Are You the Person You Were in High School?

In a couple years, it will be 30 years since a graduated from high school (go ahead, do the math, I’ll wait). It’s an experience that has come and gone. I was not athletic back in the day, nor was I a particularly good student. I was bright, but lazy, and desperate to get out of the place where I was–a 2,000-student public secondary school in the Chicago suburbs. It was not a particularly dangerous place, but it was not 100% nerd/wimp/geek-friendly, and that was who I was 20+ years ago.

I don’t dwell on high school that much anymore. It certainly wasn’t the best of times, but it wasn’t the worst of times (that was junior high). I was eager to get out, and in fact did graduate a semester early to be clear of the place. But I cannot deny that my adolescence shaped me, as it does everyone.

Why do I even bring up high school as a blog topic now? I had an extended text chat with one of my female friends from back-in-the-day this evening, and it got me to thinking. The friend in question was not a “girlfriend,” but someone who thought well enough of me to invite me to her church as a way of helping me find somewhere that I might belong. The church didn’t work out, but I don’t blame the friend for the mismatch. I just marched to the beat of a very different drummer, and it would take a few more decades, in and out of church, to figure out who I was as a human being.

However, as far as my high school experience goes, the conversation with my friend was surprisingly eye-opening. I learned that a mutual friend had wanted to “come out,” but had not until after high school, and that he had passed away years ago. I had to silently mourn for someone who had, at least on my terms, been a good and decent person. I learned about some of the problems in my friend’s personal situation, of which I knew nothing at the time, but her story helped me better understand (now) why she might have sought the need to belong to a group of moral Christians.

And perhaps I learned how little I knew about some of my peers. Yet many of us struggled during that age range when hormones are dominant and maturity…not so much. And one must combine those hormones with whatever situation the adults in our lives added to them; then you realize how screwed up we all were…or are. Well-meaning parents and school administrators might do their best in the 21st century to eliminate “bullying” and other behaviors, but one way or another, human beings are simultaneously social and solitary animals, and we learn most of our hardest lessons by making social errors with our peers. And those lessons carry forward into our adulthood.

If I learned anything important in my teens, it’s that social problems of that age range are temporary and should be taken with a large lick of sodium chloride. I learned how to find happiness and satisfaction in solitary interests and pursuits, such as reading and writing. I learned to keep a positive attitude about the future, especially if the present sucked, which in high school it often did. And maybe I learned to like myself a little better because if I didn’t do that, it seemed certain that no one else would.

But I won’t kid you: some of the emotional scars from back-in-the-day remain. It was really difficult to thank the guy who, at the time, was the toughest of the tough guys and yet also the guy who told the bullies to leave me alone. I was glad I thanked him, but yet how many of us really like to admit that we “survived” some period of our growing-up period thanks to the munificence of another person?

I was bad at dating in my teens, and I’m still bad at it, perhaps because of all the confidence I allowed to be taken from me at that age.

And lastly, I suppose the important part about the emotional scar tissue we acquire when we’re young and impressionable is that it stays with us much longer than we might expect.

Our social expectations–for good or ill–are set in our teens. Sometimes they are set accidentally, as we have some experiences that make us say, “I will never do that again!” Or sometimes we have experiences (good or bad) that lead us to believe that life will always be this way, and that is the pattern that is imprinted on our lives from that time forward.

It’s bizarre, hilarious, nasty, hormonal, ugly, and terrifically human all at once. I won’t pretend that it was all wholly bad, nor that it was some sort of adolescent utopia. Somehow or other, I learned to interact with other people, and nothing teaches that faster than the daily series of potential foul-ups that constitute high school. While those who really enjoyed high school might frown on this characterization, I think it’s safe to say that we all endure our teenage years, and eventually we use those times to help us become useful adults…or not.

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