Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Is there life after high school? (guest article)

Guest article written by Mr. Alan Wayte (awayte@yahoo.com)
Summary
This is the outline of a talk given by a retired 72-year-old lawyer about the impact of high school social status, both on teenagers and on grown adults. Although the author went to high school over 50 years ago, many of his observations still apply to modern American high schools.

This is an outline of a talk given by Mr. Alan Wayte (awayte@yahoo.com), a retired 72-year-old lawyer who originally contacted me in 2009 because he used some material from my article in his talk. Thanks again to Alan for allowing me to share his talk outline here as a guest article. I have re-formatted it into a webpage and made some minor edits, but the writing remains largely unchanged. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Introduction

How many of you went to a large public high school?

This talk will explore the effects that high school social life may have had on your personality and your view of yourself.

What I am talking about is life in the large American public high school ... not small private schools where the atmosphere might be quite different.

It also will consider the impact our public high school culture has on our children.

Is is NOT a talk about violence or drugs in our public high school system or the worsening of academic standards. It's about a much more important subject: whether you were popular

I was prompted to prepare this talk by a recent e-mail that asked me to take a test on whether I was more popular now than when I was in high school.

When I clicked on the e-mail to take the test, the instant reply was:

"No ... you are still a dickhead."

This reminded me of a very sensitive subject for me when I was in high school. I attended Whittier High School in the early 1950s, having moved to Whittier in the 8th grade. I quickly discovered that there were very firm cliques that seemed to have formed in kindergarten, and it was very difficult to find your way into them. I was crushed to discover that I might spend my high school years in the backwash of society and became determined to change my fate. The attitudes I developed in this process probably have had a major impact on my life.

... more on my personal story later.

Do you look back fondly at your high school years? Some people call them the best years of our lives, but many people look back at their high school years with dread ... as a time when they were made miserable by not measuring up to the popularity standards imposed by other students.

I. Is There Life After High School?

My talk is inspired by a book entitled Is There Life After High School, written in 1979 by Ralph Keyes; many of the concepts and some of the language herein have been taken from his book.

Keyes made the point that how well you succeeded in the adolescent value system in high school may have had a permanent impact on your later life.

Keyes argues that education is the last thing on the mind of most high school students and that popularity among their peers is all that matters.

Academic success counts for very little in most American high schools.

Success in athletics and physical attractiveness play a much more important role.

As a result, Keyes concludes:

  • High School is the source of indelible memories
  • These memories focus on comparison of status; and
  • Status comparisons continue long after graduation, in a society shaped fundamentally by high school

II. Innies and outies ... or, popular kids and nerds

Keyes used the words "Innie" and "Outie" to describe one's place in the social order of high school.

High school kids use words like "popular", "nerds", "dorks", "geeks", and "freaks". However, most kids don't fall into these groups ... they are the unknowns in the middle.

We all know what "popular" and "nerds" mean ... and "freaks" are students who dress or act in an outrageous manner to show their disdain for the popular social scene and traditional values.

The "freaks" and the "nerds" often find themselves in an alliance.

III. The large public high school is a recent phenomenon in America

The large public high school is a recent phenomenon in American life, dating back only to the beginning of the 20th Century:

  • In 1900 only 11% of American youth was in high school.
  • As late as 1930 the % was only 51%.
  • This "progress" is a necessary result of industrialization.

For many young people before that time, school was almost a part-time enterprise, with work on the farm or elsewhere taking up much of their energy and time.

The Amish and their way of educating children is an example of how the values of education used to be handled in America by parents.

  • Not a perfect example as well, for each child is at the mercy of his or her parents.

It is very difficult now for a young man to become an apprentice at age 13, whether he is the son of a CEO or of a steelworker.

We use high school as a way to set apart our children, to prepare them for life.

As a result, the student is forced inward toward his own age group and maintains only a small thread of a relationship with adult society.

We have not only taken away the role of job training from the parent but perhaps the whole development of the adolescent personality.

We have created an adolescent culture, with values of its own.

Adults have little control or influence on shaping the values of adolescents.

IV. Puberty rites and American high schools

We are all familiar with puberty rites in many cultures ... where boys become men and girls become women.

Usually these rites are conducted by the elder men or women in the society.

Keyes notes that in the U.S., puberty rites are conducted in the public high schools by other adolescents:

  • It is there that the person's real value system is installed.

  • You find out for the first time whether your peers will accept you and what impression you make on members of the opposite sex.

  • For many people, their high school years shaped the way they became adults

  • Many people can recall their social standing with absolute precision long after high school ... they can often answer questions regarding their popularity in each year.

V. Even the rich and famous never forget about high school

Keyes suggests that adults never forget their high school experiences ... even if they become rich and famous

In his book, Keyes loved to tell stories of the rich and famous in order to illustrate how they too were made miserable by what happened to them in high school.

He starts he book by recounting an episode involving President Gerald Ford:

  • In his first speech to Congress, Ford mentioned that he lost an election to be Senior Class President in high school as a member of the progressive party ... and notes that maybe that's why he became a Republican

  • Keyes interviewed the man who beat him. He was astounded that Ford was still so bothered by losing the election in high school that he would mention it in an important Congressional address.

  • The winner took credit for the victory by stating that he made his appeal to students who were not as popular as Ford ... and beat Ford by a wide margin.

Keyes also looked up the man who beat Richard Nixon in the race for student body president at Whittier High School. He was able to read what Nixon had written in the victor's Annual (yearbook) for their Senior Year. Nixon had several pictures in the Annual (a distinction we all know is given to the truly successful in high school) and had divided his message to the victor so that he had to turn to all the pictures in order to read Nixon's message:

  • Page 1: "Bob you have made a success this year in everything you have done ..." [continued at Senior Picture]

  • By Nixon's senior picture we find [continued from Page 1], "You know I've always been crazy about athletics, etc. but I have never been able to go out. You have certainly done your part in that line. Very few athletes have been able to combine good grades, high office, and athletics—but you sure have" [continued on Page 153]

  • The message continues on Page 153, under Nixon's picture as a constitutional orator: "Remember me Bob not as an orator, scholar or anything but just old Dick Nixon, member of the Student Body."

VI. Outies seek revenge long after graduation

Studies also suggest that another of Keyes observations is true: Outies never forget what happened to them and continue to seek revenge long after graduation.

Innies don't realize it, but Outies long for revenge, in many cases for the rest of their lives.

Many times Outies are in control of areas where they can inflict revenge.

They are often good writers, something the jocks never mastered ...

  • As a result, Outies control journalism and most media

  • Witness the sports writer for the papers who torment the jocks with criticism

  • Outies dominate academics as well and provide ample public opinion on the poor effects of athletics on our culture

VII. What do Innies do for an encore?

It's hard to maintain the status as an Innie in later life, especially if it is founded on being an athlete or a beautiful girl

A favorite subject of movies, books, and plays ... all written by Outies: It is the Innie who cannot succeed in later life

There are lots of books and stories about the high school athlete who can't duplicate his success and becomes an alcoholic failure ...

Innies often wonder where the attention went and why they are no longer a major success ... or at least the Outies hope so.

VIII. What happens to Innies after high school?

There have been a number of recent studies on what happens to Innies after high school.

  • Most suggest that the qualities that make you popular in high school don't help much in adult life and that the egotism that most popular high schoolers develop doesn't work well later.

  • Being in the middle of the pack seems to suggest that you may rise up later and enjoy success.

  • The people in the middle, so it goes, are used to making the top echelon happy and tried to get along with everyone without being in the spotlight. According to one study, the most likely to fail later are those who were the most popular in high school.

  • Physical beauty and athletic ability suddenly don't count for much in the adult world.

Back to my personal story ... I noticed that a neighbor friend was very well liked and would make a great mentor for me. I truly liked him, but I also recognized that being a good friend of his would help me meet the right people and avoid being a dork for most of my high school life. I was right! He was elected a yell leader for two years running (later becoming a successful yell leader at Cal) and gave me the courage to run for yell leader myself. He was active on the swim team, and being around him encouraged me to do the same things. Slowly I began to inch my way into the Innie group (but not at the top of the hierarchy because I was not a major athlete).

IX. Studies on American high school life

There are few books and other studies on the subject of high school social life in America. Keyes suggests that sociologists probably don't study high school much because most were Outies who don't want to re-live that painful period in their lives.

  1. A scholarly book by a sociologist, James Coleman, entitled "The Adolescent Society", was published in 1961.

    • He conducted a study of adolescent life in ten Midwestern high schools.

    • The book consists of his interpretations of the results of several polls of students in these high schools.

    • Among the findings, which are no surprise to most of us: Students were equally divided on whether parents' disapproval would be hardest to take, or disapproval of one of their friends. They were indifferent to disapproval from teachers.

    • He also concludes that:

      • The American high school is the closest thing to a real social system that exists in our society

      • What is consistent in all the schools is the controlling force of status

      • Like many sociologists, he came to the obvious conclusion that we all knew when we were in high school: status with your peers is everything

    • Coleman's view was that the organization of school life reinforces teenage anti-learning norms:

      • His book is as timely today as it was when written and was featured in a recent Hoover Institution publication on Education.

      • Adolescents look to each other rather than the adult community for their social rewards. As a result, the old methods used by parents and teachers to motivate students are much less efficient.

  2. A more recent essay appeared on the Internet on the subject "Why Nerds are Unpopular"

    • Suggests nerds are usually smart and rarely popular

    • Being smart is not harmful in elementary school or in adult life, but it can make you miserable when you are in high school

    • Nerds want to be smart and to do well in academic work, and it's impossible to be popular at the same time

    • To be unpopular these days is to be persecuted

    • Part of being a popular person is your allegiances ... your friends and who you are seen with

    • Nerds are a safe target ... they have no group to defend them

    • Being popular is very hard work and nerds don't have the time (e.g., very hard work just picking your clothes)

    • Parents of nerds often don't help them with popularity issues

    • The essay concludes that the society that gets created in American secondary schools is extremely harmful to the students and to our country

    • Schools have no real purpose other than keeping kids in one place for a number of hours each day

    • This breeds twin horrors of school life ... the cruelty and the boredom

    • Creates a rebelliousness that actively drives kids away from what they are supposed to be learning

  3. Another great essay entitled "On Popularity", by Philip Guo, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Stanford, notes that the popularity game starts in 6th grade and ends in the 12th grade. His essay, found on the internet, is a very sensitive commentary on the process that is the subject of this talk.

    • He notes that if you are not popular during your middle school years, it is very difficult to become popular in high school, even if you are a "late bloomer". Thus the early bloomers have a major advantage in the popularity contest.

    • Physical appearance in your middle school years is very important, but once you become popular, you won't lose your popularity even if you become fat or develop acne.

    • Moving into town mid-way through high school can be a "loophole" that could let you into the popular crowd.

    • He notes that having the wrong clothes can be the kiss of death, but a dork who is dressed in the right clothes is still a dork and can be easily recognized as such.

    • Trendy clothes won't make you popular, he comments, but it can protect you from ridicule.

X. What are the indicators of status in high school?

Some people may not know whether they were Innies or Outies in high school. Do you?

If you feel you don't know what determines status, I have a Pop Quiz (taken in large part from Keyes' book) to assist you.

Pop quiz: Which of these will help you be popular?

  1. You show up at the most popular hamburger restaurant at 10pm on a Saturday night with your parents

  2. You are put in charge of yearbook picture captions

  3. You arrive late to class often, but always with a flurry and comment that makes the class laugh and the teacher smile

  4. Your mother is elected President of the PTA

  5. You play piccolo in the school marching band

  6. On Slave Day, bidding is loud and long when you come on the block

  7. You always have a hot lunch in the school cafeteria

  8. You are always seated in class several minutes before the bell rings

  9. You play on the first string of the varsity football or basketball team

  10. You are elected President of the Science Club

  11. Your letter sweater has the initials Mgr on it

  12. A girl with a small gold megaphone hanging around her neck asks you for the answer on a test and you refuse because it would be wrong

  13. You play drums in the small school jazz band

  14. You are selected as class monitor by the teacher to help in passing out papers

  15. You are active in the Chess Club


A list of things that matter in determining status:

  • Physical appearance: The developing bodies of the girls can affect their status in a way that overcomes everything else. It can have a similar effect on the boys, too.

    • The short boy, or the fat boy/girl can be ashamed even to go to school.

    • Taking a public shower (e.g., after physical education class) can bring terror.

  • Athletic ability: The surest way to status for boys. As we will note later, athletic ability is good all by itself, but being a scholar-athlete may be even better.

    • Better to play football or basketball

    • Being a badminton star may not be good enough

  • Parental Money or status usually makes no difference.

  • Academic success usually doesn't affect your status either way. Just being a scholar isn't enough in most schools.

    • An example of the relative position of scholars at Whittier High can be seen by the fact that when I was a Senior it was announced in the local papers that a classmate had won the National Science Award and scored a perfect score on the Caltech entrance exam. We had never heard of him, and to this day I don't recall ever having met him or even seen him.
  • For girls, being a cheerleader is the sure road to success

    • This is the top of the line

    • You get first crack at the athletes, and on Friday you can wear your outfit to school

    • Many grown women can still remember in detail the joy or agony of trying out for cheerleader. Probably much more than their efforts in learning a foreign language.

    • Being Queen is great but is a one-time shot

  • Majorettes are low-class and not good for status

  • Being Yearbook Editor was not bad, but not like being cheerleader.

    • Working on the yearbook is almost exclusively for Innie girls ... as a result most of the candid photographs in the yearbook are of other Innies
  • Nicknames: To have one means you have been noticed. May not be so good if it is "fatty".

  • Status or the lack thereof can often be determined just by noticing where one eats lunch.

    • In my high school, if you ate lunch just a few feet from where the Innies were eating, it was clear that you had no status.

    • Often, an Innie would rather not eat at all than be seen in the school cafeteria.

  • How you get to school can be important:

    • In my day, walking was OK, riding your bike was not

    • Now riding one's bike may or may not be acceptable.

    • Being given a ride by your parents does not seem to hurt you

  • School activities in which you participated

    • Athletics was good

    • Camera Club was not

    • Major student government positions are reserved for Innies ... often they are popular because of their popularity and not necessarily because of their athletic ability or looks.

  • Ownership of a Car: If you were lucky enough to have a car, it shouldn't be a late model. Older was better.

  • Being Seen at the Right Places and with the Right People

    • One of the most predictable aspects of high school life is the need to be seen at the right places at certain times, usually on Friday and Saturday nights

    • Just to be seen talking or standing with one of the Innies could be important to your status

    • Parental Status: Fortunately, at most schools parental status or financial standing don't count.

As Philip Guo notes, once you are in the Innie group, you are there permanently ... you can't drop out.

As proof of this, at Whittier High, even when one of the Innies was arrested as a cat burglar, his status wasn't affected at all.

XI. Yearbooks as permanent records of popularity

Keyes notes that yearbooks are a permanent record of your high school popularity. He points out that you can change your name and move to Samoa, but someone can always look you up in the high school Annual and see what really happened to you in high school:

  • Were you predicted to be a success?

  • How many times did your picture appear?

  • Did your peers write meaningful comments in the book or just "best of luck to a swell guy"?

XII. High school reunions

Keyes also deals with the traumatic effect of going to your high school reunions ... or "what will they think of me now?"

"I only went to my reunion because the alumni secretary told me all the girls would be obese. She was wrong ... five people came up to me and said, 'What are you doing now, I thought you were dead.'" Erma Bombeck (quoted from the Keyes book)

Keyes points out that high school reunions are an unstudied American phenomenon, and makes the following observations about the experience:

  • Supposed be a harmless exercise in nostalgia

  • But they are not: Seeing the old bodies from high school and displaying your own can be traumatic

Who has not gone to his or her high school reunion with a certain amount of tension?

Also, it may give you a chance to play out your fantasies:

  • Now is the chance to charm the song girl who wouldn't pay any attention to you

  • Maybe you can go all the way with a girl you couldn't date in high school

Many people come away talking about the beautiful women who you didn't even notice in high school and how the jocks are now fat and bald.

One rarely encounters a classmate who has had serious problems and setbacks through life ... they are the ones who don't attend reunions.

Whether true or not, almost everyone believes that reunions are a time for comparisons of how people have done since graduation, economically and physically.

As the years progress, the graduates fortunately are more willing to share the downsides and realities of their lives.

Reunions remain a major part of being in an American public high school

XIII. How-to guides for popularity

There are many articles on the Internet that intend to help the reader become popular in high school. However, most of them are overly simplistic and don't recognize the problems most students face. They give cliched advice like:

  • Be friendly

  • Don't be shy ... be outgoing

  • Participate in activities

  • Be assertive ... one tells you to walk up to someone new each day and offer a greeting (NOT a good idea)

  • Dress fashionably: Clothes can hurt your status but will not automatically improve it ... don't want to vary from the crowd.

These are all good ideas ... but may or may not work in modern high school society.

As Philip Guo notes, the real truth is that it's very hard to change your status. Your status is largely dependent on your physical appearance when you are in middle school. However, such claims don't make for good reading on the "How-to" webpages.

You're better off making some good friends and enjoying life.

BUT if you must try to get into the "In" group:

  • It's better to try in middle school ... status carries over

  • You have a better chance if you transfer into a new school (since nobody will know if you used to be a nerd in your previous school)

  • Try to date a girl who is one of the popular crowd but will still have something to do with you.

  • Get active in leadership/student government, but only in the things the Innies frequent

  • The truth is that the Innies control the "right" activities ... even though in theory they are open to anyone

  • The bitter truth is that if you successfully become popular, you must face the fact that you will have to leave behind those dorks who were willing to have lunch with you when you were just another dork yourself.

So what happened to me in high school? My final push to the top was accomplished by dating one of the top Innie Girls ... a sure sign of success! I was elected Yell Leader in my Senior Year, and that proved to be a good thing, although it is embarrassing as I look back on it ... it was not like being quarterback of the football team. Unfortunately, I married my high school girlfriend, and that didn't work out so well.

XIV. Have things changed since the old days?

Things are almost certainly worse than they were in the 1950s.

I learned from talking to some young people that it is now common for the Innies to treat the Outies with contempt in school, and bullying them was also common

Imagine how you would feel to be greeted with the slur "faggot" or "slut" when you arrived at school everyday ...

Immediately after the Columbine school shooting tragedy:

  • It was said that the boys who did the shooting felt great resentment towards the other kids in the school who tormented them.

  • It was commented that the "jocks" were a solid clique and that they had been making life miserable for the shooters

  • That turned out not to be true, and the shooters were average kids who just happened to be psychopathic killers.

This is a major difference from the experience I had in high school. Back then, Outies may not have been invited to parties, but Outies were not subjected to humiliation or bullying ... just being ignored.

One might ask if the recent emphasis on academics has changed the culture in high schools.

It is certainly possible that at some of the better schools in better neighborhoods, being good in academics might give you some status.

I have conducted a non-scientific poll of a few current students in local public high schools (my grandchildren) and came away with the following:

  • Students seem to inherently know where they stand on the popularity scale

  • They see little overt bullying and one commented that the mistreatment was worse amongst popular group members fighting with each other ... especially the girls.

  • Party invites now go through text messages ... which serves the purpose of restricting the invitations to those on the contact list of the inviters' cell phones

  • Girls have considerable power in determining who is in the Innie crowd

    • A boy who dates a "popular" girl is admitted to the "popular" crowd

    • A girl whose behavior is deemed unacceptable is ostracized and no longer part of the popular group

    • Using drugs or alcohol is a path to unpopularity

XV. Are Americans different from young people in other cultures?

Not many people work as hard as American kids do to be popular.

In cultures where family matters more, peer groups matter less.

Our teenagers don't just want the company and good opinion of their peers, they crave it.

XVI. Should adults try to do anything about this?

One might feel, "So what? That's the way people are, and there isn't anything that can be changed!"

Coleman suggests that giving in to the adolescent culture and accepting it as inevitable is a terrible mistake for our culture.

Teachers and parents are enablers of the social life that occurs in high schools.

Major difference between parents now and those of 50 years ago is that many parents today are active enablers of the values adopted by their adolescent children.

Popularity and success in athletics is as important to the parents as it is to the children.

For example, many times the schools facilitate this process by forming clubs which may have a purpose of "charity" or other worthwhile activity, but actually serve only to formalize the group:

  • An example in my school was the Hi-Y Club, which was sponsored by the local YMCA. Membership was by invitation only, which created a high school fraternity/sorority.

  • It may have had some minimal purpose of fostering leadership or companionship, but the result was the creation of a high school fraternity/sorority.

  • I paid a visit to the YMCA when I was President of one of these clubs and asked why they existed and then commented on the harm they created ... I received no adequate answer from them, though

  • Great for the kids who were members, just another reminder to the others that they were Outies.

There is no doubt that I benefited from my journey to high school popularity:

  • First, I learned to make use of a mentor ... critical in life

  • Second, I learned to be sensitive to those who are not in the top circles and hopefully never to be a snob

  • We can blame some of this on the teachers. But parents must take responsibility as well.

  • On the other hand, I may still be trying to prove I can be accepted. I probably chose my second wife in part because of her ability to get me accepted into the right groups, when I should have concentrated on how much money she had.

Are teenagers just "that way"? Is it their hormones?

Can values of respecting education be instilled?

Certainly we should be aware of the issues and not making it worse for the Outies and nerds than it already is.

Home schooling probably interferes with the process, as does being a dedicated member of a religious group ... something which would short-circuit the adolescent value system.

The real problem is the emptiness of school life

Adults are too busy to take on the educational bureaucracy

In any event, for any teenager, the most important thing shouldn't be your status, but rather how well you have dealt with your status.

"High school popularity is ephemeral, but how you feel about yourself lasts a lifetime." (Philip Guo, On Popularity)

Acknowledgments

The title of this outline and many of the ideas expressed in it, including a good portion of the "Pop Quiz", have been taken from Is There Life After High School, a book written by Ralph Keyes in 1979.

Related articles

Created: 2010-01-02
Last modified: 2010-01-03