In her insightful article, "Why We Truly Never Leave High School," writer Jennifer Senior references a recent book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence. The authors, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worell, note in it that teens these days spend 16 hours a week in interaction with grownups but 60 hours a week with their peers.
What’s more, they say, a century ago that was in reverse ratio. So teens create a different culture. And that culture isn’t just a function of age, but of the values they generate--values that are sometimes separate from those of everyone else.
The larger world, though, also impacts the smaller cultures within it. In 1954, the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, made school integration mandatory. Buffalo’s response to what was groundbreaking civil rights news was to redistrict schools, busing entire elementary school graduating classes out of their neighborhoods. Some students went to private schools instead or paid tuition to go to suburban schools, but most of us got on the bus to go across town.
That’s why, with most of North Buffalo teens in those years, I graduated from Riverside High School . My neighborhood elementary school, School 64, had only a total of about 500 students in all 8 grades then, while Riverside had more students than the college I went on to. But the fears of many of the parents were unfounded.
Nothing terrible happened to anyone that I know of; we got into the colleges of our choice anyway; and we met people we wouldn’t have known otherwise. A couple of issues that were real: not as much competition and fledgling “honors” classes instead of established ones.
But being bused across town for high school changed the usual high school dynamic. It wasn’t arbitrary and we knew the reason for it--integration. It was in itself cool. Looking back, it still is. What it did was to create a highly visible paradigm that ran parallel to the usual adolescent sturm and drang.
High school is a recurrent theme in movies and sit-coms, and the play, REUNION, that I wrote and produced a few years ago also tackles memories of traditional high school nightmares--the “good lunch table,” the cliques, those who drove to school and those who didn’t, and the cute guy who sat behind you in French II.
It does this in the context of a different reunion—one that takes place on the telephone between the former Prom Queen and the guy from the other side of the tracks she wasn’t supposed to date. Some forty years later, now she has his name on her list of old classmates to remind to come to the reunion.
The deeper parallel here: we don’t ever see whether they meet at the reunion at all, and it doesn’t matter. They are able to help each other out of their mutual blue funks in eight phone calls in Act I and four in Act II. When geese migrate, they remind each other, if one has to land on the ground, another will fly down and keep it company. Besides, when you go to a reunion, you don’t always know in advance who is going to be there.
But there is also a less sunny side to high school hijinks. Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, tackles the issues in their post-millennial version. She quotes an eighteen-year old who said, “The limit of how mean and vicious a girl can get is beginning to disappear. If girls are pretty certain that other girls won’t be confrontational face to face, they have the freedom to be super nasty and never have to own up to it.”
Recovery from it, she notes, is a messy process. Wiseman notes that teens don’t always tell others what is going on because it may not be safe to do so, or because they don’t know what the response will be, or whether telling will make matters worse. If they have been victimized, they may worry that it will change their public image.
And the newest technology makes it easy to pass along unsubstantiated rumors. Using it feels private at the time even though on another level, everyone knows it isn’t. Privacy is an illusion because, for some, the desire to pass along rumors is strong. For one thing, it means you know something others don’t, true or not.
And that gives those who participate—and also those who choose not to—part of their quite different identities.
Jennifer Senior quotes writer Kurt Vonnegut: that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” Projects that run parallel to the mean-girl scenario are important for that reason alone, like the one called “Finding Kind.”
Just about a year ago, the Park School in suburban Buffalo aired an important and innovative film about it to an auditorium full of preteens, teens, and parents. It can be made available to organizations who want to understand the underlying reasons for girl-girl bullying and help repair the damages.
Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. Her doctoral work in education and developmental psychology was done at the University of Rochester, and she completed a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology through Columbia State University. She received the Excellence in Teaching Award from Rochester Institute of Technology for her work with adults returning to school after a hiatus. The play, REUNION, is available for licensing. Contact Linda at email@example.com.