How to Survive High School Unscathed (Even After the Fact)


How does a human being make it through high school unscathed? Short answer: You can’t. Everyone is scathed. High school is a crazy emotional Thunderdome where daffy bureaucrats put hundreds of hormonal monsters in a big jar and shake it until they joust to death. Emotionally. It’s scary and fun and confusing and “What’s this funny feeling?” and “What’s in my pants?” and then one day you all scatter and your entire little dystopia is rendered meaningless and you’re supposed to, like, do “the world” now. Overnight! It’s crazy! And then we laaaaaaugh, oh, high school, ha ha. It thought it could scathe me! Ha ha. Well, as it turns out, you are scathed. All of us are, even more than we’ve been led to believe.

If you haven’t read Jennifer Senior’s great piece on high school in New York Magazine this week, then catch up, dummy. For decades the prevailing wisdom has been that our defining developmental moments occur between the ages of zero and 3. But, turns out, while early childhood might shape our basic systems, adolescence has an indelible effect on who we are:

“If you’re interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it,” says Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence. “But if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”

Our self-image in high school—positives and negatives both—tends to inform our self-image for the rest of our lives. I know I might be retro-fitting my experience for the sake of this piece, but, personally, it’s easy to see that continuum within my own life. I loved high school—I had a lively, slightly dorky social life, a procrastination situation, an obsession with comedy and good books (and less-good books [and lady-knights]), medium-high self-esteem, and an only-child’s dual fixation on being left alone and feeling left out.

Their shapes have changed, but every single one of those things still defines my life now. The potholes that hobbled my self-esteem in high school are the same ones that occasionally get to me as an adult (even with massively improved fortifications). I still procrastinate. I would still rather be left alone than be talked to, almost always, until people stop talking to me, at which point I bother them incessantly until I’m convinced that they love me. And, in general, I’m still pretty consistently happy, just like I was in high school. “High school itself does something to us, is the point,” Senior says. “We bear its stripes.”

High school is where we make our template. And even if we break out of that template later in life, it still circumscribes our expectations and our limitations (poking some significant holes in the fantasy of rugged individualism—it’s tough to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t even have boots). And that’s not only a problem for the teenage outcasts, Senior says—more interestingly, it can have repercussions for the popular kids too:

In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. (Criminals were still most apt to smoke pot; male jocks still had the highest self-esteem.) But one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.

So, that old Romy and Michelle model—where popular kids turn into alcoholic losers and nerds turn into jet-setting playboys with rubber faces—that’s true, but only for girls? Awesome. Thanks, thing-I-won’t-get-into-but-rhymes-with-blatriarchy.

It seems that the sooner you can reconcile who you think you are with who you actually are, the better off you’ll be. But is there anything we, as adults, can actually tell teenagers that will be helpful? After all, it’s not like we did it right. But, since giving advice really pumps my nads, I figured I’d try—using the archetypes that codify all of teenage human existence. The Breakfast Club archetypes. Even adults tend to fall into one of these categories, so what follows could be applicable to all ages.

The Brain
Okay, so you’re a nerd but you can’t make a lamp. You’re in Chess Club AND Physics Club (aren’t you tired!?), and you have a girlfriend in Canada that you’ve laid lotsa times. Here is the thing with you. Basically you will be fine, but you need to chill, bro. First of all, stop lying about stuff. You have not had intercourse with an invisible woman from Niagara Falls, everyone knows it, and trying to convince them otherwise just highlights your insecurity. And visible insecurities are where people punch other people! Stop it! Or get punched! Second of all, watch your defense mechanisms. A lot of nerdy kids and adults get real condescending about stuff because it makes them feel like, I don’t know, Wallace Shawn mowing down giants with the power of his riddlin’ or something. But this is very off-putting to normal people who want to like you. Third of all, grades don’t matter that much. Chill.

The Princess
Dude. Claire. You need to realize that SERIOUSLY no one gives a shit. You don’t have a ton of depth to your interests at this point (rice, raw fish, seaweed, etc.), so it’s going to be important for you to dig up some self-worth that doesn’t have to do with your cleavage. You’re smart, Claire! Remember how you knew all about Molière? Don’t settle for just being pretty—you are allowed to do both at the same time. (Can I interest you in some feminism?) Also, I have to agree with Bender about that lipstick thing. What is the purpose of that even. Stop.

The Athlete
Nobody with a shred of self-confidence is wasting their time (and tape) taping other people’s buns together. You need to learn some self-love, sporto. Also, “wrestling” is not particularly a career, so you might want to think about broadening your interests. How about the school newspaper? Or…choir? Wait, by the way, WTF was that thing you did with your voice? Are you an X-Man? Did you have to pay for that window?

The Basket-case
You’re probs fine, actually. Your hair is kind of dirty, and the whole compulsive liar thing isn’t great, but you’re actually pretty self-possessed and in charge of your shit. Although, hiding from people isn’t going to get you anywhere. Start letting folks in! Go to a heavy metal vomit party once in a while! Also, you are totally good at drawing! Go draw in a room somewhere with other weirdos who also like drawing. There. Donezo.

The Criminal
You need to know that being tough is only going to alienate you further. Also, you aren’t a fucking victim. You don’t have to be a professional lamp-maker if you don’t want to! You contain multitudes! Also, I would like to have sex with you! STOP PUSHING PEOPLE AWAY, JOHN. AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH.

Anyway, the gist, for all people in high school and beyond: The stuff in your head seems way more real than it actually is. No one is even thinking about you ever, in a good way. (And if they are, it’s way better to pretend they’re not.) Mostly they’re all like, “Ugh, what’s this rash? Do I have enough change to get a buffalo chicken log from 7-11? Is Sarah Silverman related to Jonathan Silverman?” No one is paying attention to you, so stop freaking out. Stop hating yourself. Find something you like and do that thing, and other people who like you will find you. Bye.

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