Musing: Jennifer Senior’s “Why You Truly Never Leave High School”

I read a lot, but I retain very little because I’m always racing on to the next thing. I think I’d rather sit down and process some of the more important or potentially applicable things I encounter, so I’ll be playing around with a digestive series of responses to articles that have been stacking up on my windowsill for the last three months. Here’s what I got out of Senior’s New York magazine article (January 28, 2013).

  • High school is about as artificial as it gets: in the real world, you’ll be exposed to people of all ages, not the cliques and societies that we adapt in order to survive and self-identify. 
  • “Absent established hierarchies and power structures, kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-denominator stuff–looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports–rather than the subtleties of personality.”
  • The ways in which we deal with the resulting shame dictate the sorts of strategies we’ll use to deal with people later in life: “secret-keeping,” “people-pleasing,” or “using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.”
  • “It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no idea how to assess character or read the behavior of others.”
  • “Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents”; I’m not sure this is merely an American issue, nor why this would be the case, given the conclusions the rest of the article draws about our brain.

That key thought here, is the neurological role that puberty — and therefore high school — plays in creating and nurturing our sense of personal identity:

It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect–undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

The mental raft we lash together to survive the rapids of high school becomes our preferred mode of transportation, so that later in life we find ourselves either swept along by a current of deeply embedded, deeply shaming history, or we perhaps head up-river, self-propelled by a motorboat of confidence or earned experience. And if, like me, you don’t remember much of high school, you run the risk of being led about by your subconscious, acting out without always understanding why, or, worse, becoming a critic so that you can analyze every detail and attempt to recreate a personal sense of identity (or thrust it upon others).

 

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