The other day I ran into an old classmate from high school. It was someone that I have one of those semi-awkward, in between relationships with where you aren’t close enough to hang out, but you are obligated to stop and have a quick chat with if you run into them accidentally. In high school, this person was what you might call one of the “popular kids”. No matter how diverse or tolerant a school may be, there’s no denying that subliminal hierarchy that quietly underpins every social interaction on the playground. It secretly dictated where people sat and who they hung out with. It fuelled the school gossip circles, it fed countless students’ insecurities, and it determined how conversations would go down between people on different rungs of the social ladder.
My school hierarchy was one that was more implicit than specifically outlined. We were generally nice to each other, and would talk to anyone no matter which clique they belonged to, but a certain imbalance existed in the tone of these conversations. There would be a faint, but perceivable edge to these exchanges that implied one person had the upper hand over the other, an air of smugness without the condescending smirk. It wasn’t horrible or crippling in any way, but it was there nonetheless.
But that was high school. That was then. Or so I thought.
When I ran into that classmate, two years after graduating, I was surprised to find that unsettlingly familiar feeling enveloping our brief conversation. They were giving off that same self-assured aura, as if to imply that they were, in some small way, better than me and always would be. As I stood their smiling and nodding along, in my mind I was confused.
I thought we left all this political shit back in high school. Aren’t we grown-ups now? Can’t we have a politely awkward conversation as equals?
I wasn’t particularly offended by what had happened, but I did feel sorry for my classmate. How sad that they were going to go through life thinking that because they were popular in high school, they were forever going to be “cooler” than everyone else around them. It’s ironic how completely uncool it made them seem to me.
It really got me thinking about how much high school sticks with us, long after the pimple scars have healed. So much of who we are is forged when we are going through adolescence – a period that coincides almost exactly with the years of secondary schooling – so it makes sense that high school never really frees us from its clutches. That person who called you names or got you in trouble that time will always be the enemy in your eyes. You’ll never really get over that classmate you fell in love with but never told them how you felt. And you’ll always wonder about those teachers who taught you so well, and what they would think about how your life has panned out.
There are some parts of high school that will never truly leave us, but it’s not impossible to change – in fact, it’s kind of important that we do. The class clown will start wearing business suits and going to meetings. The nerd will learn how to charm the girls. The jock-y fuckboy will settle down early. The quiet, library-dwelling bookworm will find their voice.
Just because you were an introvert in high school, doesn’t mean you always have to be. Just because you were a bad student doesn’t mean you can’t apply yourself in the real world. And just because you were popular, doesn’t mean people will always admire you and worship at your feet.
High school is never really over, but you can choose which parts you want to treasure and which parts you want to leave behind.