How to Be Popular, ’50s Style: ‘Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek’

When 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen had trouble fitting in at middle school, she looked to a popularity guide from 1951 for answers. Read an excerpt from her hilarious and brave journey.

04.17.14 9:45 AM ET

In 1951, model Betty Cornell penned a self-help book for young women struggling socially: Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide. Cornell provided insight on everything from wearing white pearls and girdles to the proper ways to fix one’s “figure problems.” 

Before entering the eighth grade, then-14-year-old Maya Van Wagenen discovered Cornell’s tome in her father’s office. Van Wagenen, who had been having difficulties fitting in at middle school, decided to follow Cornell’s advice and embark on the new school year with a 1950s mentality.  In her new (and first) memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (April 2014, Dutton Children’s Books), Van Wagenen catalogue’s her journey through the social experiment, which included learning to be a stellar hostess, practicing proper posture, and styling her hair with rag curlers.

It was through following Cornell’s vintage wisdom that Van Wagenen discovered herself and the inner self-confidence she needed to take on the scary halls of high school. By putting herself in sometimes painful, always hilarious situations, like in the following excerpt, Van Wagenen learned that a little bit of old advice paired with a dash of bravery just might land you at the popular table.

“If you want to be a human being, and a popular human being, then you have to stop being an oyster and come out of your shell.”

I know I say this every month, but I really don’t think I can do this. All the girdles and skirts are child’s play in comparison to this month’s goal: tearing out my antisocial tendencies by their roots.

When I was 4 years old, my grandma took me to a park near her house. Now, my dear grandmother is a social butterfly. She makes best friends with the person in front of her in the grocery store line, or with customer service representatives in India. So she couldn’t figure out why her granddaughter had such a hard time meeting new people.

“Maya, go play with those kids over there. They look nice.”

“No,” I’d protest.

“Well, why not?”

“Because, I don’t like the other children.”

That statement has shaped my entire life. 

Now Brodie, on the other hand, is his grandmother’s grandson. He has tons of friends. How does he do it? Is it the hazel eyes that match his sandy blond hair? The dimples? Betty Cornell says not.

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“Being pretty and attractive does help you to be popular, but being pretty and attractive does not and never can guarantee that you will be popular. There is another factor, a very important factor, and that is personality. Personality is that indescribable something that sets you off as a person. It is hard to explain but easy to recognize.”

So how do you get that indescribable something? Betty has three chapters about it that I’m going to be following this month. They deal with manners, shyness, and personality.

“You see, good looks are not enough. In order to be a success in the world, you have to be pretty as well as look pretty. How do you get to be pretty? By having a pleasant personality. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. For a pleasant personality means that  you must be affable, considerate, generous, open hearted and polite, adjectives that add up to good manners.”

That’s a lot to accomplish. And there’s more.

“The most basic of all the basic fundamentals is getting along with people. You can’t have fun all by yourself. You need to share the pleasure in order to really savor the sensation. That means having friends.”

Okay. I’ll try. But there is only one place to meet people. Only one place you can watch the popularity scale in all of its horrific glory. And it’s the most unforgiving, foul-smelling, heart-wrenching place on campus.

The cafeteria.

Now I will have to leave the security of my little clan of Social Outcasts and venture out on my own. I have to go out and meet new people. I’m going to do this by sitting with other groups at different tables every day. I’ll start with people I know, move on to strangers, then finally face . . . the Popular crowd.

“I think the most important thing about getting over shyness is to do it by degrees. Start small and work up.

All right, Betty.

Here goes everything.

Friday, April 27

Today is the day. I’ve been working up to this moment all month long. All year, for that matter. Today I sit with the jocks, the most popular people at our school: the highest of the Volleyball Girls and Football Faction all together at one table.

Here goes.

The bell for lunch rings, and I slowly pull myself out of my desk and drag my feet down the hall toward the cafeteria. I can hear the blood pounding against the inside of my skull. My fingers shake as I try to remember everything I’ve learned, what’s truly important in making friends.

I sit down across from a Volleyball Girl.

“Hey, Maya, what’s up?” she asks, smacking her neon-pink chewing gum.

“Hi, Cristine, can I sit here today?”

“I guess.”


Carlos Sanchez stumbles in with his buddy, Pablo, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Badly. An onlooker would describe them as drunk, but they did the same thing during third period, so I’m not surprised. 

He glances at me. I freeze and force myself to smile, even though I think I’m going to be sick. 

“What’s up, Maya?” He rejoins the song, then jumps back. “Holy crap! Since when do you sit with us?”

I try to stop my voice from shaking.

“I’ve sat with tons of people.” I point to the tables around the lunchroom. The group seems impressed.

A football guy at the end of the table leans forward to see me. “Why?”

I relax a little. “For fun. Anyway, I’m moving to Georgia and—”

“WHAT! YOU’RE MOVING?!” Carlos Sanchez shouts loud enough for the entire cafeteria to hear.

“My dad got a job at a university there.”

“But, you make our school look all smart and stuff. And, and now we’re just gonna look dumb!”

Carlos Sanchez will miss me, too! Am I dreaming?

Some of the boys get into an argument over who will miss me most.

“No, I want to sit next to Maya.”

“Too late, I was here first!”

I’m floating, honest to goodness floating! My head has to be 50 feet above the earth!

Someone from the nearby Choir Geek table hears the commotion, looks up, and sees me sitting at the most popular table at school. Her eyes widen, and she pokes one of her friends. They both gawk. One of them mouths, “What the hell?!”

I smile. Soon all the choir girls are staring at me.

I feel like a princess on a float. So I just smile and wave. The whole Popular Table is talking to me, competing, even, for my attention. 

As the bell rings on another successful lunch, I get up. One of the Football Faction members leans over to me. 

“Don’t sit at the gangster table. They’re scary.”

I’m shocked at his warning. “I already sat with them. They were really nice. They just don’t speak much English.” 

He shakes his head and disappears. When I get into the hall, all the choir girls surround me. “What were you doing?” they ask.

“I’ve sat with everyone. They weren’t too bad.”

“But the jocks are terrifying!”

“Maya, you’re amazing!”

“You are so brave!”

“You’ve got some serious balls, man.”

Wow, I mean . . . Wow. I’ve never been considered brave, or even bold. Now, I have “serious balls.”

I practically soar down the hall to my next class, but a question keeps bringing me back to reality: Why is everyone so scared of one another?

An excerpt from Maya Van Wagenen’s Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek published by Dutton Children’s Books.