of our lives we are probably low-key trying to forget: Good old high school!

But we aren’t going to let you forget just yet. 

High school is full of cliques. I know for me personally, as soon as freshman year started it was like we were all thrown in the deep end and it was sink or swim. Get in where you fit in. And what groups you were in dictated what parties you were invited to, where you could hang out on the quad and even who you could date. 

I know … extremely problematic. 

First on our journey down embarrassment lane, producers Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and I wanted to explore where each member of our pod squad fit into our high school hierarchy. We sat down to chat about who we were, the feelings we were hiding from everyone else at the time, and what that says about all of us to this day. 

(School bell)

Dominique: The year is 2012. I am 17 years old. I go to a performing arts magnet school where I am majoring in vocal performance and minoring in drama performance. I am approximately a million feet tall and I think I am a basic stereotype of a Hermione Granger. If Hermione Granger was like turning looks. I raised my hand first to every single question and I am typically mad at teachers for not calling on me as often as I am raising my hand. (laughs) Georgia?

Georgia: OK, I am 17 years old. I have no free time because I wake up at six in the morning because I have stayed up to two a.m. the night before doing, wait for it: homework. I also was in theater and I would be doing theater productions that went from, right after school ended at around three to sometimes nine or 10 at night. I was incredibly tightly wound. I lived in fear of teachers getting angry at me. The idea of getting in trouble, the idea of making anyone unhappy was just so painful to me. I was like, “I need to do well in school, and I don’t want to break the rules. And nobody likes me and everybody’s too busy with their boyfriends. And I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t have anyone. I’m alone!” Basically, 17 and spiraling.

Nyge: All right. I am 15 years old. I have a clothing line. (Dominique: Oh my gosh!) that I just know in my heart is going to be the biggest thing since slicing bread. Everybody at my school that’s in my grade, I feel like I’m just a little bit too mature for. And all of the upperclassmen at my school, I just wanted to be their little brother is how I wanted to be viewed. I wore suits to school almost every Friday. And I was really hoping to win best dressed in my class for the second year in a row. I also was a class clown, for sure. But please don’t tell my parents because they might — (laughs) they would find some way to make that not the case. I just had to go around to everyone in my grade and beg them not to vote me “class clown.”

Georgia: You did like a reverse campaign, like a campaign to not get elected?

Nyge: Yeah, which actually ended with me being elected class clown, for sure.

Dominique: Reverse psychology??

Nyge: That was me.

Dominique: All right. So I want us to imagine that we all went to the same school. How do you think we would have interacted?

Georgia: I mean, it sounds like you and I would have definitely run in not dissimilar circles. Like we definitely would have known each other, Dom. 

Dom: Yeah, we would’ve. 

Georgia: But I feel like my self-esteem was not high enough to feel like I would have considered you a friend. I would have been like, “I hope they like me. I think we’re friends. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re friends.”

Dominique: I think that you and I, Georgia would have been too similar. I think we would have been a little bit in competition with each other.

Nyge: This is like making Georgia uncomfortable right now.

Dominique: Georgia’s like, “Eek! Oop! Ah!” 

Nyge: Georgia is like going back into her high school self —

Georgia:  No but I think that’s true. I think that’s astute.  

Dominique: I think you would have been cast as Juliet, as you were, in high school. And I would have been cast as the nurse. And I would have been like in the theater director’s office being like, “Listen, here!! I will not stand for this!!”

Nyge: I feel like Georgia would have — would have felt bad too, and been like. “I don’t know if I, I don’t know if I should be Juliet!”

Georgia: Yeah, I can see the competition thing. I think definitely academically, I was very competitive and I liked to be the best at everything. (Dominique: Me too!) And so I probably would have been really quiet about it and been like, “Oh, I don’t mind like, yeah. You know, Dom’s got the leading role. That’s fine.” But like, secretly, I would have been steamed. I would have been angry.

Dominique: What about you, Nyge? You would have been younger than both of us. So…

Nyge: Yeah, I was a sophomore. Yeah.

Dominique: I feel like I was such a jealous person in high school that I think you would have been a person that a lot of people liked and it would have come very naturally for you. Whereas I think I would have been like “Ugh, Nyge.” Eye roll. “Everyone loves him. And like, if I hear one more person talk about how great Nyge is….”

Nyge: (laughs) I don’t know. Definitely it did kind of did come natural for some people to like me, I guess like anyone. But I had made it my mission in life when I was younger for everyone to like me. And if everyone didn’t like me, like it would really upset me for like days.

Georgia: Hmm. I relate to that.

Nyge: And that’s something that I still have to like get my mind out of because I always had to meet people wherever they were at and then convince them that I was there, too. So like, yeah, when I’m like with all of the other kids that play sports and things like that, I can blend in and I can make them really like me. And then also like when I’m with other people who who did other things, then I’m talking about, like all the poetry that I write and I’m reading like, you know, people like all of my different poems. 

Georgia: You were like a shapeshifter.

Nyge: I was definitely a shapeshifter. It was funny because that ended up backfiring on me because like, people were like, “Yeah, I fool with Nyge, but, like, he kicks it with everybody.” And so that was a critique that I would get in high school. But I feel like I would be cool with y’all, for sure. One on the angle of y’all, both of you did really well academically. And in English and in history. I was in AP English and in AP History. I did really well in those subjects, but in math and pretty much everything else, I just would talk too much, honestly. And I would always get in trouble. And so I would always get sat and partnered up with someone because of that. And I would always get partnered up with whoever was at the top of the class. So that they could like get extra credit for keeping me on track. People who were at the top of the class would kind of be like, “Oh dang, I got to like help Nyge out,” or whatever, until they would work with me. And then we would become like best friends. I feel like I would’ve ended up with, paired up with both of you in some type of class.

Dominique: Catch me and Georgia elbowing each other to try and get extra credit first.

Nyge: And honestly, all you have to do is be like, “Stop talking.” I think it makes you definitely very “other” in the class. But I was always a very charismatic person and I always had a lot of friends and I also was like, really good at sports. And so, I was able to use it to my advantage, whereas like other kids would get like bullied or people would be like, “Ugh, I got to work with so-and-so.” But, I was always excited to like, work with people and meet new people because, yeah, like I said in my head, I would be like, “You’re going to love me.” (laughter)

(music bridge)

Georgia: What were you suppressing in high school?

Dominique: Oh, God!

Nyge: So when I was in high school, my brother didn’t graduate high school before me. And so, he was going to adult school at the time. So like my parents were like hyper-focused on my brother. And then also, my mom was sick at the time, too. It was either attention was on her or attention was on my brother. So like, I wasn’t getting a lot of like attention at all. And I think that’s why every day I would get to school and I was just dead set on like getting attention that I wasn’t like receiving other places. And so I definitely was just suppressing all of that, suppressing like insecurities about myself, which is probably why I got really good at sports. Because people told me I couldn’t be good at sports or I couldn’t get a scholarship or anything like that. So like, I would be playing basketball or playing football or like working out. I used to work out before school at five a.m. for an hour. Then I’d go to school, then I go to basketball practice after school. It was just nonstop working out. And so, it was just like a lot I felt like I had to prove to people. And it wasn’t until after high school that I realized, I don’t have to prove anything. That got deep. My bad.

Dominique: No, I mean, my mine is going to too. So…

Georgia: I mean, I think that was kind of why I wanted to bring it up. There’s a lot of like funny stuff we can talk about on the surface. But then there’s the actual shit we were going through at the time, which everyone was. But very few people actually talked about the things that were like really sitting on them at the time. Yeah.

Dominique: I definitely was really struggling with anxiety and depression. And the way that I masked that was like this persona and this perfectionistic approach to my life. And my school life in particular. I was like very well-dressed and like very academically prepared and like things like that. So whenever my depression would flare up, which was like really often because I, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t have like the tools, I didn’t have the knowledge to really be able to face what I was going through. I would just not go to school. Because I was just like, If I can’t be perfect, I’m literally not going to show up. 

It made it so hard to develop and maintain relationships because I was just, like, gone so often. And it really made me feel so othered, uh, being absent so often, but also just being so depressed. I just felt like no one really knew what was going on in my head. I barely knew what’s going on in my head. So I guess from the outside looking in, people liked me and probably thought that I was cool and that I was like cool in a standoffish kind of way and probably thought that I was like, too cool for them when really I was just like trying to get out of there before like everyone figured me out and was like “J’accuse, you’re a phony!” You know? 

Georgia: Listening to both of you, I don’t know. The things that keep coming up for me are like projection and how much I like projected the shit that I was going through on other people. So much of my insecurity was just the way that I felt about myself. I still struggle sometimes to figure out where that came from. I think part of it, it sounds so silly now. I went through puberty really, really late. And I just felt so left behind. And I think part of that similar sort of like perfectionistic thing that you were talking about, Dom definitely applied to me. Because I think being busy kind of prevented  — and like being good at the things I was busy with, prevented me from having to deal with the anxiety and deal with the depression in a more serious way. But actually that made it so much worse because I did not take care of my body at all, like I was not sleeping well. I was not, you know, exercising. I like, cried openly in probably like every high school class. Like all of the teachers and all of my peers saw me cry, which of course, made me feel even more vulnerable that people would see me as this like little kid kind of. When in reality, I had a lot of friends. I did well in school, I did well in theater like I was even — I was nominated for the prom court, which like, totally shocked me and I actually convinced myself that it was like a mean joke, like I was going to get carried. Like they were going to pour pigs blood or something? And so it was just all of this stuff I had projected on other people. And I think that’s part of what that age is. It’s like getting over yourself and realizing that not everything is about you. You know, you’re part of this bigger ecosystem where everyone’s dealing with their own stuff.

Nyge: It’s really interesting hearing both of you talk about that perfectionism. I felt that same thing, but I didn’t feel like I had to be perfect in class. I felt like I had to be perfect emotionally. (Dominique & Georgia: Mm hmm.) And in every situation, like I had to fit in with everybody, I had to be in a good mood. I had to like, make everyone happy. I had to —  yeah, I just felt this, I was definitely like a perfectionist but about my emotions and about how I made people feel when I like was around and how I like represented myself.

Georgia: I don’t know. Hearing you both talk about it. It’s like, yeah, clearly we were all in really different places in high school, but also we were trying to prove ourselves because we hadn’t yet become ourselves.

(music break)

Nyge: Before the break, you heard a lot about our personal experiences in high school … but how do current high schoolers and recent grads feel about the hierarchy?

VOICE 1: We really didn’t have a lot of those like stereotypical high school groups like jocks, or theater kids or nerds or whatever. Like, we didn’t really fall into any of those kind of categories.

VOICE 2: I like having friends who look like me and identify just like me because I can relate to them and we can talk and sometimes rant about problems that we go through that are unique because of who we are. I think people just find more comfort in having friends that people who maybe not just look like them, but also go through the same situations as them because it makes it less hard to kind of keep up that front.

VOICE 5: My group doesn’t fit into a hierarchy I don’t think. We’re a pretty mishmash group of people. We’re easy laughers. So when we come together, we laugh easily and we care about each other and we listen to each other so it works.

VOICE 4: “Stick To The Status Quo.” That’s what it was. There was a huge cultural rewind when that song came out. And it really taught you to just break out of your social cues and the status quo and to stick up for yourself and say, “Hey, I’m a basketball player. I’m an athlete. But I also love baking. It is like my passion.” Or, “Hey, I’m a nerd but I love more than just homework. I like dancing too.” I think it just became more normalized that you can have more than one main interest.

VOICE 6: The groups interacted with each other pretty well, but there was definitely a lot of division, specifically at the high school I went to. Even though it was incredibly diverse, there was a lot of segregation. But I feel like specifically my class, the class of 2020, we all interacted pretty well. I would say that there was some pretty good mixing going on between different friend groups.

VOICE 7: Groups at my school interact with each other very freely. There aren’t very many limits based on where a student stands, whether they are popular or not. These limits generally form based on interest and personality types, and at times political viewpoint. So, people aren’t really opposed to interacting with each other based on like, “Oh, this person is cool” or “This person is weird or whatever.” It’s more based on, “Oh, I heard this person is not a nice girl.” Or “Their political viewpoints don’t really match with mine, so I don’t really know if I want to talk to them.”

VOICE 8: Individually, friend groups aren’t really restricted. Yes you’ll have your close friends and groups that you hang out with most of the time. And it’s a transition if you are trying to completely switch your friend group. However, that isn’t really a large problem. And most of the time people can switch between friend groups pretty freely.

VOICE 9: Especially because of the pandemic, now that we’ve gone back into school, people are trying to reach out and be more social than ever. Like of course, people still have a lot of social anxiety. But, it’s better than having to go back to Zoom.

VOICE 10: The high school social dynamics of today has some remnants of the cliche “Mean Girls” breaking down the social hierarchy in the cafeteria. But it is also generally a lot more freer. In movies, you see like “Oh, the captain of the football team could never date the nerd girl. No! It would tear the high school apart!!” There’s nothing like that. If you like someone, you like someone. If you hit it off with someone, you hit it off with someone.


Nyge: A lot of the answers we got were not really what we ourselves had experienced in high school back in the day. We started to wonder: is our perception different because we’re older? Or has high school really changed? 

To get an idea of the larger picture of high school throughout history I sat down with my colleague Monica Clark, who’s made learning about young people her whole career.  She’s the Director of TeachYR, has a Ph.D. in education and equity, and taught an undergrad course on Youth Subcultures at Temple University. 

To start off, I asked about the class and what kinds of things they focused on.

Monica: Punk and hip hop. We started there. We looked at the emergence of these subcultures and what was happening in the world for them to like bust onto the scene, right? And the purpose that they were serving. So we looked at history and politics and you know: Who was the president when hip hop was coming up? Right? Like what was the sociopolitical situation and why were young people trying to fight against it, right? “We don’t want to be a part of your business world. We want to create a new world, envision a new way of being and be makers of our media, of our subculture, of our merch, as opposed to consuming as young people from the mainstream. Right? From mainstream media, from mainstream big business, stores. Whatever it is, we want to be making our own stuff and selling it in our own scene.” And I think that that’s a really powerful thing. 

So it’s about active creation and curiosity and innovation and building — building the world that you want to see, right?

Nyge: So we’ll take it back to a little bit, a little bit before all of that work. Who was Monica in high school? And did you fit in any high school stereotypes or hang out with any particular groups?

Monica: Yeah, so I think I was an interesting case, but I guess we all kind of think that we’re interesting cases, you know? But I had friends that were in very distinct subcultures, like I had the hippie music kids that I hung out with that were listening to jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish and other bands. And then I had friends that were in theater and I was in some plays in high school. Then, I also had a big work career. I started working when I was like 15. And so I had like an outside core group of friends away from school. I’ve also always been really into art and making, so I kind of overlapped in those spaces as well. It was a relatively new public high school. I think I was one of the third graduating classes. So I think in some ways, some of those like groups and different social hang out/subcultures were kind of like forming because it was a newer school, right? They weren’t as like developed. And so I overlapped. I floated. I would like to be like in different groups, and I never really rooted myself solidly as like “the most of this one thing.”

Nyge: I could really identify with that. Like, I always felt the need — and I talked about this a little bit earlier in the episode, too. But to just get everybody in the school to like me. I want it to be like that person, because that’s what I saw on TV. I saw, like all the people who I liked in these high school movies, were the people who could go to any group and were accepted by everybody. And that was like the person I always wanted to be. And so in high school, I was like, OK, like, yeah, I play a lot of sports. I’m really into music and things like that. But also, I need to like, hang out with this group and this group and this group. And once I get everyone to like me, then I’ll be this like image of who I wanted to be in high school. But I did get a lot of pushback from that, too, from floating from group to group because different people would feel like I’m betraying them by hanging out with this, these different groups or anything like that. But I feel like that’s where these subcultures start to shift into a hierarchy. Do you agree with that?

Monica: Yeah, I would say 100 percent. And I think I can be problematic, right? Like the idea that you have to only be one thing, right? Or that you’re a poser if you identify as this, but also have this interest, right? Or hang out with this group as well. I think it’s interesting because subcultures, I would argue, emerged in many ways to like bust the dominant hierarchy, right? Our societal structure, right? To say that like, not everyone needs to be like wearing a button-down shirt and tie and like a cropped haircut, right? Like fitting into like this one mold like the 1950s, right? “Go to work. Do this. Blah blah blah.” But then you see that creeping into subcultures. Human nature comes into it, right? Like of people wanting that order, right? Even within the subculture that’s supposed to be pushing against the dominant, larger order of society. 

I also think that there’s always people like us. There’s always people that are like pushing those boundaries and saying, like, “No, I’m gonna hang out over here. I’m going to not just be this one thing.” And I think that that could be really powerful. It’s not just one or the other. And I think that that makes for a really interesting dynamic within the social space. And allows like for young people to see and be who they want to be, right? It gives them that power. 

And so I think that’s a really powerful role that youth subcultures have had for people is being able to dream and be and imagine and create, right, beyond what any possibilities we currently have are, right? But you always have the pushing against that. You always have young people that are like, “No, that’s not what this is.” You might have been the old head that says, “This is what the subculture has to be” or whatever, right? “But we’re creating new things over here, so we’re going to transform.” So it’s almost like it’s like a push and pull. (Nyge: Right) And I think that’s very important for young people to have the power to think beyond what is.

Nyge: It’s easier to say that person is bad. That person is a good. This person is OK. But if you actually gave humans their due complexity like that, you might be confronted with some truths that are a lot harder and more complicated to understand. And I think a lot of people don’t want to go down that path. You talk about youth subcultures in such a positive way. And then also, we’ve talked about high school hierarchies in more of a negative sense. How are youth subcultures and high school hierarchies related?

Monica: It’s important to note that hierarchy creeps into all of our ways of being. I don’t think there’s like one hierarchy in any high school. I think there’s always power relationships that are pushing and changing it, right? Today, a lot of that old school idea of the hierarchy where it’s like the cool jocks at the top and the nerds — Like, if you think about a lot of the images we’ve seen, like pop culture back in the day, like “The Breakfast Club” movie, I think it’s an oversimplification of what there usually is, even within the subcultures, right? There’s different power arrangements that will shift and change. And I think that today, there’s so much more information out there that’s accessible to young people. Kids can access knowledge and information from around the world, from anywhere. And I think that that has really leveled out the idea of hierarchy in many ways. (Nyge: Mm-Hmm.) Because young people can access different spaces to be who they are and express themselves and to feel confident and strong and powerful and doing that, even if it means going beyond their immediate physical school space. 

That is where I get excited about subcultures and the potential for young people, right? And the power that there is in the youth subcultures that young people become a part of. And want to, want to join because it’s a space for them to be themselves, to create for themselves, to create the future that they want and to push against the idea, right, that there is one box to fit in or one way to be. Our world is really shifting. And I think that’s, that could be a really amazing thing.

Nyge: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Monica: Oh, thank you, Nyge. It’s really good talking.


Nyge: Monica really made me think about some of the cliques in highschool differently. All of these different subcultures weren’t the problem. The problem was the hierarchies. We should encourage young people to explore all of these different subcultures but make sure everyone is allowed to explore them together. It gives people a sense of identity and if navigated correctly, it can give so many young people the opportunity to understand each other and themselves much better.


Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by Y-R Media….a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. 

Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and ya boy Nyge Turner. 

Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin. 

Original music for this episode created by the young musicians at YR:

Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, and Jacob Armenta.

Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler. 

Art for this episode by Brigido Bautista. Art direction by Pedro Vega, Jr

Special thanks to Eli Arbreton. And also to the young people who submitted their thoughts on high school: Nina Roehl, Michelle Hwang, Pranav Thurgam, Tiya Birru, and Ivelisse Diaz.

We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. 

Find them at

Don’t forget to do your homework! And by that, I mean go to your Apple Podcasts app and give our show a review and a rating. Five stars and an A plus if they got that option. 

You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and with that… see ya next week!


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