Friday, May 17, 2013

High School

I recently read an article in The Week (April 26, 2013) which suggested we’re still stuck in high school. When I think of traffic snarls and the TV news, I’m not surprised. When I think about high school, I’m convinced. High school does something to us, it’s our first real template for adult action.

Most studies of personal growth focus on the early years, zero to three. Those are the years when our sensory systems of seeing and hearing are developing and many believed that all functions developed in the same manner. But that’s not the way in which the more sophisticated functions work in executive function and emotional regulation. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist, says if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in adolescent years. (And those of you with adolescents are saying, “Tell me about it…”) Steinberg says our self-image from those years is adhesive, so too our preferences. Why at 60, he wonders, is he still listening to the Allman Brothers?

It’s all about our brains, really. Just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—gets very busy. This activity allows young adults the intellectual capacity to identify a notion of a self. However, at the same time, that prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing. It’s still working, adding myelin (a substance that speeds up and improves neural connections), and until it completes that wiring—in our mid-twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain have the greater influence. That’s when we’re all in high school. Now we know why adolescents have problems self-regulating and are so dramatic. Everything is more intense. There is more dopamine activity going on at that time than at any other time in the human cycle.

If all of this is true, and the scientists would have us believe it is, Jennifer Senior, the author of the article, claims most American high schools are sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents. Robert Faris, a sociologist, says it’s like putting people in a large box without any clear predetermined way of sorting status. And status is what it’s all about. Who am I? Where do I fit? Do I belong? Kids create the hierarchies and too often from the crudest common denominator kind of stuff like looks, clothes, and sports abilities. Brene Brown of the University of Houston says most of us opt for one of three possible strategies for the pain. One, we move away and hide. Two, we move toward it and become “people pleasers.” Three, we move against it by using shame and aggression. She believes that whichever method you chose, it becomes your modus operandi for life.

In our adolescence, we were quite sure we knew what reality was. I know I did, but the truth is I didn’t have a clue, was blind and didn’t know I was. What I really had was a story I told myself.

Maybe we can be grateful for all that adolescent angst. We did learn to cope. And perhaps some of the worst of adult America looks like a replay of high school because it’s populated by people who formed their identities in American high schools. Makes it possible to have a little compassion for those so damaged by their experience they’ve not been able to leave it behind or to write a new story and move on. And by the way, have you gone to your high school reunions?


  1. I worked hard to get out of high school after my Junior year ... looking forward to the "much more mature" people I would interact with in college. Shows how smart I was. When I got to college it sunk in that college Freshman are only three months older than high school seniors ... nothing had changed.

    I went to one high school reunion. I found the same jocks at one table talking about their glory days, the same bimbos at another table talking about their latest sexual encounter, the same stoners planning a party ... and I was wandering through the crowd looking for the group of kids I knew from church. None of them were at the reunion, so I ended up enjoying a conversation with the three I took advanced math with. (I purposely did not use the label geeks.) Nothing had changed.

  2. I too looked forward to what I would find in a more open and idea filled place called university. I was shy in HS but fit in reasonably well because I was an athlete but disliked the groupings we found ourselves in. But my experience was that university actually was an idea filled place, with less clear distinctions and groups. I was still an athlete on a university basketball team but my floor mates were everyone and like my big family, wonderfully eclectic and interesting, and smart and dumb and nice and mean and brave and scared and deep and superficial and it was great - just want I wanted to be in a mix of them all. When I run into people from my HS I am amazing not by how little has changed, but by how much I missed in the individual nuances of the people I thought I knew - I had their story - but of course i didn't and I still don't. But can I see patterns that formed in HS that stay - absolutely and some I count on and others, well, not so much. LOL

  3. I had a love/hate relationship with high school. I loved learning, loved the after-school activities I joined, loved spending time with my friends. I was lucky to be in a middle group--a thespian. We were considered 'cool' in a different way from cheerleaders or jocks. We were the stars of the school plays and musicals (well, not me in musicals--I can't sing my way out of a paper bag. LOL) Anyway, this meant that I had friends from multiple clicks. I hated the fact that a smart female couldn't gain traction with the boys. That didn't happen in a meaningful way until college. Thank goodness those boys matured some too.

  4. Great post! I actually married my high school boyfriend and my closest friends are those I met in high school. But I don't think that the angst we experience suddenly dissipates when we go away. I'm working on a book about bullying and it's clear that bullying is not limited to childhood. We experiences it socially and professionally as adults as well. I think the greater challenge is changing a culture that rewards bullying behavior and mocks compassion.