In retrospect, I suspect high school was pretty hideous for everyone, and I’m not going to pretend that I was a more egregiously wounded fawn than many of my classmates. I didn’t really fit in — although as time went by, I took my lack of protective coloration and amped it up. Big but not athletic. Smart but with mediocre grades. Stunned by the beauty of my female classmates, but so socially awkward that any repertoire of “moves” I had was a ticket to revulsion. All the while, my mantra may have been, “You think I’m weird? I’ll show you weird.” And of course, under that veneer was the part — the most? — of me, which wanted to be popular and cool and desirable, but I wound up pushing myself further away from the very things I desperately wanted, and I couldn’t have been any better at that if I had made a conscious effort.
The things at which I was successful — most notably writing, Quiz Bowl, and sarcasm — were all avenues of aggression for me, places where not only did I know I’d succeed, but where (forgive me) I sought to crush competitors. To this day, I know myself to be hideously competitive, which is one reason I try to avoid settings in which that may come out. I went into trivia competitions in high school fueled by Alabama-Auburn levels of scorn and distaste for the perfectly nice kids on the other teams (and sometimes, even for my own teammates — I wanted to leave them in the dust as well), all of whom I imagined as being far more popular and accepted than I was. Portrait of the blogger as an angry young geek.
With all that, I think two of the things that kept me on the rails were the National Spelling Bee in eighth grade and a summer I spent with other gifted high schoolers at Western Kentucky U before my senior year. In both settings, I was around other very bright kids, and realized there was a world beyond my suburban high school, a world with folks like me. But I still felt the anger when I got back home.
As much as I want to think I’ve let that go nearly thirty years later, I know I still carry the marks, the insecurity, the defensiveness that I had at seventeen. With the passage of time, I’ve come to see how wonderfully many of my old classmates have become good, kind, decent people, and I hope I have as well, at least more often than not.
Where I’m going with all this is an article in New York that I just read this afternoon about high school, and how — and why — it shapes, shames, and scars so many of us in so many ways. As the father of a high school kid, I worry about what this may be doing to her — I don’t want her to be as bent and angry as I was. The whole article is interesting, but there were a couple of parts I wanted to pass along. The first talks about the impact of these adolescent hassles on later parenting styles:
[Researcher Brené] Brown says it’s remarkable how many parents of teenagers talk to her about reexperiencing the shame of high school once their own kids start to experience the same familiar scenarios of rejection. “The first time our kids don’t get a seat at the cool table, or they don’t get asked out, or they get stood up—that is such a shame trigger,” she says. “It’s like a secondary trauma.” So paralyzing, in fact, that she finds parents often can’t even react with compassion. “Most of us don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. I’ve been there.’ We say, ‘I told you to pull your hair back and wear some of those cute clothes I bought you.’ ”
That one, at least, I think I’ve handled pretty well. But the part I really want to pass along to the Spawn comes near the end:
In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. (Criminals were still most apt to smoke pot; male jocks still had the highest self-esteem.) But one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.
Spawn, you’re beautiful and brilliant — stockpile your fuel for when you enter a world in which you’ll get to shine brightly.