Today I did something I have not attempted since I was in high school: I spent a day in high school.
To a much greater extent than I had anticipated, it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. I went with the intention of observing a series of Spanish classes at a Christian high school in the area, but I ended up observing much more about social psychology and even a bit about myself.
Although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that this was the case, there is something changeless about the high school environment. I remember graduating and thinking that I was finally leaving behind the cliques and the crowds, the immature and the impatient, the over-caffeinated and the under-disciplined, and I was right…
But they’re all still there.
Yes, it seems that little changes in the high school world. The chatter in the hallways is still there, with like-minded (and like-attired) students moving in small packs. The teen in the jersey leans up against the locker, the girl looks down at the ground, and another romantic success or failure hits the high school airwaves within seconds. It will be old news by the end of the day.
In the classroom, there is still the same anxious silence as a test is handed out, and the same sigh of combined relief and frustration when time is called.
Along the walls, posters still encourage students to maintain a positive attitude (even in multiple languages), but many of the kids seem to ignore the posters as much as they did when I was there. Maybe it’s just because I visited in the last week of the academic year, but most of the students seem to have their sights set on being anywhere but where they are.
But then again, that’s the general high school attitude, isn’t it? Wanting to be anywhere but where you are?
In fact, sitting in the classroom today, it quickly came back to me that so much of high school is spent looking out the window, glancing at the clock, waiting to be free and just wanting to grow up.
Some of the high schoolers are already more grown up than others. You can see the maturity in their faces. Even in a room full of students of the same age, five minutes of observation will show you who is tuned in and who is checked out, who respects authority and who prefers to challenge it, who has begun to see as adults see and who still sees adults as alien creatures to be endured, evaded, or altogether ignored.
And you see the Types. Ah, the Types… the several fixed categories into which high schoolers inevitably fall.
There are the girls who are popular because they’re cute (many of whom pretend not to be as smart as they are), the girls who are popular because they’re quirky, and the girls who are quiet and don’t talk to the boys at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are also the girls who seem to be most interested in the subject matter, and who look at the teacher with the most respect and love.
Similarly, there are the boys who are popular because they’re cute, or because they’re athletic, or because they’re funny (or think they are). It still amazes me (though perhaps it shouldn’t) that someone who appears to all the world to be an idiot can nevertheless attract the stares and smiles of high school girls simply because of his own high opinion of himself. And then there are the very, very few boys who manage to make it through high school without coming to the conclusion that they are God’s gift to humanity (and the female subset of humanity in particular)… but I don’t think I saw any of them today.
There are the jocks (or blocks), the nerds, the cheerleaders (identifiable even when not in uniform), the drama students (perhaps more dramatic than students), the skater boys, and the punks. Thanks to the dress code, I didn’t see any Goths, but I suspect they were there somewhere, lurking under the surface.
On the plus side, at least I’m taller than most of them now.
It’s funny how going to high school can make you feel, even (or especially) if you haven’t been there in a long time. I actually really enjoyed high school myself, but preparing to go back today caused rather a strange reaction on my part.
I think I actually changed shirts three times before finally settling on what I had chosen at the outset. That’s something I didn’t even do when I was in high school.
Indeed, it seems that high school is a place tailor-made for self-consciousness, and when you go there as the special guest of a teacher, then all eyes are really on you.
They’re only high school kids, after all, so there’s no reason to be afraid of them. (Right?) But when I stepped into the room near the end of one of the morning classes and the entire group fell completely silent, I definitely felt a bit like an animal on display. I answered a few questions from the class before the bell rang and all the students herded out.
It was only then that I noticed that I had been sweating.
It’s not that high school students are intimidating in and of themselves. They have their own pile of problems and preoccupations, and they don’t pose much of a threat to adults.
It is their intense ability for scrutiny that makes them worth writing about. Even setting aside their misguided notions of what is worthy of praise and what is worthy of scorn, it seems as though their eyes can see right through you.
At the same time, though, they would probably be much more intimidated if they knew what adults can see in them. Where these teens judge “coolness” and appearance, they are themselves illustrations of insecurity, unexpressed emotions, and the constant process of becoming. You can practically read it in their faces.
As I saw today, the thronging occupants of your local high school hallway look quite a bit different when you exceed eye level and view them from above.
Which, I guess, is true of a lot more than high school… but then, as any John Hughes fan will tell you, high school has always held claim to its status as a microcosm of the world.