Is there life after high school? (guest article)
Guest article written by Mr. Alan Wayte (firstname.lastname@example.org)
January 2010 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
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 (email@example.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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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 ...
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.
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.
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?
A list of things that matter in determining status:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
There is no doubt that I benefited from my journey to high school popularity:
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)
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.