British Columbia·Matheson

'You have to be popular': Friends, parties and fitting in at high school

CBC reporter Jason D'Souza speaks to L.A. Matheson Secondary School students in Surrey, B.C., about high-school hierarchy and the pressure to be popular.

Social status is desired by those who don't have it — but those high up the ladder worry about falling off

Students socialize at L.A. Matheson Secondary School on May 9. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Word of a weekend party has gotten around at L.A. Matheson Secondary School and Grade 11 student Simran Jagroop is worried.

The older brother of the girl throwing the party is trying to restrict the number of teens coming to about 20 — but Jagroop, along with her friend Isha Singh, has already put the word out and knows "a lot more than that' are planning to show up.

'If it's happening, you gotta show up," Jagroop explained to CBC reporter Jason D'Souza, who spent a month speaking with students at the Surrey high school to get an inside look at teenage life.

According to Jagroop, parties are 'a big thing' at Matheson, but not everyone scores an invite. Only the popular kids are asked, people that Jagroop says 'like to have a fun, wild time'.

High school hierarchy has been a dominating theme in teen movies — and while it's perhaps not as dramatic as Hollywood would suggest, those dynamics are still prominent at Matheson. 

A big part of being a teenager is the social scene. Being popular can open a few doors — at least to a house party  — but it can also be a double-edged sword. Social status can be desired by students who don't have it — but those who rank high on the social ladder worry about falling off.

Popularity is almost tangible

The concept of popularity weighs on every student: From self-described cool kids like Gagan Kaushal, who said he works hard to maintain his status, to the quiet ones like Monika Dangwal, who struggled to fit in when she first moved from India.

Dangwal spends every lunch break tucked into a tiny corner of the school between a hallway and a staircase. 

She told D'Souza, who visited her there one afternoon, that when she first moved to Matheson she felt really alone and didn't want to stay at the school.

Monika Dangwal sits in the hallway at L.A. Matheson Secondary School, where she eats lunch everyday. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Dangwal said she had been laughed at by Matheson students for her "clothes and stuff" and that her closest friends at school were teachers.

"I just [thought] I will stay alone forever," she said.

Dangwal has since found a group of friends to share her high school experience with. 

But popularity can be tricky. There's no set of written rules for what makes you well liked and what gains you friends. Yet it's almost tangible when you walk into a classroom.

Grade 11 student Gagan Kaushal is one of those students who seems to have no shortage of friends.

When it comes to the idea of social hierarchy, Kaushal is candid: "It's not just our school, it's every school. You have to be popular."

Kaushal said it helps to have many friends to "talk through all the drama that goes on in high school." He says he feels for students who don't have that support.

However, Kaushal doesn't take his popularity for granted.

"What if I lose these friends? "Where do I go?" he asked. "I go to the very bottom."

This story is part of a series called Matheson, examining the lives of students at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. CBC journalist Jason D'Souza was given unparalleled access as he spent a month embedded at the high school in order to hear unfiltered stories of students today.

The Early Edition, Jason D'Souza