High School Confidential
by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
A crucible of identity pressure is High school. Everything that a child has learned up to that point is tested and self-evaluated in the first couple of weeks on entering the doors of that hormone-fuelled, super-charged cauldron of longings and challenges.
The start of high school, in our house, saw a self-contained energetic girl, in plaid shirt and jeans, pulling on her roller blades and heading out as she had done regularly in the previous year, with long confident strides, heading to the new school. Two days later, the blades had been put away, plaid shirt gone, skirt and sweater donned, and she walked toward the subway, which was the way most of the kids arrived at school (we lived 9 short blocks from the school). She learned quickly not to be seen in a light that didn’t reflect who she now wanted to be – even though I doubt she was clear about who that new self was. High school – whole new social rules, which includes dress. She had entered the testing ground.
There Are ‘Testing Areas’
There are several loci of this trying-out: the classroom, the hallways, the lockers, the lunchroom, the gym, any nearby gathering places (donut shop, variety store, mall). Each of those develops an aura, of either safety or testing. I can still locate the feelings around these locations from my dreams. Just walking into a classroom – high test number, probably a 9 (of 10). Can I keep up? Will I be nailed for not doing enough of the homework? Bobby’s in this class and how far do I have to sit from him? I’m a bit late – everybody will be watching me find a seat. How I handle this, daily, is going to remain part of how people see me.
How I act in the class – too participative may equal too big a keener. Hang back too much? A loser. Never mind the marks OR the learning.
The hallways? Another 9 out of 10. Before classes, recess, lunch, after school – have to keep walking by certain people, acknowledging some, ignoring others. If I continually get that wrong, I’ll be called a snob or worse? A ‘suck’.
Lunchroom? Do I have people to eat with and are they people I want to be associated with long-term? Can’t just drift from group to group, mingling freely. Something weird about that. So have to have a coterie, a posse, a gang, that feels okay to be seriously associated with.
“Reputation” – Ascribing Identity
Just being seen among others provides a label, an ascribed identity. When 13, there was in my neighbourhood a gang – mostly boys plus a couple of girls who wore kerchiefs on their heads, tied around the neck, who leaned on the bars near the playground and who, as a whole, seemed a lot more interesting than having no local friends. I was accepted because I was friendly with one of the boys. Though It’s wasn’t particularly near my home, I was seen one evening early on and told I looked ‘cheap’. Had to scan that and think about it. Did I want the reputation, the identity, of being a cheap and easy girl? Guess those kids weren’t cool enough that I could feel happy being identified by just hanging with them and I drifted away. (I doubt they missed me). I became vaguely aware that by dropping them, I was sculpting some kind of high school persona, in the absence of a real idea of who I really wanted to be and who I was. I just knew that ‘cheap’ was to be avoided. And that I was terribly susceptible to what others thought.
Maneuvering Those Rocky Shoals
I remember an ongoing push and pull between what identity was being ascribed to me by co-inhabitants of those testing places, and who I decided I wanted to be seen as – or not. So being in high school included mapping out the physical plan emotionally – some spaces and times being comfortable for me and others feeling more dangerous (people there not likely to give me a break, being too older or too cool or simply not comfortable). And any feedback about what label was being applied had to be reviewed seriously.
Different People Place Different Importance on High School
I’m often startled by how important many adults regard their high school experiences (even though I’m convinced it’s a critical transition). Of course many put it fully behind them because university, college, work life became more important, as a simple continuum of working things out. I will posit, however, that because high school falls in the years when puberty ends, adolescence begins, and – for many – life-long relationships are established, this period is unique in identity construction. Many determine to totally reject who they were in high school, and move toward very different lives – but it is the high school persona they are reacting against. Others, particularly those who marry teen-age sweethearts and establish families, have reason to recall and hold on to the personalities that accompanied them into adult life. There may not arise for them a more significant experience of working out Who They Are.
The role of parents at this time? Rather less important than we would hope. For most, our main contribution to our children’s construction of identity happened a long time ago.