I promise this post isn’t about my suffering in high school, because really, I didn’t very much.
I was kind of a weird high school kid. I got straight A’s with only a reasonable amount of effort, and most of my girl friends were all really good girls. Yet I spent far too much time with seriously messed up boys, whom I had a weird kind of rescue thing for, all of whom are either dead or, as far as I know, are now seriously messed up men, in and out of jail. I drank exactly twice, getting drunkish once at my best friend’s 18th birthday party. I never did anything truly bad, and I pretended as if I were a whole lot more sexually active than I actually was (leading to a dramatic confrontation with my parents based upon nothing at all that had really happened), but I witnessed friends engaging in actually self-destructive and dangerous behavior. I was very much an observer of life, while I actually was much more honestly and consistently interested in and engaged with my Latin, math, and English books. I thought these people were exciting, whereas most high school boys were just tedious. I also felt like, in observing them, I could figure out how to fix the world. I was really self-righteous, I admit, and naive and silly. Why I forgave these boys who dropped out of school, and eventually became real criminals, I don’t know. Perhaps because I knew even then that life would never give them a break. I saved my animus for your run-of-the-mill high school pain-in-the-ass boys.
I went to a large high school, so I didn’t really suffer from the youthful politics of cliquishness. I was in honors classes and involved in student council (called student commission at my school). Being president of my class for a couple years, and vice-president or treasurer or something of the whole council for a couple, I had to help run dances and build Homecoming floats and other very Midwestern events. I actually did not care at all about dances and Homecoming floats, but I knew being a class officer was a good thing to have on a college application. Even as I navigated my way through some seriously risky and dead-end surroundings, I always had one goal: getting out of my town and going to the best college possible. That was my first step in fixing the world.
I should have spent my time figuring out a different group of people.
My freshman year in high school, a group of jackass boys from my class ruined the sophomore class float, and also tossed eggs and squirted ketchup all over the house and car of the parents hosting their float construction. I didn’t know who was responsible, but I had to spend an afternoon in the principal’s office and apologize to the parents on their behalf. The funds to repair the car came from our class coffers. The same damn students later played a senior “prank” that destroyed a bunch of school property. Same thing with the class coffers. I didn’t find out until I was an adult, although of course I always suspected, that the same kids had been behind both pranks. I was uncool enough to not think they were funny and to think it seemed like a tremendous waste of energy and the good will of the faculty, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that they were guys who were popular, but whom I’d always found incredibly tedious, annoying, and not at all intelligent. That I had to think about them at all irritated me beyond belief. I could never stand having to waste my time dealing with stupid pranks.
At some point in high school, I learned that some of that same group of guys were cheating a lot in a science class we took together. They also spent a lot of time mocking a science teacher I didn’t care for and a certain government teacher I adored. They were insufferable in any class I had to take with them. Not only were they shallow, in my eyes, but they were making it more difficult for the rest of us to learn. I hated that they couldn’t appreciate that our teachers were smart and had things to teach us, because they got in my way. I disliked them so much, but I couldn’t prove they were guilty of anything or do anything about them. I comforted myself that “cheaters never win” and mediocre students who take advantage of others would never accomplish much.
Facebook, of course, allows you to figure out what all these people you liked and didn’t like are doing with their adulthood. One of the boys from that group apparently went through some hard times in his early twenties, and seems like a good family man with whom I would get a long just fine. A few years ago, the guy I perceived as the leader of the obnoxious group also friended me. This happened right around the debate over healthcare reform, and I was shocked to learn he was an executive in a healthcare insurance company.
Inevitably, I soon became ensnared in arguments online with him, in which he consistently dismissed anything I, or other friends who’ve had way too much experience with dealing with insurance companies or hospitals, had to say. He never said anything useful or thoughtful, but would just be patronizing, telling us we couldn’t possibly understand what he, with all of his professional experience, understood. I am perfectly willing to listen to statements of proof which you happen to have gotten from professional experience. But when I get in to discussions about history, I don’t say things like, “The Civil War was about slavery, and you have to believe me because I have a PhD.” I lay out the different ways states’ rights arguments always hinged upon disagreements about whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the western territories of the United States. If I’m in the right surroundings, I cite newspaper articles and treatises from the time. My former classmate tried to rely on the same things he always had, that he’s a fairly charismatic guy who can get a lot by smiling and speaking as if he knows what he’s talking about. And just as it had been 20 years ago, I thought he was full of himself, tedious, and aggravating. Yet, whereas back then I could tell myself he wasn’t going to get anywhere with that kind of attitude plus his cheating ways, now I have to admit this guy is very influential and wealthy.
He’s gotten to be exactly where he’s always wanted to be by being an overbearing, pushy, egotistical man. And for all their differences, when John Boehner, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney talk, I hear that guy and all of his friends, only now, instead of manipulating teachers and pushing other students around, they’re doing it to the country. [Okay, to be fair, I was watching a news show that showed old footage of John Edwards, and looking back, I realize he’s this type too.]
When I began teaching, I didn’t expend much effort caring about the lying, cheating and manipulative students. I encountered so many students who thought they could get by in my class by charming me with their big smiles and good looks. It doesn’t work on me, and I told myself that they’d soon learn it wouldn’t work for them anywhere. Smart people don’t fall for that crap. A major source of my current angst, however, is the loss of my faith in that belief. I’m starting to believe that the lying, cheating and manipulative students are going to be just fine, and that’s crazymaking because I don’t know what to do about it.