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Is high school the worst possible place for teens?

New York Magazine article on High School

My oldest son Jacob is just beginning his second semester as a high school freshman. And whether it’s due to his new environment or something else, one thing is certain: the kid is different than he used to be.

It’s hard to put a finger on how, exactly. Yes, he comes off as cockier and more confident these days, but beneath this bravado he seems to be testing out a multitude of new ideas, opinions and ideologies every day.

He’s become prone to making statements that range from outrageous to obnoxious (I was just interrupted to field this gem: “Mom, why do all women love purses so much? They don’t make you more attractive to men, so what’s the point?”)

But while my first inclination might be to beat him over the head with said purse, I’m really trying not to take his boundary- and reality-testing too personally.

Because I’m not even sure he knows who he is right now.

We all know by now that the changes we go through during adolescence are (literally) mind-bending. And it’s a pretty well-established fact of life that adolescence is tough and high school can be cruel.

But in a piece called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School” in the most recent issue of New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior makes the case that the high school environment isn’t just something we power through, then leave cleanly behind when we graduate.

She points to research that indicates how woefully ill-prepared teenagers are for a high-stress situation like high school: their perception is skewed, their ability to self-regulate under-developed. And yet they’re “thrown into a big box” with hundreds or thousands of their peers, left to figure things out for themselves under the influence of a bunch of equally-clueless kids, rather than adult mentors.

In other words, American kids learn how to be grown-ups in an unnatural, hostile and even torturous environment that skews the way they feel about themselves and the rest of the world, for the rest of their lives.

And, says Senior, traces of our high school selves continue to show up in our grown-up world. In fact, the article suggests that adult life is really not so different from high school, possibly because we started shaping it as soon as we walked out those double doors and are under its spell throughout adulthood.

It’s hard to deny the lasting effects of adolescence. While I had a comparatively easy time of it in high school, my more negative experiences of middle school and my freshman year left deep scars. And even though I managed to climb out of the social basement by my sophomore or junior year, I didn’t feel quite like myself again until I was well into my twenties.

The fear that I would be uncovered as a fraud, exposed as a loser, laughed at or rejected never went away even in my later years of high school, when I had no shortage of friends. And that latent insecurity has never completely disappeared, even though I’ve been out of high school for nineteen years.

Take for example blogger circles, where I spend the majority of my work time and much of my social time, and which are often referred to as being “just like high school,” implying cliquishness and Mean Girls-style hierarchies.

Maybe it’s about perception: while I have rarely seen outright cruelty or snubbing at a conference, there’s still a latent fear of not being accepted by my peers lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. And while most of the “big” bloggers I know have always seemed genuinely kind, helpful, and friendly in person, I still feel awed and strangely tongue-tied in the presence of some of the more confident or strikingly beautiful (this is where I apologize for having turned into a blubbering idiot the first time I spoke to Lindsey Ferrier in person, though she couldn’t have been friendlier even as I nervously dribbled wine down my front.)

Whether the “just like high school” descriptor is deserved or not, though, there’s a major difference between an adult blogger and a high-school student: First, I have enough life experience to be able to logically talk myself down from insecurity-fueled anxiety attacks; second; at the end of a conference I get to go back to my real life, to my home where I am unconditionally loved, cherished, and relatively in control.

High schoolers, on the other hand, put one day behind them, only to have to start over again the next. And they don’t have an adult’s well of of self-knowledge, understanding of cause and effect, or even just the perspective to know that “tomorrow is another day” to draw on.

So I don’t think it’s quite accurate to call adult life “perpetual high school,” as Paul Feig, creator of the TV series Freaks and Geeks, is quoted as saying in the piece. As adults we have a choice. We have hard-won maturity and wisdom, and the freedom to leave a toxic job or move to a new town. All benefits teenagers don’t enjoy.

Still, I can’t deny that high school’s effects linger. One of those effects is the knee-jerk tendency to do things the way other people think we should. Which might be why, despite all I now realize about my own high school experience, I still choose to put my kids through the same thing. Because, well, because everyone else is doing it. And what would people say if….?

The truth is that I haven’t yet sorted out my complicated feelings about high school, a period of my life which gave me much – lasting friendships, access to knowledge and the instruction of some excellent teachers (and, yes, some bad ones), the opportunity to travel and try out new activities – while simultaneously inflicting me with a sort of post-traumatic syndrome.

Does the good outweigh the bad? Does the fact that most of us go on to have functional, relatively happy adult lives mean that it didn’t matter as much as it seemed to at the time? Were there important lessons learned during those years, despite the insecurity and hurt feelings? Is it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Since I’m still wrestling with these questions and not inclined to do something drastic and brave like yank my son out of class and teach him at home – at least not right now – I have to console myself with an attempt to modify the situation for him, to make this crazy, nervewracking experience a little easier for him the only way I know how.

For example, I’ve often complained how unfair it is that teenagers are expected to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives (like whether or not to study for exams, or which college to go to) during a period of life that they are least equipped to make good ones. So I’m not inclined to define my teenage son’s success as a human being based on his achievement during this period of his life.

I try not to fret too much when he says dopey things or freak out when he acts like a (temporary) jerk or an alien life form from another planet. I’m trying really, really hard not to jack up my expectations, to hitch my wagon to his star, or to act like a stereotypical grown-up and pile on when he’s already down.

I mean, I’ve been where he is. I know what it’s like. Really, as his mom, it’s the least I can do.

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