For Ages
12 to 99

Maggie Dempsey is tired of moving all over the country. Her parents are second-generation hippies who uproot her every year or so to move to a new city. When Maggie was younger, she thought it was fun and adventurous. Now that she’s a teenager, she hates it. When she moved after her freshman year, she left behind good friends, a great school, and a real feeling of belonging. When she moved her sophomore year, she left behind a boyfriend, too. Now that they’ve moved to Austin, she knows better. She’s not going to make friends. She’s not going to fit in. Anything to prevent her from liking this new place and them from liking her. Only . . . things don’t go exactly as planned.

An Excerpt fromHow Not to Be Popular

Tip: Popular girls never go anywhere by themselves. Thus, it must also stand to reason that the unpopular are always alone.

First days of school always make me feel extra alive. My senses just seem magically improved. It’s like I can fully live in the moment and simultaneously float along beside myself, carefully recording everything for later viewing. And this, I know, will become a treasured memory. The kind that replays in full color and digital surround sound, with credits rolling at the end. This will be the day I finally figure out my life. The day I overcome the burden of being a Traveling Dempsey. Today I begin Operation Avoid Friends (OAF?).

Knowing I have nothing to lose this time around makes me feel better about the whole situation. To tell the truth, I’m even a little excited about it.

Of course, this is the first day of school only for me. Everyone else has been here for over two weeks. That’s another thing about my parents: they can’t be on time for anything. First they took their own sweet hippie time making it to Austin; then yesterday they had the entire day to officially enroll me at Lakewood High, but when did we walk in the door? At a quarter to five. The registrar was just about to shut down her computers—something she reminded us of several times as she raced through the enrollment process. Of course Les and Rosie didn’t seem to notice. As Les slowly filled out forms in his ornate handwriting, the lady kept tapping her car keys against her desk. But Rosie just hummed along with the rhythm.

So here I am, getting my first glimpse of Lakewood’s teen population. The students don’t look all that different from Portland kids. Or Seattle or Berkeley or Boulder or Madison or Santa Fe kids, for that matter. All the typical groupings are here. This is my tenth high school, so as you can imagine, I’ve gotten really good at figuring out the cliques and the power rankings, just by noticing the way kids dress and act.

Hanging at the edge of the parking lot, under a cloud of cigarette smoke, are the Thugs, aka Burnouts, Stoners, or Fry-Boys. Rockers and Skaters are subsets of this group, and they overlap like Venn diagrams for partying purposes. Trevor was a part of this group in Portland; shaggy-haired Skaters were the dominant breed there, but it’s obviously different in Austin. Here they seem to be of skinnier, squirrelier stock and they aren’t surrounded by a gaggle of admiring girls.

Sitting at a couple of picnic tables on the front lawn are the Brains. Or Nerds, Honor Roll Dweebs, Debate Club Dorks, or Goobers. Judging by all the big black instrument cases, I’d say most of them take band, which is typical. At other schools I’ve learned that almost all superbrain students take band or orchestra, but not all band or orchestra students are superbrains. Band as phylum, Brains as genus.

Swarming around a stone wall that separates the parking lot from the school is what I guess to be the art and/or theater crowd. A guy in camo pants and a T-shirt with something ironic on it (I’m too far away to read it) is reenacting some outrageous sketch with a bad British accent. Meanwhile his peers cheer him on. A Goth couple in the front is really cracking up, which makes me smile. It’s always funny to see Goths laugh.

And finally, scattered about the covered walkway leading to the school’s front doors are the heads of the high school ecosystem. This category differs slightly from school to school, but usually it includes perfect poser types with an overabundance of money and power. In this case, preppy jocks appear to be the ruling class—mainly guys with football-player builds, spiky flattop hairdos, and urban designer clothes.

There are a few pretty girls sprinkled in with them, but mainly as accessories. I haven’t yet spotted the school’s ruling females, the crowd I typically try to integrate with.

Being part of the power clique means you’re auto- matically protected to a degree. You get access to the best clubs and parties and sometimes have more privileges at school. Everything is just easier. I’ve never made top tier, but I’ve almost always been part of that scene—until this time, that is. Under the rules of my antipopularity plan, I can’t associate with any friendworthy people. Instead I’m going to be one of those weird outsider types—the ones who are always by themselves and give off lots of keep-away vibes. The kind of person no one notices after a while.

“Hey! New girl!” One of the alpha guys calls out to me. He’s cute. Real cute, in fact. Dark blond hair, strong jaw, dimples. I know I’m trying to avoid people, but this guy is so gorgeous it’s hard to look away. “Where’re you from?” he drawls, adding extra emphasis to “you.”

I hear my response in my head. All over the place. It’s a struggle, but I don’t let it out. Instead I tear my gaze off him and fiddle with my messenger bag, hoping he’ll lose interest. Just being near a guy reminds me of Trevor.

“Hey, you! I’m talking to you!” He raises his voice, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice that his pals all turn their heads simultaneously. Even a couple of passersby slow down to watch.

I wish he’d just declare me a weirdo and move on, but instead he hops down off his perch and walks up next to me. His cohorts pivot around, their faces gleaming expectantly.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the guy asks. He leans forward, hovering his face over mine as if to give the best possible view of his perfect cheekbones and navel-sized dimples.

A warm sensation trickles through me—probably hormones. This is the type of guy girls embarrass themselves for, a guy who could possibly help me get over Trevor… but even on the bizarro chance we hooked up (which isn’t likely), who would help me get over him when we move in four months?

As I stand there, sifting through my jumbled thoughts, the guy’s face slowly flattens. “Man, what’s wrong with you?” he asks. “Just trying to be friendly here.”

“Blow her off, Miles,” calls out one of his guy pals. “She’s probably got someone else giving it to her.” Denied any entertainment, the crowd turns back toward the other approaching students.

Under the Cover