Our household is nearing a grade twelve graduation, which got me reflecting on my own high school days. I realized that the people and dramas I remember aren’t really all that different than the stuff of life after high school. In fact, the pressures I recall are all the same situations and archetypal personalities I’ve encountered consistently within the 20 years since.
It occurs to me that the people who learned how to navigate social pitfalls in high school are likely the most successful in later life. I think I imagined that outside of high school, in a professional setting, somehow all of the gossip and struggle for social dominance would disappear, erased by caps and gowns, and we would all magically enter some revered state of “grown-up-ness”. In fact, I think now that a lot of people just got older, not smarter, and just kept up the same social patterns and games.
Leaping to mind are a couple of favourites. For example, how about the high school mean girl? She gathered followers who needed to feel safe in her circle, and mainly were just glad that she wouldn’t be mean to them in public (in private, another story) because she needed them as an audience. She dictated what they should wear and how they should talk, and snapped them into line using mockery and the threat of turning them out of the group if they didn’t toe the line.
In the adult world, we see this person in boardrooms and volunteer groups; she (or he, I’ve known male “mean girls”) has perfected these skills over time and has turned into a Kingdom Builder. Dead giveaway: she’s that person who is primarily concerned about the job titles of people who report to her (this is now her clique), because, obviously, if you’re the boss of the Grand Exalted Head of All Things, well, you’re hot shit. People in her department often feel isolated from others and never disagree with her.
Or how about the high school bullies? I’m thinking here in the traditional sense, of the person who used some form of perceived power, maybe physical size or family wealth, to pick on other people for pleasure. Differs from Mean Girl in that the Bully usually isn’t as smart.
In the adult world, these are middle managers or executives with poor leadership skills. I’ve encountered more than a few adults in leadership roles who use illegitimate power, such as a title, to get their own way, or for personal aggrandizement. I’m sure they were bullies in their younger days. Over time, the bully may have grown smarter, but still predictably plays unearned power as every card in every hand of the game.
Our high school Goody Two Shoes are all now professionally indignant political correctors. I can’t think of a better term for this archetype image than the 1765 nickname of the virtuous little orphan with only one shoe. This is the do-gooder, authority pleaser, you know who you are. As an adult, you are now spitting your time between being professionally offended by any number of perceived slights, and policing grammar on social media.
Since we’re indulging in stereotypes, let’s not forget the easiest one. High school – nerd or geek (do you know which one is an insult?), adult world – suddenly chic. I’m sure everyone who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s would have been stupefied if you’d told us that in 20 years, Friends would be re-done, but it would be about nerds who converse over take-out in their apartment instead of at a coffee shop. We knew these folks, in high school they were uber-focused on some niche pursuit like chess, band, or Star Wars. Now they’re chic. Many of them are successful, some are very rich. I know a lot of women who wish they’d kept in touch until that geek grew into his glasses and his plaid shirts became hip, because it turns out 10 years on, he’s good relationship material.
I think that’s the story; people who were well-adjusted middle of the road guys and gals in high school grew up to be well adjusted adults who can steer their way through life. Even the shy kids, the nerds, the fringe kids, the ones who even then had the confidence to be okay with being different, they’re doing fine. The dysfunctional power-trippers? They’re still tripping. And we all still have to deal with them.
There is a lot of discussion today around the ways school experiences and social messages shape our teens. What will the adults look like who come out of this time where everyone gets a participation ribbon, creative play is to be feared because you might get hurt, problem solving is done for you by an authority figure, and decision making is conducted as a group via technology. My guess is that the adults of the future will behave pretty much as the teens do now, except they’ll be paunchier. And a great number of them will continue to wear whatever they wear now in grade twelve.
I don’t think we do our kids any favours pretending that once you get out of high school, you’ll join a grown-up world where everything runs professionally and fairly. The fact is, gossip, manipulation and small-p politics pervade human endeavours, full stop. The sooner you learn to navigate the landscape, the better. The only saving grace is that at least most adults have also developed some decision making and pre-frontal cortex skills that put it all in a little better perspective, and the hormones and self-absorption abate, so that it doesn’t seem so all-consuming.
I think the best we can hope for our kids entering adulthood is the skills to identify and navigate the pitfalls of social and workplace interactions, and the perspective to know they don’t have to be defined or contained by them. I think that they come wired with their particular mix of abilities in this respect, learn to use them from the adults in their lives, and then finally hone them through the crucible of pre-teen and teen social interactions. If we are hoping that adulthood or a university prof or a job or boss will teach these skills later, well, too little and too late.