Point and Clique

Politics and policy.
May 7 1999 3:30 AM

Point and Clique

How the Poms, the Jocks, and the GOP Band rule Washington High School.

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Gaze around the sprawling Washington High campus at lunchtime, and the social geography is clear. High on the Hill, the Jocks and the Poms are eating in style, elbows up on linen tablecloths. "You wouldn't dare come here if you didn't know the people," chirps Mary Martha Corinne "Cokie" Roberts, head of the pompom squad (hence: Poms) and a leading contender for prom queen. "Once you're in with the girls and guys on the Hill, everyone is really nice. Once I made ABC, it was like I was just in."

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One table over, her close friend John McCain--nicknamed the "General" for his aggressiveness on the football field--echoes Roberts' sentiments. "All the Jocks and Poms party together, and everyone cares what we think about stuff. It may be unfair, but that just the way Washington is."

But down the Hill, deep in a basement cafeteria, the tables are Formica, the eyeglasses are thick, the ties are clip-ons, and the hair isn't quite coiffed. Here's where you'll find the Badgers, who are--and there's no nice way to say this--Washington's losers. "We have nothing against the Hillies," says Jacklyn, a GS-11, as she taps her ubiquitous identity badge nervously on the table. "But they have something against us. One day they pass a law that says raise seed-corn allowances. The next day they pass a law that says lower seed-corn allowances. Then, no matter what we do, they make fun of us and call us names like 'bureaucrats' and 'paper pushers.' It's not fair. It really hurts."

Never have such social divides seemed so unbridgeable--and so alarming--as they have since the tragedy last month at Columbine High School. Littleton has focused the public's attention on just how bewildering and even dangerous this maze of social hierarchy can be. Americans are realizing that our schools are fraught, filled with feuding social groups and organized according to unforgiving Darwinian principles. Beneath the gleaming surface of winners is a seething mass--the anti-social, the alienated, and the exploited.

Consider Washington High, a wealthy, self-important institution inside the Beltway. It's like any high school anywhere in the United States. A few days' wandering its marble halls reveals homogeneity on the surface--where did they find so many identical dark suits?--but alarming divisions below.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

"After Littleton, I immediately thought of Washington," says pompom squad co-captain Timmy Russert. "We have outcasts like the Badgers and the Wingers. A lot of the victims in Colorado were in popular groups. I'm kind of scared that popular groups here might get targeted."

"Washington isn't immune to the pressures that have spoiled the rest of America," says longtime Washington High civics teacher Robert Strauss--"Old Mr. Strauss," as everyone calls him. "Of course everything was better 40 years ago, when youngsters listened to their elders and helped each other out."

Washington High, like Columbine, has an absolute social hierarchy. The apex of the pyramid--a world away from the lowly Badgers--is student body president Bill Clinton, a fun-loving kid who transferred to Washington just a few years ago. He and his sidekicks, especially Al Gore and Bobby Rubin (treasurer, math whiz, and "Most Likely to Succeed"), mix easily with almost everyone. (Because they hang out smoking and whistling at girls behind the school's white administration building, they're called White Housers.)

Besides the White Housers, the two other leading cliques are the Jocks and the Poms, who have a friendly rivalry about which group is more important. The Jocks--aka the Players--include "General" McCain and "Leader" Trent Lott. They're stars on the field in the only sport that matters in Washington, political football. They lay down the social law. "We rule!" shouts Lott, gleefully. The Poms, by contrast, are Washington's cheerleaders. They tell everyone else about what the Jocks have done and why: "Everyone knows who we are," gloats Billy Kristol.

There are two challengers to these top dogs. One is the Band, sometimes called the House Republicans. They play and talk in unison. The leaders of the Band socialize with the Jocks--before he was expelled last year, Band leader Newton Gingrich briefly challenged Clinton for Most Popular--but rank-and-file Bandits detest the Jocks and Poms. Gingrich has been replaced as Band leader by percussionist Tommy DeLay. (DeLay also calls himself a Goth, in honor of his historical heroes.)

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