i have a question...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

ruminations on high school

I remember noting that 5 years had passed since when I had graduated high school...and I didn't really know how to articulate what it meant to me.

Most Likely to Succeed, June 2006

Everyone remembers those silly superlatives we get stuck with in our high school yearbooks. Or maybe it’s just me. And maybe it’s just because I was actually voted something. The superlative somehow loaded with the most pressure—“Most Likely to Succeed.” Five years ago, I was busting my ass to make valedictorian of my high school and somehow validate the culture shock I’d suffered for four years in the small, rural, conservative town of Cambria, CA. I deserved to be voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” if the definition of that was “smartest” or “most hardworking” or “most well-read” or “the one who takes school most seriously because she’s the one who most wants to get the hell out.” I doubt my teenaged classmates had the forethought to imagine where we’d all be in five years. Or that our definitions of success would change so drastically.

But let me back up a minute, to examine some of the less loaded superlatives. “Biggest Flirt” was perhaps the most envied—or revered—position. At least to my 17-year old self, who, at that point, wanted more than a lot of things to be flirted with, even if it was by the “biggest flirt” in class. (It all counted to my burgeoning and easily wounded sexual ego. However, I only vaguely remember being flirted with by Jeff. He, like most boys in my high school class, seemed intimidated by my studiousness and overt lack of patience for teenaged male ignorance. I can admit now that it’s partly my own fault I didn’t get a date until I was 18…and out of high school.) I wonder whether “the biggest flirts’” reputations preceded them into college and beyond. And whether or not that label followed them around, bolstering them somehow, upping their confidence with new potential conquests. They were seen as savvy flirts, precociously sexually confident, by their peers in their teenaged years. Did it matter to them in real sexual situations? Probably not.

Perhaps the students we voted “Most Likely to Make You Laugh” and “Friendliest” (or some such nonsense) were encouraged by our admiration in their personalities. Jennifer and Marcus really were the wittiest and goofiest students in our class. I wonder if the last five years have given them edges, jaded them in some way. If they started taking themselves too seriously or if their lives have taken such drastic turns that their senses of humor have waned somehow. I wonder if David and Camille moved through college making friends and acquaintances as easily as they had in high school. Or if leaving the insular, tiny town of our high school and entering a proverbially bigger and badder world made them more tentative so that they just kept the one or two friends they had had in school.

Our yearbook committee also decided on voting for overtly superficial superlatives, “Best Eyes” and “Best Smile.” I can’t imagine that this meant anything to Ryan, Jennifer, Noe, or Rocio in the moment or that it followed them into their lives at all. I can’t imagine why we thought those categories were at all interesting or relevant to someone’s character. Isn’t the point of a high school yearbook to shed some light of relevance on those years?

Did the kids who weren’t voted for anything feel left out? Did they feel even more that their classmates didn’t understand them, hadn’t validated them? In retrospect, I had been labeled the new girl, the “student,” since my first day. Those kids didn’t really know me, but I had worked so hard to make the 4 years pass quickly and painlessly that if someone else had gotten voted “Most Likely to Succeed” or ended up valedictorian, I would have been completely affronted and felt even more like high school had been a total waste of time. As it is, that’s something I still grapple with sometimes. That high school was a time and place where I learned very little and no one knew me. Maybe everyone feels that way about high school. I think, now, that they must.

In the end, when I realize that it’s been 5 years since our graduation ceremony, the event at which I talked about appreciating our one moment of togetherness before our dispersion into the “real world,” it comes down to the fact that I haven’t seen most of my classmates in these 5 years. And if I show up at a reunion in another 5 years, I doubt I’ll see them before that. So my measure of success (how much money I’m making, what my job means in the grand scheme of things, my life plan, my certainties and uncertainties about the decisions I’m making for myself) isn’t based on their approval or the approval of my teachers anymore. But I am still (and perhaps again) consumed with how I measure and factor all those things today against the standard that I feel like was set for me back then. Really, it’s just the standard I have always set for myself. And that, in truth, is the hardest to live up to.

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