One of the most fascinating things about being in my thirties is that I’m discovering what kinds of adults the people I went to school with have become. My family moved around a lot and I went to many different schools, but through Facebook, and extroverted tendencies, I’ve managed to keep in touch with several people. Some of their experiences have surprised me, particularly those of my old schoolmates Harry, Angie and Cecilia. Here are their stories. I’ve changed the names and fictionalised the details, to avoid incurring me a defriending, but the basics are true.
Harry was one of the first guys in the ‘challenger’ class for ‘gifted’ kids to get a girlfriend. They earned social status in well-behaved ‘challenger’ circles by making out at the bus stop and drinking beer, but not so much that it affected their grades. Later, Harry graduated from Law with great marks and started with a prestigious and highly competitive firm. He moved into a house with some of his male colleagues who’d also just started with the company. He once invited me to one of their parties, where Harry and his friends spent a lot of time listing which of their female colleagues had the best legs/tits/arse. He then moved to a regional office, where he worked for a female manager who talked openly about how as the acknowledged geek at high school, she’d been highly unpopular. (She would never have won that graduate boys’ prize for best legs/tits/arse.) She yelled at him in front of clients and criticised every piece of work he produced. Normally reluctant to admit to vulnerability, Harry asked for advice from his old school friends and sought help from HR. Our advice didn’t work, and HR backed his boss. Eventually, he quit his job. He now works for a smaller, less prestigious firm. He’s still angry about his earlier experiences, but he also says they’ve made him a kinder manager, because he doesn’t want to turn into his old boss.
Angie drove me a bit crazy at high school by asking me what mark I’d got on every assignment, and smugly announcing whenever she’d done better than me — which was quite often. Angie worked hard and got excellent marks. She also struggled with mental health issues. She was never popular and sometimes faced teasing by the ‘cool’ kids, but she always had a few loyal, nerdy friends. At the end of high school, when she didn’t win the dux, rather than congratulate the winner and grit her teeth, she went home crying. Shortly after graduation, she won a prestigious overseas role as a middle manager with an international development agency. She was unlucky enough to be involved with a public stuff-up in which her agency inadvertently caused several local people to be injured. As a manager, Angie was held partly responsible. The work pressure and media attention were too much. She left her job to focus on her mental health. Once this was stabilised, she took a less demanding management role back in Australia. Now, she devotes her competitive energies to running the best ever under 18s local girls’ basketball team. The girls love her — especially those who are going through tough periods — because Angie always makes the time to listen to them.
Cecilia always intrigued me, because she managed to get through one of the most brutally alpha schools I ever attended, doing well academically, and never being bullied or bullying anyone. This in itself was remarkable at our school. If you did well in class, the teachers would like you but the other kids would torment you. If you did badly, the teachers would call you stupid, but the kids would leave you alone. In Cecilia’s adult life, she continued to achieve impressive things modestly, earning a PhD and then a sought-after scientist role in an elite national institution. When she started at her workplace, the women’s toilets were being turned into offices because there weren’t enough female scientists to use them. Many of her male colleagues resented the arrival of this young, female upstart, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Yet Cecilia kept doing her job well and ignoring the critics, just as she’d brushed past the bullies in high school. She’s been there for five years now, quietly advancing the nation’s knowledge in her field, and showing future scientists that it is indeed possible to be female and do her job. She recently had her first child.
High school can be one of the most difficult experiences people go through. Surprising numbers of adults struggle to hold it together when asked about high school — or they lie and pretend it was all easy. What I’m seeing with the people I know, however, is that high school is not destiny. The smart, popular guy can lose his job. The modestly high-achieving girl can quietly smash gender barriers.
We as grown-ups have a responsibility to share this knowledge. I think this is a role for books, and for young adult writing in particular. We need to tell our own high school stories — honestly — and we need to share the perspective that comes from being out of school for twenty years (and developing wrinkles and knee problems). Yes, high school is full of bullshit, but the bullshit will pass. If you’re having fun, great — enjoy, and be nice to others. If you’re not having fun, ask for help, and try to remember that grade nine is not all you will become. Life has many more challenges and adventures along the way.