When I was in high school, the administration regularly brought in motivational speakers, including some lunkheads thick enough to tell us that these were “the best four years of our lives.” I thought of these speakers when two of my schoolmates committed suicide in one year.
Even my hormone-blunted adolescent mind was sharp enough to pierce the misty-eyed slogans offered by these motivational men, who must have been pining for the days before financial responsibility: “If these poor kids actually believed that this is as good as it gets, that it’s all downhill from here, then their suicide is not so incomprehensible. This is awful.”
Strolling through the well-endowed tranquillity of the USD campus, I wonder about these students’ thoughts on high school, what perspective they have gained from the vantage point of a few years. I am far from the seething cauldron of misery that was my own small-town public high school; I wonder if they have traveled similar distances and over similar paths.
Brian, a senior who attended St. Francis High School in Pasadena, regrets not taking Spanish and having to take what were to him useless classes like physics, but there is no whiff of trauma about him. He accounts for it, at least in part, in terms of psychology, his major. “A couple of theories would say that first-born children [like me] are going to have a different way of getting attention than second-born children. First-born children will get their parents’ attention by basically doing what their parents say. I always felt like, for the most part, I agreed with my parents. It was pretty rare when we got into arguments.
“Second-born children, a lot of times, can’t get their parents’ approval that way, because the other person’s got that sort of knocked. So, they’ll come in and they’ll have a real different way. A lot of times, you’ll see that they get to be a little bit more rebellious, a little bit more wild. My sister’s going through much more of that than I did.”
He credits St. Francis’s single-sex status with the avoidance of several problems, including an overemphasis on athletic prowess, on-campus fights, generally behaving like a pack of wild dogs, and even the formation of cliques. “It wasn’t as segmented as you see in the movies. I hung out with a group of guys that were pretty middle-of-the-road. They were quick, but they got along with pretty much everybody. There was a little bit, though; everybody goes out to sit down at lunch, and you can see who’s going where. A lot of times, you’d find people grouping together depending on their ethnicity.” Of the school’s mainly white, Asian, and Hispanic population, “It was pretty much the Asians who tended to hang out together, and then everybody else hung out together.”
German (pronounced hair-MAHN) hails from Mexico City. He is here on a tennis scholarship. Certain of my friends have what I suspect may be overly romantic notions about Mexican culture, praising its essential sanity and humanity. I am curious to see how my remembered U.S.A. high school adolescent narcissism compares with German’s own experience.
Did you ever go through a great crisis of identity, wondering Who Am I? Did you rebel against The System in an effort to establish yourself as an individual?
“Not rebel against the system. More like, ‘What are my goals? What am I going to do after I graduate?’ Stuff like that.”
He does, however, grant the commonality of cliques. “When you got to high school, you pretty much had to figure out who are the people you’re going to hang around with. The culture in high school is pretty much the same [everywhere]. You have the people you get along with, groups of people you get along with, and that’s pretty much it. You know who the groups are, the guys who are the sports guys, and the guys who do drugs.”
His memories are free of melodrama, stories to smile over, even when the regret is real, as in the case of the class he failed because “it was on the fifth floor, and we were doing paper airplanes. I had some good planes, though.” The most fun he can recall came when, “I remember once, I had a three-hour period free between classes, and I would come back to this four o’clock class. Once we went to a bar, and when we came back for class, we were drunk as hell. It was our first time drunk in a class, and we were, like, passing out. It was funny.” Did the teacher notice? “I think she noticed a little bit, but she kind of let it go because it’s not like we were making a big deal, just laughing between each other.” He is grateful that his school was set up like a college — “If you want to go to class, you go to class. It’s your responsibility.”
Now that he is here, German is careful not to set himself too far apart from his USD classmates, citing only their tendency to “get loose” and “go nuts” upon discovering themselves free from parental supervision and the laziness he sees in some students. “I go to a class and I study and I’m interested in the class. Other people will sometimes just go to class and not pay attention. They tell me, ‘Don’t go to class,’ or just look for the teachers who let you do whatever. You’ll end up failing the class. I learned the hard way, and it helped me a lot.”
Tai and Jamie both attended co-ed private schools, Tai at Blanchett in Seattle and Jamie at Bishop Minogue in Reno. My ears perk when Tai says that her least favorite part of high school was the cliques. Will I find here a victim of high school’s brutal codes and orders? “We had a lot of cliques at my school. There were the drama kids, and we had a group we actually called the Clique. It was just the people that seemed to party a lot, and they all seemed to be not interested in talking to anybody else or being friends with anybody else. They would on their own, but as a group, they wouldn’t. Everyone had their little groups at lunch, but there were certain places on the weekends where you know this party is going to be a Clique party.”
The idea of a clique is naturally offensive to the American egalitarian spirit, but what, essentially, is wrong with it? “Just the word ‘clique’ made it sound like people were uninvited and that whole bit, mostly. Part of it was unavoidable. Someone told me I was part of a clique, and I was really offended at the time, but it was true. They were my friends, and they were the people I hung out with all the time. I guess it was part of high school. Part of it with the cliques was that you needed to have a good time within your little groups because the school as a whole wasn’t very united. We weren’t allowed to have cheerleaders; we had a cheer squad.” Though she had a rough time of it in ninth grade, after transferring in from public school, Tai is not embittered.
Jamie, on the other hand, “had fun all through high school. It was all really fun for me. I wouldn’t go back or anything, but I really enjoyed things like homecoming, all the sports. Our school was really spirited about that type of thing. I did the student-council thing. Just being involved was fun.”
Still, she grants that “I could see there were groups of people in high school that didn’t enjoy it. People are so immature in high school. You’re going through this adolescent phase and you don’t really care, or you don’t really think about the things you say sometimes, things that would hurt people. Whereas now, petty things like that aren’t important.”
The talk of cliques has up to this point had a civilized air about it, with only Jamie’s final comment to darken bright memories. When I talk to Lauren and Natalie, both of whom attended public high school (Lauren at Alameda High in the Bay Area, Natalie at Aliso Niguel in Orange County), the stories grow more familiar, more savage — especially Lauren’s.
For Lauren, the worst thing about high school was “the social groups. I went to a unique high school — it was very, very diverse. There was no majority population from any ethnic group. All the Hispanic kids stayed together, all the black kids stayed together. The Asians split into two groups, first-generation and second-generation Asian.
“There was a lot of racial intensity. The Hispanics and the blacks had some tension. First- and second-generation Asians had a lot of problems between them. The second-generation kids are called ABCs — American-born Chinese. Probably a little bit more wealthy, being second generation. The other kids from different cultures say, ‘You’re American, you don’t know anything about your cultural heritage. You don’t speak the language correctly. What are you doing?’ They had major problems, gang-type problems.”
And, of course, there were black-white tensions. “We had the NAACP come out to our school because a white kid decided it would be funny to send out something called ‘nigger applications.’ It was filled in like it would be for a black person — ‘Hair type: Nappy,’ etc. A black kid got hold of it, photocopied it, and put it in all the black kids’ lockers. Then you had a couple of people getting beaten up. Normal social-class problems you have at a normal, diverse school were intensified by the racial groups.”
“Normal social-class problems” abounded. “You got to be on top because you were white, and then money fell into it, too. We had kids from Section 8 housing with kids from houses that cost over a million dollars. The kids who could afford to go skiing in the winter stayed friends.”
After the money finished its separations, activities began dismembering the student body. “There was always the artistic group, and the Dungeons and Dragons people who wore all black, and the athletes and the cheerleaders had their own little clique.” Memberships to some of these cliques were formal, rigid, rigorous. “There was this group, they called themselves the Pink Ladies. One of the girls fooled around with another girl’s boyfriend, and right away she was out of there. She lost every single one of her friends.
“One of my friends ended up coming into our group because of that. There was a misunderstanding, a confrontation with another girl who was a grade older, and she was kicked out. All of her friends stopped talking to her. Complete silent treatment from all the guys, all the girls. It was a really tight-knit group of friends — if you were out, you were out. I remember seeing the nucleus of that group forming in elementary school. A new girl would come; they’d test her out to see where she’d fall.”
The exile sought refuge in Lauren’s circles, the Associated Student Body (“the involved students”) and the tennis team. Both were racially mixed, and the ASB drew students from different activity groups, so the acceptance rate was relatively high.
A third circle for Lauren was provided by the academic structure. “All of my friends were in the advanced classes, so that was another cutoff. We were kind of tracked, even from junior high school. I don’t know if we thought we were better than other people, but it was, like, ‘You guys don’t even know what we’re talking about, so why are we [talking]? How can you understand what stress is? We have to write a 15-page paper, you have to write a 5-page paper.’ ”
Natalie, whose least favorite memories of high school are from her freshman year, when she was shy and less “socially adaptable,” eventually achieved what might be seen as a step up on the social ladder. “Sophomore year, I was friends with a lot of guys who were in the band and stuff, because I was on the drill team, and I played violin in the orchestra. It all kind of went together.”
She met her longtime boyfriend in band, and the two of them began to drift from the group. “Then, my senior year, I was a songleader — like a cheerleader. Then my close friends were songleaders and cheerleaders, and a lot of them had become friends with the football players and basketball players. So I guess I kind of fell into that category, although some of our girlfriends were from the volleyball and basketball teams, and some of our guy friends were from the other sports.
“We didn’t drink or do any of that stuff. We were couples, just a very good group of friends. Every one of us was involved with something. We would go to the movies, we would go to people’s houses. We had more principles and all that stuff, so that was kind of fun. I was very fortunate.”
Meanwhile, back in Alameda, once the lines were drawn, the armies in their respective camps, the bombardment began. “People were really mean to each other. There was a tradition at my school that the freshmen got pennied — you’d flick a penny at them, and it would hit them and give them a bruise. And the guys had this group they had to get into, and to get into this group, the lowerclassmen would have to do horrible, horrible things. We were allowed to leave the school for lunch, and they would have to pull down their pants and do jumping jacks in front of the restaurants.
“The horrible thing was that most of the guys who were doing it knew they could get in — football players and jocks. But sometimes, somebody who was kind of geeky or nerdy, who wasn’t going to get in, would be allowed to rush. One kid had to walk across a bridge with picante sauce in his pants, and he actually got his skin burned from it. And they didn’t even let him in. Horrible things like that.
“My school had a section for mentally disabled children, the only one in the area. They would make fun of them until they would scream and cry, and even when they didn’t understand, they would just belittle them. One really popular girl asked one of the mentally challenged kids to a dance just because they thought it was funny. Everyone was laughing, and he was so excited. It was such a happy moment for him, but he didn’t know he was the brunt of every single joke.”
When one group’s aggression reaches that kind of intensity, retaliation, even against the gods, becomes all but inevitable. “There was a big scare in the [popular] group, because you would interchange boyfriends. I mean, you didn’t date outside the group; you dated inside the popular-guy group, the acceptable boys. What happened was someone started a rumor that one of them was HIV positive. The entire clique was scared. They went to parties together, there was a little bit more free sex going on in that group. It was incredible to see — everyone in the school had this sullen face when they found out.
“Everyone got tested, but you never knew how it came out because no one talked about it. And you didn’t really want to hear about it. I mean, honestly, you didn’t really want to know that the people that everybody looked up to had AIDS. That’s not what you want to hear in high school. You still had the sense as a teenager that nothing’s going to hurt you, so you don’t want to know that these people that you sit next to in class, the popular kids that you always wanted to be like, are sick.”
But really, a little, you did. “I’m not going to say I wasn’t jealous of the popular kids,” Lauren admits later. “Every single person who wasn’t part of that group kind of reveled in the fact that there was something going on. There’s a thing, but you didn’t really want to hear about it — it was one of those weird both-sides-of-the-coin things. You didn’t really want there to be a problem, but you were happy that something was happening to them, because they always seemed like they had this perfect life.”
The innate selfishness of childhood is coupled with newfound powers of destruction, and this is the fruit. “You don’t know the troubles of other people,” Lauren observes. “You live in your own little circle, and you don’t see how hard it is for other people. The administration tried multicultural days, but you just went there for the food. If the kids aren’t open to seeing it, they’re not going to care.”
But even after running through this catalog of horrors, neither Lauren nor Natalie falls into a wishful reverie for one big happy family. A few years out has afforded them some peace and some acceptance, if not wholesale approval. Natalie explains: “You’re trying so hard to fit in somewhere, and once you figure out, ‘Okay, I want to be here today,’ you feel like you need to belittle everyone else around you. Even people who aren’t popular; they make fun of the popular people just as much as the popular people make fun of them. You feel comfortable in your own little pod, and you have to make sure everybody else is horrible because [that makes you] feel better in your own pod.”
Adds Lauren, “It’s for protection. If you think someone else’s group is better than yours, then why aren’t you part of that group? Instead of saying, ‘Well, I’m stupid and I’m ugly and they don’t want me in the popular group,’ you say, ‘Well, the popular people are snobs anyway.’ These popular people, they may have wanted to be part of the smart group, ‘But those people are just smart nerds.’ It’s about how you can protect yourself from being hurt.”
For Lauren, this fishbowl version of class warfare served as a less sophisticated, more violent prelude for the rest of life. “At a very young age, I got to see a very distinct fact: that there are major differences in class and culture that really affect the political world we live in.
“Here at this school, you see it a lot more. We’re all almost the same: upper-middle-class people, but you see the divisions still. The very, very wealthy still hang out together. And the whole idea of a sorority [Lauren and Natalie both belong to a business sorority] is the fact that you’re dividing yourself even more among people that are somewhat like you. The people in the Greek system are somewhat alike, then they divide themselves within that. Then even inside that group you have division. At a very young age, I got to see how things divide very quickly.”
Now, divided even in the company of her own, there is acceptance of the pattern, if not the particular practices: “I think the difference between high school and college is that I realized that if you don’t have anything in common with somebody, it’s very hard to stay their friend. You go away to college, and you have a certain percentage of friends who don’t go. Well, within the first year and a half, you really have nothing in common. You’re going to class full-time, they’re working at McDonald’s. They just don’t understand your problems, and you don’t understand theirs.”
Some friends go to different schools, find different majors. “If they’re majoring in psychology, they’re based in this little psychology world, and their whole perspective on life is based on that line of study. If you’re a business major, you consider, ‘What are the economic factors?’ When you make that decision of what you’re going to do with your life, your whole perspective kind of goes around it.”