Fitting In and Why We Love Losers Everybody has their own personal horror story from high school. In Hollywood and in literature, "geek" is almost its own genre. Contributors to the new book, When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School, share their stories of desperately trying to fit in.

Fitting In and Why We Love Losers

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

The iconic teen movie "The Breakfast Club" may be older than many of today's high school kids, but it remains a fairly accurate description of the categories into which teens divide: jocks, druggies, preps, freaks and guys who don't do so well with the opposite sex - otherwise known as losers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Breakfast Club")

Mr. ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL (Actor): (as Brian Ralph Johnson) I'm not cherry.

Mr. JUDD NELSON (Actor): (as John Bender) When have you ever gotten laid?

Mr. HALL: I've laid lots of times.

Mr. NELSON: Name one.

Mr. HALL: She lives in Canada. Met her at Niagara Falls. You wouldn't know her.

CONAN: Of course, there are all kinds of losers: guys who couldn't score a date, let alone hit a homerun if their lives depended on it, geeky pocket-protector types, kids who dress weird, and are the shunned by the popular set, or some combination thereof.

We grownups know that many losers grow up to be successful engineers, doctors, lawyers, executives, and that an unusually large percentage of them turn out to be writers, which perhaps explains a new collection of essays that capture some of the painful, funny and painfully funny moments in loserdom. The book is entitled, appropriately, "When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". And surprise, the entries the entries are penned entirely by dorks cum novelists.

Later in the program, we bid farewell to one of television's great sports personalities: George Michael, host of the long-time syndicated show, "The Sports Machine".

But first, adventures in loserdom. Were you a loser in high school? How did you get by? Have you completely shed that former identity, or have you embraced your inner nerd? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org. You can also chime in on our blog: npr.org/blogofthenation.

To start off, we're joined by the novelist John McNally, editor and contributor to the book "When I Was a Loser". He joins us from NPR's bureau in Chicago. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOHN MCNALLY (Author): Hi. Thanks for being here, Neal.

CONAN: And you have a - this book, at least, has a pretty broad definition of the word loser.

Mr. MCNALLY: Yeah, well, what I did was - well, I write a lot about adolescents in fiction, and I thought that I would write an essay. And then I begin thinking about all the other writers that I know, and also just how universal the theme is - not only in other people's essays, but in fiction. You know, I think of books like "Catcher in the Rye" or other iconic teen books, and, of course, all the iconic teen movies.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: And I just - I didn't see a collection out there that really I felt encapsulated that theme of loserdom, and so I began soliciting work by a number of writers whose work I admire, and I left it up to them to define what a loser actually is. So I gave them the challenge of saying - you know, I just said, you know, turn in an essay about your high school loserdom years…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: …and I was amazed at, really, sort of the variety of how the people defined it.

CONAN: Interesting. In your essay, in the introduction, you make a bold statement saying that we were all losers, in other words, that all those people who drove us absolutely crazy in high school, they were somehow losers, too?

Mr. MCNALLY: Well, I'd like to think that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNALLY: I…

CONAN: Oh, you're being nice, that's all. You're just being nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNALLY: No, I think the thing is is that - especially in high school, the common denominator is this idea of trying to fit in, and I feel that most of us feel like outsiders in one way or the other. Even, you know - although it didn't seem like it at the time, I would say even the, you know, the jock, the successful quarterback…

CONAN: The quarterback who went out with the cheerleading captain and then seemed to have a golden road all the way to Harvard and success in life.

Mr. MCNALLY: Right, right. You know, I just - I feel that if - in those cases, sometimes high school was their peak, which then, you know, that to me sort of defines a type of loserdom, even though it might not have been encapsulated at that particular time. I guess it's - you know, again, going back to the idea that I feel like it's trying to fit in and trying not to be an outsider, which seems to be what most people in high school are trying - striving for. Coolness is this, you know, what I call the Holy Grail, and so few people actually achieve that.

CONAN: Cool is, of course, a word that is carefully defined in a lot of these essays as - you're right, it's absolutely critical to this distinction of who is in and who is out.

Mr. MCNALLY: Right, and one of the themes that comes up over and over is this idea of trying to fit in. You know, one of the authors, Will Clarke, writes about being the kid everyone hated in high school.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: And then he tries to use - he uses subliminal messages in his posters to try to get people to vote for him for student body president. Maud Newton writes about being an outcast, being - because of her mother's own peculiar brand of religious fervor. Erika Krouse writes about being an American who goes to high school in Japan and feeling like an outsider there. But then when she returns to the U.S., she feels that she no longer belongs here, either. So it's just that theme that keeps coming up over and over, and it manifests itself in, I think, a variety of different ways throughout the book.

CONAN: Were you a loser? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. We're speaking with John McNally, a contributor to and editor of the new book, "When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". And let's get Ann on the line. Ann's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.

ANN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ANN: Yeah, I was calling to talk about - when I was high school, I felt like one of those students that didn't fit in, even with like the smarter dorks, you know, or geeks or however you want to put it - the losers, you know. There was like everybody was in their own little clique, and I didn't even fit in in any kind of clique. And my quote in my yearbook was, you know, for my senior year was: "If these are best years of my life, I'm sorely disappointed."

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: It was funny. So many people got mad about that, and they know they didn't enjoy high school, either. But it was kind of an interesting experience, and what kept me going through was, like, I knew that once I got into the real world…

CONAN: Hmm.

ANN: …that, you know, it would be easier to be accepted because people didn't feel like they had to fit into groups as adults, you know, because, you know, you're floating around all the time. You're not in high school, you know.

CONAN: I have to say, Ann, after reading this book, all these essays, I'd forgotten that whole thing about high school being - supposed to be being the best years of your life…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNALLY: Right.

CONAN: …because John McNally's contributors don't really describe it that way.

ANN: Yeah, well, most of them wouldn't, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: But a lot of people did. But, you know, I think even they are kidding themselves, you know, because even when you look back, it was - everybody felt like they didn't belong in some way or another, I think.

CONAN: Was not feeling like you belonged, ultimately, wasn't that kind of a survival mechanism?

ANN: Yeah, definitely. Like I said, what was pushing me through was thinking that someday I will just - it won't matter that I belong or not. You know, high school is the only place where I think it really matters that you do belong, you know, because that's what gets you through is - you know, 90 percent of high school is being social, I think, rather than an educational tool so, you know.

CONAN: Well, that makes me feel better, because I didn't study much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: I didn't, either. I read what I wanted to read. (unintelligible)

CONAN: Me, too, Ann. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ANN: All right, thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Author Julianna Baggott is among the contributors to the book. She wrote about her experiences in high school in an essay entitled "The Handgun of Idle Young Attractiveness", and she joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. JULIANNA BAGGOTT (Author): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I have to ask you to explain that title for us: "The Handgun of Idle Young Attractiveness". Your essays is really about your experience discovering that handgun.

Ms. BAGGOTT: I think it is. I mean, I started out in high school very much a loser, and I have this one little anecdote where I tell about wearing my bathing suit, which was very similar in the front to back, as I was very similar in the front to back, and wearing it backwards and not particularly noticing until a wedgie kind of appeared later. And no one - the sad thing is that no one noticed whatsoever. And then kind of moving through - going from being the lowest on a totem pole, being this scrawny little girl…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BAGGOTT: …into suddenly blossoming into the same girl in a bikini getting out of that pool at 16 and kind of being ogled by men and, you know, other, you know, college boys and fathers and professors and all the people who were kind of around the pool, and not being prepared for that upheaval. So the handgun is actually how I felt - like I was suddenly armed. I felt like I had a weapon. I walked out of the pool one day a scrawny little girl in, you know, wearing a swimsuit backwards, and walked out the next day, you know, kind of armed.

CONAN: And you are delighted in your weaponry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: Well, I was for a while there. There was a window, and then the loserdom kind of returns, you know, as I get closer to midlife.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There's a lovely line you write: It's gorgeous that the hierarchy can be so easily torqued. It's dangerous, too, because the power is in many ways an illusion. For me, it would eventually become addictive, but that, my friends, is another essay. It was one the first essays I've ever read that wanted to make me read the sequel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But you go on to conclude at the end of your essay that looking back, you miss your handgun. You've misplaced it somewhere along the road.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: I certainly do miss my handgun, absolutely, and being, you know, young and attractive - and idly attractive, not even working at it. Now, I mean, oh, my gosh, the machinations I have to go through to look halfway decent. But, yeah, it is. It's just idleness, and we don't prepare girls for that power shift. We prepare them for having to kind of be wily and live by their wits and, you know, not erode self-esteem, but sometimes it can be the other - what to do with the sudden power…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BAGGOTT: …but, you know, as Monica Lewinsky might be able to talk better about that subject…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: …but, you know, that kind of thing.

CONAN: You now teach at Florida State University, and I suspect - college is different from high school - but I suspect there may be a few handguns walking around the campus there.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yes. And what I want to - you know, even the girls who are not, you know, flaunting midriffs and all that, I want to pull them aside and tell them that they're so gorgeous, you know. I mean, they have no idea how beautiful they are. They're so self-conscious and so uncomfortable a lot of times, but really, it's that self-consciousness that also makes them so beautiful. And they don't realize that they're glowing in some idle way.

CONAN: And that this is a magnificence that will, of course, fade with time.

Ms. BAGGOTT: It will, and hopefully, some wisdom will take its place. Hopefully, there's some sort of bargain in there that we get something in return. I'm hoping.

CONAN: Well, anyway, stay with us if you would. We're going to take some more calls when we come back from a short break. We're talking with Julianna Baggott and John McNally. They are both contributors to "When I Was a Loser: True Story of (Barely) Surviving High School". Call us, tell us, were you a loser in high school? Of which particular strife? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

As painful as it may be for some of us, we're talking with John McNally about high school. He collected a series of essays full of awkward moments and painful memories in a new book, "When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". You can read his introduction to that book at npr.org/talk, and as always, you're invited to join us. Were you a loser? How did you make it through high school? Have you embraced your inner geek? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Also with us is Julianna Baggott, a contributor to the book and author of the novel "Girl Talk".

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Andrew. Andrew's with us from Roanoke in Virginia.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, how are you all doing?

CONAN: Very well.

ANDREW: I was a major dork when I was in high school, and that's the term we preferred, was dork. And I can't take full credit for this, but my friend, he came up with two tiers of dorkdom. And there was a dorque with a Q-U-E, which we were, and a dork with a K.

CONAN: Aha, and what was the distinction?

ANDREW: Well, the dorque with the Q-U-E was a self-aware dork, someone who knew that they were a dork and sort of embraced it. The dork…

CONAN: Somebody who washed their pocket protector every night.

ANDREW: Right, right. Whereas the dork with a K was absolutely clueless of the fact that they were a dork, so. I'll take your comments about that off the air. You all have a good day.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call. And John McNally, it does seem that in every one of the essays I read there was - no matter which group the person was in or not in, there was somebody always they considered a little bit lower than they were.

Mr. MCNALLY: Yeah, and I think that that's - there's a definite hierarchy to loserdom. And, you know, in my essay, for example, one of the things I write about was that in grade school, I was the second fattest kid in grade school. And I took great pride in the fact that I wasn't the fattest kid, that I felt like I hadn't let myself completely go. But I lost a bunch of weight by the time I got to high school, so I was suddenly six-foot tall and 120 pounds, but I had this sort of inner fat - angry fat kid still inside me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNALLY: And so what I did was, of course, not thinking it through psychologically at the time how messed up it was, but I think I took it out on not the people who were taking it out on me when I was overweight, but taking it out on the people who were lower than me…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: …on that scale of loserdom, because it was suddenly easy targets.

CONAN: Yeah. It's some of the most poignant moments - not just in your essay, but in some of the others - the cruelties inflicted upon those considered of lesser rank. Those are the ultimate sign of loserdom.

Mr. MCNALLY: Yeah. I mean, I think being a teenager is a form of insanity, first of all. I think, you know, if you think about how little it takes to set off a teenager, how raw their feelings are, how sensitive they are to every nuance and every gesture - I mean, it's the sort of thing that in an adult we would say the person's crazy, the person's unhinged.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: But as a teenager, because of, you know, the change in hormones, that we do all of these irrational things, you know, such as sort of, you know, finding the person who's lower on the scale and taking it out on them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: But not thinking it through, you know, because any rational person would realize immediately, you know, that this is just psychologically messed up.

CONAN: And Julianna, it's not enough to just explain to somebody, don't worry about it. It's just whatever chemicals are squirting through your brainpan today.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That doesn't help at all.

CONAN: No.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yeah, that tends to just infuriate people more. Absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this is Haley. Haley's with us from Little Rock, Arkansas.

HALEY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

HALEY: My experience in high school, it was interesting. I wasn't - I was bullied a lot in, like, junior high. And once I got to high school, I found that it sort of stopped - the bullying stopped. And the coolest thing that these kids were doing was going to concerts at night that I was helping putting on. And I think that once I started being a concert promoter, it helped me get out of high school sooner.

I ended up graduating at 17 and going on, and I'm putting on big events here. And I see the people I go to high school with everyday, you know, at these shows, and they think it's the coolest thing ever that I've, you know, done something with what they thought was a hobby in high school, so.

CONAN: So the ultimate revenge, then.

HALEY: Absolutely. It's quite gratifying.

CONAN: And do you ever make sure that those people who may have at one time -I'm sure inadvertently - tortured you end up sitting behind a pillar somewhere?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HALEY: No, no. I like to, you know, do them favors and say, oh, hey, why don't you come over here? It's a little bit closer, and, you know, would you like to meet a band every once in a while, and that sort of thing. It's even better when you can be nice to them because they realize, you know, it didn't affect you that much after all.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Haley.

HALEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Revenge, Julianna Baggott - after it's all over, looking back, there's a very strange way these hierarchies of high school settle out. The people who were at the top of that particular pyramid, it doesn't necessarily translate to success in life.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Oh, well, that's true, but writers - I don't know how it works for writers because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: …we start out as cameras - and I don't know which comes first, whether it's our solitude and kind of feeling like we're on the fringes of things looking in that makes us writers, or vice versa. But, you know, my revenge - my loserdom began in my household. You know, I had older brothers and sisters, and that's where my bullying began, being the youngest. And so my revenge is writing the essay so that I can, you know, tell my sister…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: …you know, out my sister for the vicious things that she did to me for pleasure.

CONAN: And they were vicious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAGGOTT: They were vicious.

CONAN: They were very mean.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yes.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Jana(ph) in Athens, Ohio.

I think it's only fair to say that being head cheerleader is not always a golden ticket to popularity. In my high school, the cheerleaders were among the losers, while the female athletes - particularly the basketball players - were the popular girls. I figured this out after I tried out for and made the varsity cheerleading squad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What a way to find out. But that must be an unusual inversion of the normal state of affairs, I suspect. You wrote about, Julianna, Delaware, where you grew up?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Yes, which doesn't appear much in literature, so it's worth noting, yes. Very boring state.

CONAN: Yes, went out of your way to get mention…

Ms. BAGGOTT: I did.

CONAN: …of George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers in that piece.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Absolutely, every time I can. Absolutely.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail, this from Amy in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was that shadow passing between campus buildings by cutting through basement hallways or bathroom shortcuts. I didn't talk to anyone until I happened to meet a fellow online. We love, hate, laugh at and learn from the same things. We're comfy with our common awkwardness. No one else gets me like he does. I love him with all my heart, goofy hair and odd jokes included. Next week will be our five-year wedding anniversary. Take that, varsity squad. So John McNally, another successful loser chiming in.

Mr. MCNALLY: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, one thing I was kind of curious about, too is how high school students today - how maybe it shifted and somewhat. I mean, I think that there is that - one of the things that the essays do is sort of tap into that emotional core that I think is universal. But, you know, we live in an age of exhibitionism now…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: …and I think some of what would have been embarrassing 25 years ago, you know, now with YouTube and MySpace, that there's almost a kind of willingness or consent on the part of the participants to just show themselves as who they are and not be as embarrassed about it.

CONAN: Well, it's odd that the stuff that happened to you often seems quaint and amusing. The stuff that you did to others - getting back to that cruelty thing - regret doesn't seem to go away.

Mr. MCNALLY: No, no. I think, you know, regret is one of those things I think that if anything - I mean, for me it just - it's built over time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNALLY: You know, it builds. You know, even though I think I sensed at the time that it was wrong and I did feel - there were moments of regret. For example, the one boy that I made fun of and I realized that it was actually a disability that he had, and I immediately apologized to him, but he wouldn't talk to me again. And I always felt bad about that. And, of course, as I got older, you know, I can say, well, I was 13 when that happen. I still feel bad about it.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on the line. This is Kitty - Kitty with us from Boone, North Carolina.

KITTY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KITTY: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Good.

KITTY: This is a fun topic. I just wanted to say that I was one of those many losers in high school. And, you know, I actually enjoyed it because you didn't have to be keeping up with the cool girls. You didn't have to be at the best parties. You didn't have to say the right things or wear the right things. You just kind of hung out with your own friends and let things go by.

CONAN: Hmm. Liberating. Julianna Baggott, did you think it that way?

Ms. BAGGOTT: Oh, I had a secret self, I think. And I learned to negotiate my secret self. Like I - you know, I had had an unruly crush on David Mamet, but when people asked, I would say it was Boris Becker because, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: One was more acceptable than the other.

Ms. BAGGOTT: …he made more - yeah, he made more sense. People didn't know who Mamet was. And so having my secret self, I think, you know, it would have been more liberating if I'd been more like the caller and been able to say Mamet. You know, I love Mamet.

KITTY: Yeah, it's just - well, you know, I figure that the cool people weren't really listening to me anyway, so what did it matter?

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Right, right.

CONAN: And Kitty, you've gone on to be a stunning success in?

KITTY: I'm a baker now, and I'm just living in the mountains here in North Carolina and just enjoying my life. I married another former loser, and we are just having a great time together.

CONAN: Congratulations, Kitty. Thanks very much for the call.

KITTY: Thank you, have a good day.

CONAN: Julianna Baggott, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. BAGGOTT: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Julianna Baggott was kind enough to join us today from the studios of member station WFSU in Tallahassee. She's the author of the best-selling novel "Girl Talk". Her latest novel is "Which Brings Me To You: A Novel of Confessions", which she co-wrote with Steve Almond.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Tim. Tim's with us from St. Louis.

TIM (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to say I thought in high school I was not the loser. I was, you know, captain of the football team, did date the cheerleader, thought I hung around with what was the cool crowd. But until I became a high school teacher myself and painfully saw who I actually was in high school, I realized then I think I was the loser.

CONAN: In what respect? What part of your younger self do you now find qualifies you for loserdom?

TIM: I think just seeing the kids that everyone thought were the cool kids as I was teacher and looking at them and thinking those kids are who I was in high school and they, I don't think, are the cool kids. I think everyone else was looking up to the wrong people.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And did you - were you guilty of flagrant abuse of you cooldom, your position at the top of the high school pyramid?

TIM: No, no, I think we - I treated everyone really - I think everyone got along very well in my high school, as well as the high school I taught at. I just think that the people that got all the praise, I think, unfortunately were the wrong people.

There were just amazing kids when I was a high school teacher that got no respect. They got no attention whatsoever. And it was then that made me a little bit depressed when I thought about all the people I didn't know when I was in high school.

CONAN: Hmm. John McNally, you weren't a basketball star by any stretch of the imagination, but you played and played on the high school baseball team as well and sort of had that, I guess, entree into that uppermost senior level of coolness in high school.

Mr. JOHN MCNALLY: Actually, that was Owen King in his essay.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me.

Mr. MCNALLY: No, I was in the drama club. So I was…

CONAN: Oh, I've gotten your essays confused. I apologize.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCNALLY: No, that's fine. But that's, you know, the drama club was where all the outcasts sort of gathered, I think. Although, again, I didn't really think of that so much at the time, but that was, you know, the drama club or the…

CONAN: If there was a poetry club and a chess club, you could go there, too.

Mr. MCNALLY: Right, exactly. I mean…

TIM: …also be, I was, again, you know, the drama geek when I was in high school, and I became the drama teacher in high school.

CONAN: Oh, really?

TIM: So I did see that total turn around and how those kids sometimes were treated by others.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. We're talking with John McNally, the editor and a contributor to - though I misidentified his essay - contributor to the book, "When I was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Over the years, Hollywood has produced a host of movies about high school losers. Some poke fun at geeks. Others are a little more empathetic. Paul Weitz has touched on many of those themes. He's the director of "American Pie" and "About a Boy", among others. He joins us now from the studio of Gigs on the Go in Hollywood, California.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. PAUL WEITZ (Film Director): Thanks for having me. I should also say that I directed those with my brother Chris, who's a really wonderful director.

CONAN: Co-director then with your brother, Chris. Were you a loser in high school?

Mr. WEITZ: Well, I went to an all boy's school, so we were all losers.

CONAN: By definition, yeah.

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I suppose so. I mean, the weird thing is - and it's sort of being pointed to with the speakers so far - is losers seem to be the new winner. No one will actually cop to having been a winner in high school. Even the guys who were sort of captain of the football team cherish this idea that they were somehow outcasts.

CONAN: Yet this is an idea that in your films provides a lot of - well, comedy among other things - but a lot of entertainment. But this is real angst. This is real emotion. This is something that people are desperately concerned about.

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I mean, sitting here, I was actually feeling a lot of that anxiety listening to your show so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: I wonder if people are sort of like pulling over on the road and sweating. Yeah, it's kind of a strange thing. John was talking earlier about how this is also the time of life when there's a big injection of hormones into the system.

And it's - this feeling of being a loser, I think the anxiety that adheres to it is possibly because, you know, in the animal world, losers actually do lose. They don't get to propagate. But we've got this strange set of behaviors which allows us to feel that sometime down the line, we're going to actually succeed because of our isolation and neuroticism.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, your movies "American Pie", "About a Boy", they certainly portray some of the pain and insecurity of high school. But it seems to me that you were also trying to show some of the vulnerability of the kids that you were portraying.

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I mean, it would be an interesting challenge to try to do a movie about a group of winners in high school who sail through things happily. But, you know, it's an old dramatic maxim that the characters have to be overcoming adversity. And that's what one has sympathy for.

CONAN: Well, we all also have the experience of high school - certainly, the ratings of your films, to get into them. And then at that moment, this is one of the most vivid experiences of our lives - for any number of reasons - for being cast into this new social situation, because of all those hormones, because of what we're learning about the world outside, about ourselves.

This is a moment where we remember a lot of what happened in high school with crystal clarity. And, Paul Weitz, we don't necessarily remember what happened last week very well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: No, it's true. And, I mean, when the definition of being a loser changes - you know, earlier I was trying to think if there was a sort of prototypical moment where I felt like a loser in school. And actually, what I flashed back to was - I think it was senior year of high school.

I was going to play tennis. I wasn't a particularly good tennis player. And my dad wanted to go watch me play tennis. And we didn't spend a ton of time together, and I felt like that would make me seem like a loser if I was sitting there playing tennis with my dad watching. So I said no, please don't come hang out with me. And thinking back, I feel like a terrible loser for having done that.

And then the second part of the story was that I borrowed his jeep to go play, and I managed to strip the gears riding to the tennis match. And I had to call him and tell him that I needed to be towed to the repair shop. I never got to play, and I got both experiences of being a loser - being an actual loser, of thinking I was too cool.

CONAN: The total - how long did you stand in that phone booth before you dropped a dime and called your dad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: It was a while. It was a truly awful moment.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, this book is filled with awful moments just like that, in case you'd like to read (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I'm looking forward to it.

CONAN: It's "When I was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". We'll be back with more of your calls about high school loserdom when we come back from a short break. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today, we're talking about losers and why we love them. In just a few minutes, we'll be talking with George Michael as the Sports Machine ushers its way off the air.

We're talking now, though, Paul Weitz. He's director of "American Pie" and "About a Boy", among other movies, and knows a thing or two about getting audiences to root for the lovable loser. Of course, he co-directed those films with his brother. Also with us, John McNally, who's the editor of and contributor to, "When I was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School".

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Jeff - Jeff with us in Highway, Indiana. Or are you on the highway in Indiana?

JEFF (Caller): Yeah. I'm in Georgia.

CONAN: In Georgia. Or one of those places, anyway. Your car's moving very quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What did you have to say, Jeff?

JEFF (Caller): I just wanted to say that, Neal Conan, I can't believe I'm talking to you. You're my favorite radio personality. And I thought the issue was settled back in the late '80s when Huey Lewis came out with "Hip to be Square". But I guess not.

CONAN: "Hip to be Square".

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: But, you know, the reason I feel like I was a loser like the other caller and didn't know it is because, you know, I quit chorus to play basketball just because of the stigma. Wasn't really the time constraints, so…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JEFF: …so I played basketball, voted the most funniest, so I guess by worldly standards I'm cool. But, you know, I wasn't so cool because I wasn't cool enough to stand up for what I loved, which is singing, you know. And now I play guitar and sing all the time, and play a little basketball.

CONAN: And play basketball on the weekends. And how do you do at both?

JEFF: How did I do what?

CONAN: How do you do at both? I assume you play guitar and sing for a living?

JEFF: No.

CONAN: Oh, that's an avocation, too.

JEFF: Yeah. Amateur.

CONAN: Amateur. Well, if you love it, it's the most important thing, though.

JEFF: There you go.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And let's see if we can talk now to Marcia. Marcia's with us from Clovis, California.

MARCIA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MARCIA: Well, when I called in, I told her my story, and she said that's a great story and everybody that hears it says the same thing. I'm married to - I was a high school dork, and I'm married to the guy who was the big guy at high school - at another high school in the town. And he was class president and into sports and doing all kinds of things. And our family joke is that if we had met in high school, we wouldn't have met, because I was so dorky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I have to ask, given that history, what do you two have to talk about?

MARCIA: You know, it's really funny. When you get right down to it, he was very outgoing, but deep down he didn't really know how to have a real social conversation one-on-one. And so we have a great relationship. We do.

And what I have to say, you know, we've been married almost 23 years now, and there are things that I didn't do in high school that he did - like sports and different things. And while we watch our children excel at these things, I feel a little tinge of sadness that I didn't do those things. And a little tinge of in-your-face to people because, here, my child's doing really well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And if you had the chance, I assume, you would never go back to high school.

MARCIA: You know, my daughter runs track, and she's fantastic. She's gotten offers from all over the country. She's been to state three times. She's really great. And I was fast in high school, and I really actually - for that one thing - kind of sometimes wish that I had tried, because I'll never know -could I have been that good?

And I used to get a little teary watching her run, thinking could have been. And so my advice to anybody who's - well, probably not a lot of high schoolers are listening to this show - so get out there and try it, because you never know. And you can't go back. Sometimes you can't go back, and you did have regrets.

There are things that I've regretted. And a lot of the things, though, that made me dorky are things that I enjoy now since then. I've noticed when we have been to a couple of class reunions that the things that make you really dorky also made you probably a better citizen and a more standout person. And your uniqueness serves you well later in life, if it didn't serve you terribly well in the go along with everybody high school atmosphere.

CONAN: Marcia, thanks very much, and we wish your daughter the best. And break a record or two.

MARCIA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate that. She said, you know, thinking about going back, and you know, you can't. It's one thing you go through once, and you can't go back. And Paul Weitz, a lot of people would say thank God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: I guess one could go back with, you know, with hindsight and know how to act and how to manipulate situations, it might be fun.

CONAN: Manipulate the situations - John McNally, is there anybody there clever enough, mature enough, confident enough to actually be aware of what they're doing enough to manipulate the situation successfully?

Mr. MCNALLY: You know, there probably is, but I don't think that I knew them. You know, I mean, I just - I can't imagine at that age, even - you know, I felt that I - I would say when I was 14, 15, 16 - you know, I always felt incredibly self-aware. But I realized years later that I wasn't at all, that I really had no idea why I was doing the things that I was doing, why I was being extraordinarily self-conscious or pathologically shy around certain girls.

You know, I mean, it seemed impossible to sort of break out of that mold. And I think what the last caller said that was kind of interesting was that, you know, if she and her, you know, future husband had gone to the same high school, that they wouldn't have gotten together.

And I think high school was like its own biodome in the sense that, you know, we - it has its own structure. It has its own system of, you know, cliques and whatnot, and I don't think it - I think you have to get out of the biodome, in my case, you know, going away to college before I began sort of, you know, realizing all of the various, you know, issues or problems or why I was doing the sorts of things I was doing. I needed to get away from that.

CONAN: You can almost hear Paul Weitz scribbling away. Biodome, what a great idea. It'll be a major motion picture in three years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEITZ: I think we can cast that.

CONAN: Yeah. Paul Weitz, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate you coming in to talk to us about high school.

Mr. WEITZ: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Paul Weitz, co-director of films such as "American Pie" and "About a Boy". He joined us today from the studios of Gigs on the Go - I just like to say that - in Hollywood, California. Also with us, and our thanks to John McNally, a writer whose most recent novel is "America's Report Card", editor of the book, "When I was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School". Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MCNALLY: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And when we come back, a look back at "The Sports Machine".

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