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I had this friend in grade school who was obsessed with "getting even". At any given point in time, he could enumerate in detail who'd done him wrong and what his plans were for revenge. It kind of made him a downer to hang out with. Watching him and seeing how this was working out for him, I resolved then and there not to keep track of the people who wronged me. It wasn't worth the trouble, and clearly did more damage to him than do his targets.

I'll be thirty seven in a month. Which makes high school roughly a tenth of my life so far. By the time I'm done, I hope it'll be less than 5%. Anyone who would consider than small a slice of their life to be crucial in any way is either very young or stopped growing too early.

Mike Schilling

What the Other Mike said. Anyway, we're Lance's gang, and we're the Cool Kids now.


And the reason for too much dominance by high school over the rest of people's lives is that modern society destroyed the natural life cycle that the ancient city had. As a young man, you were to engage in war (and study epic poetry and music). As a middle-aged man, you were to lead the young men in war, begin your family (men generally married later than they do even now) and begin one's political career (and also begin to study philosophy). As an older man, one was to marry off one's children, become a political leader (or in the Middle Ages, become a guild master, which allowed you to become eligible for the town council or senate), advise the generals in war or advise the councils of state and continue to study philosophy. As a greybeard or ancient, one was to contemplate the mysteries (religious or philosophic). There were different varied activities at each stage of life, all noble and honored and necessary.

Because technocratic modern societies generally are massively larger than the ancient cities and also reject direct democracy (ruling through experts or distant legislators), politics is effectively nonexistant for most people. That means that there are now two stages of life - education and work. It's not surprising that many people obsess over education, since it's the only time of their lives not dominated by shuffling paper.


I think the rules of school are hard for some people to leave behind - I run into this all the time with friends who seem to make their decisions about people based on some set of arbitrary rules rather than from love, or even intellect.

Setting the rules aside to make your own framework is frightening, I think. No safety net.


I think what Juno says about the rules is true - I know that a lot of people can't seem to shake the idea that the rules they mastered (or spent a lot of time trying to master) in order to survive or thrive in high school don't necessarily apply outside of high school. I see both puzzlement and rage in such people, when they encounter individuals who ignore those "rules" (or worse, laugh at them) and who yet seem to be successful and happy.

I was so glad to leave high school for college; by the end I'd pretty much left it all behind, including the people who'd been my friends/fellow sufferers (though that was more accident than on purpose). If I thought that life was nothing more than a bigger version of high school, I'd shoot myself.


Okay, that first sentence is trying to do to much. Short version: high school rules people are unwilling to understand that those rules apply primarily to high school, not life per se.


If it's true that you've never been done wrong, then you'll probably never write a song as playfully bitter as A Simple Desultory Phillipic:

I been norman mailered, maxwell taylored.
I been john o’hara’d, mcnamara’d.
I been rolling stoned and beatled till I’m blind.
I been ayn randed, nearly branded
Communist, ’cause I’m left-handed.
That’s the hand I use, well, never mind!
I been phil spectored, resurrected.
I been lou adlered, barry sadlered.
Well, I paid all the dues I want to pay.

Ken Muldrew

Urbanites don’t know what it’s like to live in a village. High school is the first opportunity we have to engage in tribal behaviors, where social power can actually affect people’s lives. So for adolescents who get their first taste of such power, it can be heady stuff, and they always take things too far. That’s just the way it is with youth; moderation be damned! But it’s all just a make-believe world. The abuses of social power that are perpetrated by the cool kids really don’t extend past the school doors (though they can extend inwards and permanently damage a psyche). So while the power-trippers are making themselves dizzy with victory by exerting their influence in arbitrary and capricious ways, the larger world just leaves them to it. There’s no police, no authority that one can go to for redress, though the wrongs are undeniable, and the wounds often indelible.

Upon graduation the tribes collapse. Immediately. That whole world collapses. Everyone becomes an individual in the wider world. If we lived in small communities, as we did for the hundreds of thousands of years when our brains evolved into what they are now, the social processing skills that one learned as an adolescent would be put to use in productive ways, evaluating the behaviors of fellow villagers, identifying the lazy, the productive, those who can be trusted, etc. But that is absent from modern urban life. We have an instinct for engaging in meaningful social processing, but no outlet for it in our lives, and only a memory of wretchedness and excess from the one period in our lives where we could engage in such behavior.

Humans are social computers, we have evolved to be busybodies, to stick our noses into other people's business and make judgements concerning the reputation of other members of our community. This is not work that we need to get paid for, nor is it even "work"; we crave this sort of interaction. But you don't get it in suburbia, not by a longshot. The SUV with the tinted windows gets you through the automatic garage door, which closes before you step out of the vehicle, so that you don't even have to see your neighbors, nevermind give them a chance to quiz you on what you are doing with your life. You're going to move to a new community within a year or two anyway, so why bother getting to know these folks?

The entertainment industry has latched on to that hole in our lives by giving us simulations of communities, where we can engage in social processing, gossip, peer judgements, and all the rest, but it only goes one way . We can shout all we want at the TV as we watch a bunch of "survivors" lying and ass-kissing their way to a million dollars, but it doesn't help our community (or any other community). We are simply tickling our endorphin receptors with an artificial opiate. It's destructive, but we need it. Social processing is a biological imperative for humans. As well to think we could stop breathing as to think that we could stop blame-fixing or trying to impose justice.

So the injustices of high school run deep. Not for the gravity of the wrong, nor for the damage that was done, but for the missed opportunity. People hang on to these things because they realize that these were situations where they actually could have engaged in this behavior that is so basic to humanity. Too late, of course, and only in a vague way, but they grasp that something very large was taken from their lives and so they impulsively recapitulate the responses that they might have enacted in high school. Only the village no longer exists, so they have no social power, and the characteristic behavior that they recognize is in a totally different context, so their high-school like response is obviously inappropriate. But it’s a reflex action. It comes from somewhere deep in the brain, from one of the scars of evolution that is exposed by the profligate reproductive success of our species. They’re not necessarily stuck at age seventeen; they’re supposed to keep doing this for the rest of their lives (but better, honed by the wisdom of larger society and real-world consequences).

As for me, I’m with Huck Finn, "It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn't no objections, 'long as it would keep peace in the family; and it warn't no use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way."

I liked that advice, so I just laid low in high school and had bustin' good times watching the Kings and Dukes carry on.


Linkmeister- after reading the lyrics I couldn't help, but want to add...

"I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me!"



The Asperger Syndrome article in "The New Yorker" by Tim Page that you referenced earlier in the month has one of the greatest laugh-out-loud sentences I've read in a long time. After trying his best at sports which are perfectly impossible for him in school, with his kiddie teammates "cheering me on to hitherto unsuspected athletic glory...I might redeem myself." But he continues, "Our gym teacher, Miss B.--scowling, beefy, and, after four decades, the only person in the world I just might swerve to hit on a deserted road--had no such illusions."

I think it's the "just might" that gets me laughing.


Now, this isn't me, Lance. High school happened to me in a land far away and long ago. My sole expectation was to survive below my parents' radar (not difficult; they had no finesse with anything remotely technological, and my darling brother used to affectionately call them "Neanderthals.") And even the the radar of local authorities wasn't difficult to out-wit.
But I've known people who for one reason or another seem to experience the humiliations of high school again and again. High-school becomes a four-year-long "Ground Hog Day," replayed not for four years but for all their years. Silly or not, high school serves as a reference point for the rest of their lives: high school with money; high school without money; high school with even worse athletic prowess; high school with even worse hair; a calculus quiz that never ends...It's an easy metaphor and may be even cheap, but everyone gets it.
But then, you're probably talking about something else. Someone who never lets go of the grudge nursed for someone who made off with his or her prom date. That is sad: the one-night loser who never realizes how profoundly he or she in fact lucked out that night.


My high school experience was not particularly remarkable. I say that, then remember I went to Catholic high school, which may be remarkable in itself. I had my share of dramas and angst, but I don't recall that I tried to get through it with any particular strategy or set of rules for survival. I don't see my life today as a reflection of high school life at all. I don't go day to day now and think that things remind me of when I was in high school, unless I see a plaid skirt worn with a white blouse.

A big factor in that may be I moved 2000 miles from my home town after my first year in college. I have been back for a couple of reunions and visits to relatives but I really left it all pretty far behind. I wonder if people who stay on in that same environment are more likely to nurse the grudges and keep the same behavior patterns and outlook.

mac macgillicuddy

"You don't leave the boys you went to high school with. You go through life with them."

This is the kind of aphorism that sounds romantic and deep until you think about it and realize it doesn't say much at all.


@mac macgillicuddy: hmm. I don't think she was trying to be romantic or deep. I think she was saying that men essentially never change from an adolescent state, an opinion expressed periodically by many women, whether privately or in a more public forum like the LA Times.

Unfortunately, every work experience I've had reproduced the social structure of a high school: "cool" kids, brainiacs, "normal" kids and outcasts. Which makes me wonder if that's not high school residue but just organizational behavior, just the way we sort ourselves out in large groups. If so, it's more than unfortunate.

Gregory Thelen

I rarely remember high school, and I never look to it to understand my middle aged life today.
Of course not, a friend says. You were cool then. It was easy for you. That set you up to expect to be taken seriously. Some of us had to work for it.
There is no resentment in his words. The world takes him seriously. He's happy and succesful, and he knows it.
It's a blind spot in an otherwise perceptive man. Cool is about surfaces, which is why the idea of cool is so lame.
When a woman says that adult men are teenagers with more money and less hair, that tells me that she hasn't looked at--or, more likely, been allowed to see--what is going on under our surfaces.
Looking at life as high school is a way of refusing to put ourselves in the background long enough to understand the people around us.
It's a way of trying to be cool.


I wasn't very popular in high school, nor was I particularly unpopular, but not cool. I rarely think about it anymore, except when trying to retroactively compare my education (books read, courses taken) with my nephews and friends' kids who are starting high school now. I read somewhere last year (can't remember where) that people like me who don't go to reunions who haven't "gotten over" high school. Struck me as strained contrarianism. I don't consciously avoid them. I was living in Europe at the time of my tenth, and moving the same weekend my twentieth. I have no plans to go to my upcoming twenty-fifth. I've lost touch with almost everyone I went to high school with. I'm pretty bad at keeping in touch with people in general, outside of my large extended family. And being something of an introvert, the idea of spending an evening (much less three evenings) trying to remember people I superficially knew a quarter century ago has somewhat limited appeal. I know two people who haven't got over high school because it was, at least in their minds, the best time of their lives. One guy, married with two kids, still talks constantly about the days when he was the BMOC. Another woman, in her mid-forties, still "parties" with the same people she partied with in high school. I find them both rather sad.

The one thing that haunts me from those years is the girl who graduated in three years to get away from the casual cruelty of children and adolescents, myself included. The taunting had mostly been in junior high, it calmed down as we all grew up a little, but I can still see her, homely and poor in a wealthy school district, friendless and isolated in the cafeteria, in class, in the halls. I think about the effort she put into escaping what must have been a daily torture for her, the corners she almost surely cut in her own education just to get away.

It's not the wrongs done to me, it's the wrong I did, that has stayed with me. I hope that girl had a full and successful life when she got away from the rest of us.


I went to regular large high schools for a couple of years, then a small alternative school that had many very cool, smart and talented people. Despite being shy and either too smart/not as smart as most people in each environment, I was never bullied, scorned or simply treated like shit. At worst, I was ignored, despite being the kind of person mass culture would have you think would have been a great target for bullies. While obviously some people get bullied, the amount of self-pity generated by many people about high school seems way out of proportion with what they actually experienced.


It seems rather self-evident to me that the pain inflicted in high school lasts because you are more sensitive at that point than you will ever be in the future. That "just might swerve to hit on a deserted road" line got a laugh out of me too, but damn if it isn't true. The people who hurt me ten years ago, last year, or even last week? I'm over them. Those who taunted me ceaselessly in high school? Tell me you bumped into them coming out of bankruptcy court and I'd go home and pop open a beer.

I think I do understand your point, however, Lance. The urge to relive and redress high school--that mystifies me. I loved John Hughes movies right up through my early 20s, but now I only watch them for the nostalgia trip, and my interest in films about high school has stayed pretty low ever since. I can still be taken in by a high-school movie that works on several levels, but the pure high-school flick, for me, is done like last year's taxes.

W. Kiernan

Or is the case that it's true what they say about all of life being high school continued and that no matter what happens to us we never really stop being seventeen?

Nah, it would be nice to be so mature. I think I'm stuck somewhere between ten and thirteen. Messed up home life and all that. By the time I got to hi-skool I was already defeated and numb.

Seriously. I probably shouldn't admit this. But wtf, it's the internet; you can say anything on the internet.


Speaking as a female with Asperger's Syndrome who wasn't diagnosed until I was in college, I have some bitter experiences from my youth-though the worst weren't from high school, (by that time a lot of my classmates were people I'd been tracked with since kindergarten so they were used to me and the larger student body was an unusually diverse one so even though I was still strange I wasn't considered too far out there so to speak,) but in middle school though some incidents continued on through high school as well...I can't say I bear any particular grudges though, I admit I can't STAND people who suggest bullying an taunting is no big deal and kids who are the victims of such behavior should either "toughen up" or "learn to fit in," better. One thing I'm never resentful of, is having certain crushes not return my affections...I may be wistful but I'm not resentful. (And like most Aspies being a cool kid just wasn't on my radar period.) So yeah, I do have trouble getting the whole Judd Apatow mindset and that of folks like MoDo who still seem intent on these sort of games.


i had a relatively pleasant high school experience yet 90 percent of my dreams still take place there. and let me add that no matter how cool or rich or athletic or good looking you are, there's always people who are your better and will sneer and laugh at you from above. i think many people never realize that...


?? It looked as though Marianne Wiggins is the one who talked about the high school boys from my recollection of the article.
But my interpretation was that she's talking about the boys who sweet-talked you and then dumped you like a ton of bricks when the time came, treating you as a prop instead of a person.
it's sad she's found only boys like that since high school.

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