Tuesday, August 12, 2014

High School's Shadow

School started today. Not for me--I've still got a month. For the people at the high school from which I graduated in May.

I thought I'd feel all nostalgic over it but instead I just feel disconnected. High school started. It's an abstract; it has nothing to do with me anymore. As a sagacious friend suggested to me, the reason I no longer feel any urge to deny that I graduated is because band camp happened. The awesome kids whom I mentored when they were juniors were now seniors, team captains, and doing a much better job of it than I did last year. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and then a mass of freshmen with whom I do not overlap at all.

They do not need us anymore.


When I graduated from middle school, I went forth and did not look back. I thought high school would mean more to me, and I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about it, talking about it, in the months after I graduated. But the urge has passed.

I'm sitting here now, thinking my way through four years, trying to feel something, but so many of the things that caused me despair or joy are no longer relevant to my life. The tests I studied for, the teachers I adored or loathed, the projects that kept me up late. What do they mean, now?

Before and during high school, I had a guilty pleasure, which was high school settings for movies and stories. I liked watching the play of high school stereotypes: the dumb jock, the catty blonde cheerleader, the cool loser nerd, the weirdo loner. I watched Mean Girls a couple of days before starting high school and, as silly as this sounds, I listened to Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" the night before my freshman year. We had an entire unit on high school movies in junior year English, and even though I did not like the class, I almost enjoyed that unit. There was something cathartic about it.

In hindsight, I'm not sure why. I didn't want to live in one of those movies. I didn't want any aspect of them to become more prominent in real life. Still, there was something alluring about that sterile, mythical world where all of one's problems stemmed from interpersonal relationships.

My friend commented that few of the high school movies we've seen even allude to college admissions. (Well, aside from this one, which my APUSH teacher showed to us during AP week in a failed attempt to calm us down.) Few show students struggling with their coursework, unless to make a plot point or to get the main character into a study group with their love interest or rival. I can't draw any strong conclusions, since my sample size of movies I've actually watched is simply too small, but just skimming this list of the 50 greatest high school movies of all time* shows a strong lean toward plots centering on romance or humor.

*Whose idea was it to put the Harry Potter movies on there?

Which makes sense; the day-to-day grind of going to class and taking notes and doing homework is boring. Of course movies don't show that. But it just interests me that in the high school movies I've seen, the social aspect is pretty much the only part that is shown. Not only that, but that the social aspect focuses on the characters' relations to/place within the school at large.

To be concrete: Mean Girls has a focus on the power struggles within the "popular" "clique" (I feel a bit queasy using those words unironically) but the main focus is on how that clique dominates the rest of the school. The premise of Breakfast Club is bringing together individuals from the most diverse groups on campus. Then there's the nerd-shoved-into-locker-by-football-player trope.

High school clearly meant something to the filmmakers, or else they wouldn't have made movies where the setting is so pervasive as to become, almost, a character in itself. Years after graduation, high school left its claws in people.

I don't know why high school has such a tremendous weight on the cultural psyche (or why I decided to cause a dangerously high concentration of pretentiousness in that sentence). Perhaps because the mid- to late-teenage years are among the most vulnerable, emotionally and, for people who engage in risky behaviors, physically. Strong emotions and irrational behavior and poor decision-making are only a few of the things associated with this life stage. Experimentation. Finding out who you are.* These things probably make the high school years take on psychologically significant intensity.

*And yet, most of the characters in high school movies seem infantile and definitely not self-aware. Even the administrators.

I wonder if the reason I've decoupled from high school so early is because my experience was so much different from the one portrayed in the movies. Namely, at my high school, it was really easy to forget about the "popular kids" or whatever. Is it because I went to a school with an open campus/no centralized cafeteria, so we literally saw less of one another?

Class stratification definitely played a part in separating my personal high school experience from a generalized experience of my high school. My underclassman years, everyone had to take the same classes so you'd see more kinds of people. But division into AS or AP v. CP classes winnowed people out by academic motivation (notice I don't say ability; taking an AP class doesn't make you smart, just as taking a CP class doesn't make you dumb), and as upperclassmen teachers got less and less strict about seating requirements, it became easy not to talk to anyone you did not already know.

By the end, my high school did not mean anything for me except as a structure that had gathered together the pieces that did matter: band, friends, a few classes. Hence my lack of identification with high school movies: in the ones I've seen, they're all about looking at and being looked at by other people. And as Diana Vreeland remarked, "Most people are not something one thinks about."

I don't think my insular mode of living was the best way to get through high school. Specializing in band was good. Finding friends was good. Becoming divorced from public opinion and no longer giving a damn about who the "popular kids" were or if they even existed was good. But I don't think it was good that I didn't spend much time at all with people who offended me, who challenged me, who even surprised me much with their view on life.

That insularity--not crippling psychological wounds from being "unpopular," not some ridiculous pride in being an "awkward nerd"--is, I think, the shadow high school has left on me. Thank goodness it is one I will be able to fix.

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