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.”