15 years ago perfectly perky Rebecca walked up to me in the hall, perfectly perfect shiny brown hair bouncing behind her, smiled sweetly and said, “I just wanted to make sure it was okay with you that I ask Jason to the dance.”
“But, I asked Jason to the dance and he hasn’t answered me yet.”
“Oh?” she giggled, her stupid dimples framing her stupid white teeth, “He didn’t tell you? His parents don’t want him going with you because, well, you’re not 16 and don’t understand his values.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard “you don’t understand our/his/her/my values.” Where I grew up in Salt Lake City, “not understanding values” was polite code for “you’re not Mormon.” I was used to it and some parents even tried to be a little more creative by saying something like, “Oh, you see, Jennifer can’t come to your birthday party because we’re just not that familiar with your side of town.” From a very early age I understood that there was them (the Mormons) and us (the non-Mormons) but never was the division more obvious than it was in high school. My first day of AP biology the teacher stood at the front of the class and announced, “A lot of you have had cookies around my kitchen table since you were three, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to treat you special in my class.”
Total and complete bullshit.
I may as well have been invisible in that class, surrounded by these kids the teacher knew personally through her church, the Mormon church. As if it weren’t bad enough that I was an outcast with my fellow classmates, I was an outcast with the teacher as well.
“But wait! Casey! You’re a Mormon! And OMG YOU DON’T EVER SWEAR!”
You’re right, I am a Mormon. I became one after high school of my own free will and no, I don’t swear all that often. But after reading an article in New York Magazine about what a sadistic place high school is my blood is boiling, and just as the article predicted, many of my worst, most shameful moments can be traced right back to those four terrible years perched atop a hill at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you were to ask me about the most terrible moment of my life, I would tell you about the night I didn’t make varsity cheer in 1997.
To put things into perspective, I have been hospitalized for an overdose, I have dealt with infertility as well as postpartum depression, I have been a breath away from divorce, and I have watched helplessly as my one of my closest friends lost her precious baby.
So why am I still hung up on the whole varsity cheer thing? Because it was the first time I wasn’t able to rise above or do anything about my situation. I did amazingly well in school. I was and always have been a gifted learner and things always came easily to me in regards to school. When there was something to be achieved using my brains, creativity or talent? I always won. Varsity cheer however relied on 50% talent, 50% student body vote. When I asked the cheer coach what went wrong she replied “You got the highest marks from the judges at tryouts, but the lowest percentage of votes from the student body.”
At 15 I learned that sometimes popularity and social status are more important than hard work or talent.
In a study done by sociologist James Coleman in 1961, he noted, “[H]igh schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.” In my high school the easiest, most clear cut way to socially sort people? The Mormons and non-Mormons. Easy enough. Of course there were a myriad of other subcultures in high school, and I never really fit into any of them, but the one that was defined for me definitely shaped me into who I’ve become today.
There were a few exceptions, girls who didn’t seem boxed in by labels, stereotypes or socioeconomic status. Even to this day I wonder what high school was really like for them. Now that I’m a parent I wonder even more what their parents did to raise such kind and confident girls. Perhaps they were just as scared as I was. Perhaps high school was absolutely terrible for them as well. But from my perspective I always appreciated that they never turned their noses up at me, despite their high perches atop our school’s social hierarchy.
Of course it’s all in the past now, and I’m even friends with seemingly perfect Rebecca on Facebook. Everyone is doing well and everyone is happy. Just as the author noted of her own high school class, “We’d all grown more gracious; many of us had bloomed; and it was strangely moving to be among people who all shared this shameful, grim, and wild common bond.” Yes, there was still a moment of self righteous satisfaction that the prettiest mean girl from high school ended up overweight and divorced, but if there were ever anything I could do to help her today? I wouldn’t hesitate.
Baz Luhrmann said, “Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.” With Facebook it’s easier to bridge those gaps and thankfully it has brought two people back into my life who will thankfully be in it for the rest of my life. Was high school terrible for everyone? No idea. I only know my own experience, and it wasn’t a great one. While the article makes a very good argument for doing away with high school altogether, it also makes the argument that we are just as likely to feel out of place and left out now as we were in high school. “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem, it’s the giant box of strangers.” The article continues, “The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers.” Which is why so many of us leave conferences and gatherings shaking our heads muttering “it’s just like high school.” Perhaps it isn’t simply adolescence and high school that are to blame for our feelings of inadequacy, it’s just where we first became painfully aware of them as we were thrown together and expected to function surrounded by a thousand different stories and a thousand different strangers our own age. Add in the fact that we feel things so much more powerfully and acutely in our teenage years and it explains why not making the cheer squad at 15 still feels so much more devastating to me at 30 than death, divorce and depression combined.
Psychologist Joseph Allen found, “kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults.”
“Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation.”And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”
To this, I bristle. While my depression never disappeared, I am a perfectly happy adult and would never consider myself socially impaired, and to believe so is unfair to kids dealing with feelings of depression and inadequacy in high school now. While it’s easy to look back with pity at myself that I have had to endure depression from such a young age, I realize now that my depression helped me grow in ways that cannot be taught in books or learned from others. I learned to feel in a way most people are incapable of feeling. Empathy and understanding are two of my greatest strengths because of my experiences. The way I look at it, I broke down early in life so I could grow stronger from the very beginning, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything (even a spot on the varsity cheer squad).