Why Do We Care So Much About High School?

I recently re-watched Mean Girls with an Aussie friend, and as the credits were rolling at the end she turned to me and asked, "Is this what high school is like in America?"

No doubt there is some small percentage of truth within Tina Fey's brilliant script but, as with the collegiate Greek system, it's become quite apparent to me as an expat that there are certain social hierarchies and institutions that are uniquely American and therefore utterly bewildering to members of other cultures. (No, seriously, if you try to explain a frat or sorority to a non-American - no matter however many movies/TV shows/pop culture references you cite - they'll still be like, "Um, yeah okay...WTF.")

If you went to school with me and are reading this right now I can only surmise what you might be thinking. Probably something along the lines of, "Well, what does she know? She wasn't popular."

Taking a shopping break from college visits - the fateful day I discovered Marc by Marc Jacobs.

Taking a shopping break from college visits - the fateful day I discovered Marc by Marc Jacobs.

To be honest, though, high school was never something I gave much thought to. For the four years I spent there it was always just a means to an end; an unfortunate but unavoidable stepping stone between childhood and the culmination of eighteen years' worth of hard work, extracurriculars, and my parents' savings: college. 

But then this New York Magazine feature, with its histrionic title intended to instill fear into every reader, came into my life via Facebook newsfeed, and I couldn't just agree to disagree. I'm calling bullshit on this one.

The underlying theme of the article is - spoiler alert - that behaviors and identities perpetuated during the formative years of high school tend to be predictive of later life, which the author supports with anecdotal evidence and social science (more on that later). For the sake of the counter-argument I'm going to simplify this as the author asserting that people don't really change; that life after high school is still exactly like high school (because, again - science!).

At a Christmas party I attended last year, a fellow guest related an amusing story about the time he almost got mugged while out pub crawling in his hometown. Yet, as soon as the aggressor stepped out from the shadows of the alleyway, the two men made eye contact and instantly recognized each other: they had gone to primary school together. So instead of getting mugged, my friend ended up having an unexpected catch-up session with his former classmate, the point being that despite their similar upbringing and socioeconomic status, my friend went on to university and law school while the other guy bummed around and apparently forged a livelihood through stealing from others.

Now I have yet to be mugged by a past acquaintance, but especially because so many of my social network connections are from high school, I can't help but share the same sentiment. How can individuals from nearly identical backgrounds end up on such wildly different trajectories in life? My answer is that people do change, and often in surprising ways.

After delivering my valedictorian quote: "You have 3 choices in life: be good, get good, or give up." - Gregory House, MD

After delivering my valedictorian quote: "You have 3 choices in life: be good, get good, or give up." - Gregory House, MD

A substantial portion of the article deals in archetypes. I think there's something inherently wrong with encouraging individuals to identify with one-dimensional tropes, as one of the studies cited in the article does, because it's both reductive and demeaning. Maybe that's why I never developed an appreciation for The Breakfast Club; to this day I have not met a single person that is anything like those characters that popular culture tells me are so iconic and beloved. Real people are - surprise! - nuanced, multi-faceted, and have interests that defy placing them in one neat box. Jocks, princesses, brains, basket-cases, stoners - none of these are mutually exclusive. Labels are only meaningful insofar as others endorse them.

Perhaps it's because of the media and popular culture that adolescents are deluded into thinking that they need to cling onto one particular identity. But that's not the only option for socializing. It's true across many social environments that people tend to self-segregate based on things they have in common, but I never fully integrated into one particular clique because my closest friends were scattered amongst different groups.

When it comes to navigating those tricky years of adolescence I suppose what it comes down to is this: what you define as success and happiness, and what you are willing to prioritize in order to achieve those things.

I wasn't popular in high school because I prized sports and academics above everything else. I had a handful of close friends, many of whom I still cherish today, but I never went to football games, school dances, house parties etc. Do I feel like I missed out? No, not really. 

Kickin it with the burghers of Calais at the school that would become my alma mater.

Kickin it with the burghers of Calais at the school that would become my alma mater.

Oh, and having attended one of the world's top research universities I can honestly attest that any study relying on [post] adolescent subjects is, at least from said subjects' point of view, more about the stipend received afterward than any grandiose ambitions to contribute to public knowledge and the greater good. Results should be gauged accordingly.