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OpinionColumnistsChristopher Leelum

When 'Cool Kids' are no more

High school students being dropped off at school.

High school students being dropped off at school. Photo Credit: iStock

Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies who got married in the Summer of '75. They lived for a while in very nice style, but of course got a divorce in the end.

Thirty years later, Billy Joel's characters may have an explanation.

In a paper entitled "What Ever Happened to the 'Cool' Kids?", researchers at the University of Virginia have found clues as to why kids like Brenda and Eddie don't find success.

I like to consider myself an Eddie of my middle-school years. My close group of friends have a running joke that we maxed out our "cool meter" before we hit high school. The name of our texting group chat is "We Peaked in 8th Grade." Not to brag, but I was invited to all the birthday parties -- Chuck E. Cheese, laser tagging, pool parties. Adolescent in high demand? You bet.

That changed when I fell into conformity in high school. Class clown, sports jock, computer nerd, I was none of them anymore. I didn't stand out. Instead, I watched my classmates sort themselves out into the cliched categories.

Of those cliques, the kids that were considered by their peers as the coolest and most mature for their age were the ones that the UVA researchers looked at. For 10 years, they studied 184 kids as they aged from 13 to 23.

Their findings: For those of us who resented the popular jocks or the posh queens of their school years, there's good news -- coolness only gets you so far.

The study found that many cool kids were facing criminal records and drug problems by the time they turned 23. Their "pseudomaturity" levels decreased over time, while the kids who were lower on the social ladder skimmed by with cleaner records. "Early adolescent attempts to gain social status via pseudomature behavior are not simply passing annoyances . . . but rather may signal movement . . . away from progress toward real psychosocial competence."

Basically, cool kids kept doing what they thought would cement their position atop the peer pyramid, like drugs, but those behaviors turned out to be detrimental to their overall success.

As someone who used to prefer staying out of the spotlight in high school, I don't have much of a horse in this race. I don't root for Brenda and Eddie's ensured demise, nor do I cheer for the unpopular kids' slow arc of success.

Instead, this is a lesson for those who always envisioned a regal arrival to their high school reunion. Pump the brakes, those who you may have considered beneath you may become your employer.

Also, to the parents who give their children's popularity the most concern, presumably because you lacked it at their age, you may be cursing your child. As badly as you'd like little Eddie to be the class superstar, his expectation to retain that title could leave him in a troublesome position.

We all know a Brenda and an Eddie. But if you can't think of one, then Mr. Joel probably wrote the song about you.

Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern with Newsday and amNewYork.