High school forever: Thanks for the memories, adolescence.
Jared Sperli stashed this in life
Which were you? Popular kid, nerd, normal, artist, or loner? Wait, don’t answer that—instead, tell me: What makes that question so seductive?
Not the answer, although the answer may be more important than you realize, according to a long, rich essay by Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine about the enduring grip of our high school years.
Senior pulls together a wealth of studies on adolescence to argue that our experiences in HS mold how we see ourselves, cope with stress and relate to others forever. She floats a few explanations for why this might be: Grades nine through 12 coincide with the fine-tuning of the prefrontal cortex, which processes abstractions and controls self-image, so that teenagers are constantly converting their impressions of the outside world into identity-grist. (Senior’s example: I like the Allman Brothers becomes I am the type of person who likes the Allman Brothers.) And teen brains are bathed in dopamine, which makes them feel everything, the good and the bad, hyper-intensely. The teenage years also take on a strange luminance in memory; it makes sense that oldsters might use those reminiscences as identity building blocks.
While high school is formative, though, it can also be hell. Senior views the fact that it has such a gravitational pull over the rest of our lives as semi-disastrous. Her money quote: “Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”
This is a strong claim, but Senior backs it up by discussing how, during this vulnerable time of self-formation and raging emotions, teenagers actually have no idea how to read social cues. They’re laughably bad at figuring out when they’ve been accepted or rejected. She cites a study concluding that only 37 percent of adolescent friendships are reciprocal. At the same time, they are feverishly trying to discover where they stand in a huge, linoleum-tiled terrarium of people with whom they have little in common besides age. Nuances don’t exactly thrive in such a situation—you’re liable to be sorted, labeled, maybe stigmatized, based on some broad stereotype rooted in the clothes you wear or how much weight you need to lose before you look like Taylor Swift. For those of us who weren’t Math Nerds, the equation is: painful sensitivity to what others think of you PLUS uncertainty about what others think of you, thanks to terrible people-reading skills PLUS a general tendency to organize the social world into cliques that don’t really reflect reality EQUALS can I please just graduate, right now? Or, as Senior says, “sadistically unhealthy.”