The CBC radio show Q ran an interview a while back with a woman who claimed that we stay stuck in the same roles that we had in high school. Adolescence was liquid cement, and by the time you leave it, you’re firmly shaped and set by those experiences and can’t escape them. Who we were in high school is who we are forever. You can’t get over high school, because high school is you.
It’s true that the teenage years have a looming cultural presence in North America in television and film. Our culture celebrates youth. We’ve even dedicated a whole section of the bookstore to novels aimed at teenagers–something that didn’t exist when I was that age.
Still, the thought of this absolutely terrifies me. One, because my high school experience was mostly unpleasant and mostly forgotten. Two, because when I think back, I’m not very proud of the person I was.
The end tail of high school pretty much encapsulates what I’m trying to say. It’s supposed to be a big moment, important, even. Graduation and prom are a “big deal.” I went to FH Collins Secondary in Whitehorse, Yukon, so it was a little harder to think of it that way until the date started nearing and the graduation committee really got rolling with planning, fundraisers, even a fashion show. It was hyped up even though a school budget, and school administrators, couldn’t really deliver on that hype. We had a pretty frantic vote on our graduation song with all sorts of campaigning…a song that was never ultimately used. We had a vote on theme with pictures of what decorations would look like that were woefully misleading. I’ll get to that.
Let it be known that I thoroughly enjoyed my cap and gown ceremony. That part I liked.
Then the prom came.
The first problem, of course, was that I ended up asking seven girls to be my prom date and they all said no. That was the first warning that I shouldn’t have gone. I did have someone who asked me to be the first dance partner, but her actual prom date was a much older boyfriend, so I didn’t really get to dance that night even though I kind of liked dancing.
The really strange part was finding out what the decor for the convention hall actually looked like. See, we voted for an Egyptian theme (well…I don’t remember what I voted for, but it probably wasn’t “Under the Sea”). The prom tickets had hieroglyphs. But the actual hall decorations consisted of this:
A large curtain with King Tut printed on it hanging on one wall.
That was it.
For some reason, students hadn’t been allowed to decorate. The committee hired someone to do that. To put up a curtain.
Then there was the dinner, catered by the staff from the hospital cafeteria. It tasted…like that. Like hospital food. The Yorkshire pudding actually made me feel a little sick.
I spent the rest of the night with my SLR camera dutifully trying to document other people’s happiness while I myself just really, really wanted a drink (One of the disadvantages of being Polish is starting on vodka young).
The other activities of the night likewise did not lift an intense sense of detachment. Hearing other teen boys boasting, “Tonight’s the night I get laid!” and watching other people make out and the constant feeling that I would rather be someplace anywhere but there.
I don’t know why this memory sticks, or why it’s one of the few stories I tell about high school. No one poured pig’s blood on my head or tried to humiliate me in any way. By then, things on the social ladder had mellowed out, or I’d simply ignored it to the point where other students just accepted I was there. I guess there was a final sense of “good riddance” a closing disappointment, a final denial of pop culture’s idea of what high school was. I didn’t have the bright, intense, first experience you’re supposed to have then. I did go through intermittent periods of misery far deeper than the simple detached melancholy of prom. There was one semester of the ninth grade where every morning I’d feel my stomach curl from the anxiety of going to school and facing the group of people who’d singled me out for abuse because…well, who knows.*
Eight years have gone by since graduation. Nothing I did in high school mattered after that, it seemed. And I was so so very glad that it didn’t. Then the woman came on Q to say yes, all of that stuff did, and everything came flooding back.
Please tell me I’m not…that.
A kind of bitterness that took me till now to write about. This article is one way to put it to rest. I don’t want to make it seem like adolescence was that terrible; it wasn’t. Worse things have happened since, and better things. But they’re experiences that I’m at least proud to take and internalize, call my own, learn from, and use. There wasn’t much from high school that bears the same weight. It was just another part of growing up, just another jumble of memories only as important as you make them. That’s a comforting thought.
*The person who headed all this verbal abuse tried to friend me on Facebook in my first year of university, over and over again until I blocked him. I guess I could have found out why, but I’m not sure there actually was a reason. In my reading of YA novels I’ve noticed most representations of bullying are artificial, trying to give a positive message that doesn’t capture the true toxicity and arbitrariness of the act, or that you’ll encounter the same behaviour in adult life too. The only time I’ve seen it done right was in Charles de Lint’s The Blue Girl.