QotD: For the Spawn

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Education, Family, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to QotD: For the Spawn

  1. Bill Neagle says:

    I remember the day that I met you, Smitty, some 4 decades ago. We were at the neighborhood pool and we started playing a game of Marco Polo. I distinctly remembering how bright and creative you were (and, obviously, still are) while amazed at the fact you were so much younger than I. (Percentage-wise, you’re catching up to me in age now though.) It was evident to me, you were way ahead of your age. For a kid, that cannot be a good thing to experience and hope I never had a hand in making it any more traumatic. To get to the point I was making, I have met many a persons over the years and may even draw them into my circle of friends. Yet, I can say with certainty, I would be hard pressed to remember those initial meetings after 1 decade, much less 4. You have that kind of vibrancy about you that sets you apart. And tell the spawn, for what it’s worth, just by guilt of association, I know she is both brilliant and beautiful as well.

  2. Kathy Lou Peace says:

    Ahhh, Smitty-
    I as read your post, I was transported 32 years back in time to a dank, gloomy high school auditorium. My bossom buddie Julie Beiser and I are blocking a scene from “Cry of the Crows”, and I look across the stage at a towering figure dressed in black, fervently clutching a Bible. I was astounded at the talent you revealed while bringing to life the ranting preacher you portrayed in the one-act play. Your Nashville roots sprang to the surface as you spewed fundamentalist rhetoric at us. You were no longer Smitty Moore, resident brainiac, but had become a menacing force fueled by religious dogma.
    High school was a torturous experience for just about everyone I know, even the “popular” kids. As difficult as it is for the boys, I have to believe it’s exponentially worse for their female counterparts. Having had the pleasurable experience of mothering two boys and one girl through the wonderland of adolescence, I have to say that I’d gladly rear ten sons to one more daughter. The pressures our society puts on girls to become these mythical creatures with flawless complexions, long, willowy limbs and zero body fat is incredibly difficult to endure.
    If the Spawn is half as spunky and gifted as her father, she will come out of the horrors of her teen years with an amazing self-awareness and inquisitive nature, knowing that she has been given the greatest gift, the love and adoration of Mama and Daddy.

  3. The Nerd Girl says:

    High school was awkward for me in so many ways: I had obscure interests, I was bright (yet somehow an underachiever), I was seriously overweight, I was socially awkward, and all this was exacerbated by (a) living in a tiny rural town a half-hour from school, where I had exactly one close friend my age whom I rarely got to see for very long and (b) having parents who insisted on keeping close tabs on me and heavily restricted what I could participate in (because they didn’t want to chauffeur me), and who generally didn’t want to let me (the youngest) grow up and become my own person. I yearned for things I couldn’t have, and because I couldn’t have them I defiantly turned against them and proudly embraced being a square; inside, though, I ached, and sometimes I still catch myself aching even though those days are long gone.

    It wasn’t until later – when I moved off to grad school, in fact, since my parents insisted I live at home while I was in college – that I could have the opportunity to start catching up on what I’d missed. But by the time you’re that old, habits have been set. Much of why I don’t go out in the evenings has to do with my high school days, when I’d have to sit at home and listen to music through my headphones and bury my feelings in my obscure interests. I really didn’t get a chance to hone my social skills until I was much older, and it still shows in how shy I am, how awkward I feel during social interactions and why (as you well know) I’m not really a “joiner” even if I secretly would love to be. Sometimes I wonder how different it would have been if I’d been able to build those skills earlier. I don’t know.

    I really don’t know the Spawn at all, except through your writings, but I know she is a bright young woman with a bright future. I’m hoping – and with the two of you to guide her, I’m confident – she will successfully navigate the sometimes tricky years ahead, avoid as much heartache as possible, and will indeed shine bright and shine long.

  4. Jeff says:

    We’re all quick to share our stories of high-school persecution, but it takes a generous spirit to acknowledge this: “With the passage of time, I’ve come to see how wonderfully many of my old classmates have become good, kind, decent people.”

    Time was, your old classmates tended to remain children forever in your mind, but now, with things like Facebook, you can chart the ups and downs of their lives over the decades, which (and I never thought I’d say this) makes it harder to dislike many of them quite so strongly in retrospect.

    • profmondo says:

      Well, I think a lot of it came into focus at my 20th reunion. I hadn’t gone to the earlier ones — I was still just too angry. But after 20 years, we had all reached the point where all the old b.s. didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that once upon a time, we had all been young and beautiful together — even the ones who thought themselves ugly. It was a healing experience.

  5. Huck says:

    As the father of a 14-yr-old high school freshman daughter, I was very moved by your posting, ProfMondo. Seems we share more in the realm of parenting than I could have imagined. This one posting of yours may be my all-time favorite to date. I knew you were a very nice guy, and the tenderness you revealed makes me think you are a great guy, not to mention a fantastic father and spouse. I’d toss ideological differences out the window in a heartbeat, without a second thought, to gain a friendship with a person who could express such a fine thing as you have here. Bravo and congratulations. Your daughter is lucky to have a dad like you.

  6. profmondo says:

    Thanks, Huck — that means a great deal to me. I was blessed with parents who hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. I try to pass that along. And if you’re ever this far east, give me a holler!

  7. Pingback: In Which the Prof Revisits His Past and Turns Surly | Professor Mondo

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