Good News or Bad? High School Lasts Forever

Oh Crap.

This was my first thought (or something much like it) upon reading a study making its rounds this week which says who we were in high school pretty much determines who we will be forever after: how we will relate to our peers, how we will see ourselves, where we will eat lunch.

Okay, maybe not that thing about lunch. But since I often sit at my desk during lunch, working, this might be in the smallest sense true—because in high school I sometimes sat alone, too, doing homework.

Oh Crap.

Writing for New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior relies on a number of recent studies on adolescence to unwind a fairly complex argument about the ways our high school experiences shape our cognitive processes, our memories, our social standing, and our self-perception. Her article, “Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” is convincing. And thus, for those who had a difficult high school experience, depressing.

Actually, I don’t remember my high school experience as being wholly miserable, or even somewhat miserable, which Katy Waldman at Slate.comargues is normal: our memories are strongest from 15 to 24, and we often bear nostalgia for a time that wasn’t as good as we remember. (So when I watched Footloose a few months ago, I thought fondly of my own 80s high school experiences, forgetting that I only went to two Footloose-esque dances, and stood on the sidelines for both.)

So why might high school have been miserable for me, more miserable than even I remember?

Part of my problem was my looks, which did not meet any kind of beauty standards, even in the 80s. I had short puffy hair, didn’t know how to wear make-up, felt most comfortable in jeans and sweatshirts (and not the cool off-the-shoulder type). When I tried to wear more feminine outfits—platter-sized earrings, white flats, stirrup pants—I felt like a clown in a costume, not myself at all.

I was also a jock, and not in the perky, cute way. Standing by my locker senior year, I heard another guy say he didn’t want to nominate any female athletes for the senior awards banquet, because the girl jocks were “all ugly bitches.” I ended up winning the senior athlete of the year award. An ugly bitch for sure.

The New York Magazine article suggests the labels we earn in high school, as well as the shame that accompanies those labels, often trail us into adulthood, in part because they are so deeply entrenched; but in part because the values themselves also follow us into adulthood. Meaning, those who are considered high school marginal because they play Dungeons and Dragons or enjoy reading books on Friday nights are also marginalized as adults, because American adults continue to see Dungeons and Dragons as a nerd game, and assume bookish folks are somehow deficient.

To that I say Yep.

Because in high school, a good part of my outsider status reflected my inability to meet gender norms established by my high school culture. We had assumptions about what made someone feminine, and I didn’t meet any of them: certainly not in my looks, but also not in my interests in athletics nor in my tendency toward being more opinionated than my culture said a high school girl should be.  

And now, when I prefer wearing sweats 24/7, and eschew dresses for pants as professional gear; when I decide not to wear make-up; when I resist spending a fortune on my hair or nails; when I admit I can’t often cook a wholesome meal for my family; and when I can’t keep my mouth shut about politics and religion, I worry that I continue to make myself an outsider in the Christian culture I so regularly inhabit, because that Christian culture has told me what a godly woman shouldbe.

The Jennifer Senior article ends on a bit of hope—sort of—by saying that in the least, American high schools prepare us for life, and that despite all its vagaries, we still spend an awful lot of time reflecting on our high school years. So there’s that, I guess: even when we’re considered outsiders, we still make our way back to 20 year reunions, curious to see who and what our friends have become. (Answer: the same folks they were in high school, plus a few pounds.)

Last year, my high school cross-country coach sent me a team picture, circa my freshman year. The image made me feel sad, mostly, because there I am, in my western shirt and blue jeans, a girl on the margins, both literally and physically.

Yet, given the opportunity to advise that freshman, I wonder: would I tell her to lose the pearl-buttoned shirt? To find a hairdresser and put on make-up? To shut up in class? Despite what I know about that girl’s journey, I don’t think I would.

Sometimes pushing against the norms can be difficult and painful. Sometimes, folks will call you a bitch (and ugly at that) when you try to be yourself. Sometimes, being yourself is more important than living by acceptable norms, even when your Christian culture will judge you as ungodly or unbiblical. And sometimes, the only way to change societal norms is to buck them, calling them what they are: mostly superficial standards that say nothing about who someone really is, or about what God wants that person to be. The young teenager in that picture was just beginning to learn these truths; the middle-aged woman who inexplicably thinks fondly of high school is still learning them.

So I guess the study is right: We never leave high school, after all.

South Albany cross country team, 1983.