High School Forever

Remember the guy who shoved you into the lockers back when you were in high school? The girls who mocked you behind your back? Yeah, we thought so…



The 1973 Whitman graduate came to dance under the dome one last time.

It was April 1992, and Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School was scheduled for renovation that summer, including the destruction of the geodesic dome that housed the gymnasium. As a pre-demolition farewell, Whitman alumni had been invited to the Last Dance at the Dome.

During high school, the man played on Whitman’s tennis team and was friends with a few cheerleaders and football players, but mostly he felt like an outsider. He was shy, for one thing, and didn’t come from a wealthy family—a seeming requisite for those at the top of the school’s social hierarchy.

“Those with the money felt like they were better than we were,” he says. “They were a snotty group.”

Roaming the Whitman halls on that April evening, he felt himself transported back to the early ’70s as he observed the former cheerleaders and jocks clustered together again, not mingling with those who’d been nerds or stoners. It was as though nothing and no one had fundamentally changed.

Then he saw Mitchell Rales.

A 1974 graduate who played on Whitman’s baseball and football teams, Rales founded the Danaher Corporation, a science and technology firm, with his brother, Steven, in 1984. The company was ranked 152 on this year’s Fortune 500 list, with revenue of more than $18 billion in 2012. A friend who’d lost touch with Rales after high school, the man didn’t think the billionaire would remember him. But as he approached, Rales greeted him by name and asked how he was.

“That just made my day and my month,” says the Whitman grad, a Bethesda resident who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified. “I turned to my friend later and said, ‘The pretty girls didn’t say hi to me, but the billionaire did.’ ”

We all leave high school eventually—but does high school ever truly leave us? For many, the answer appears to be no. There are reasons for that.

The teen years are arguably the most emotionally charged of our lives. It’s when we’re most attuned to being included or excluded, says Britt Rathbone, a licensed clinical social worker and adolescent therapist in Bethesda.  

A single social triumph—an acknowledgement from the popular guy or girl, a nomination for prom king or queen—can mean instant euphoria for a teen. And the smallest slight can lead to a chasm of self-loathing and despair.

A comprehensive review of adolescent brain-scan studies published in 2012 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that the brain reacts to peer exclusion just as it would to physical threats or deprivation. On a neural level, the adolescent brain perceives social rejection as a threat to existence.

“I tried to be friends with the cheerleaders,” one 1980 Bethesda-Chevy Chase alumna says. “But when it didn’t happen, I said, ‘Screw it,’ and just got high with the stoners.”

Our high school friendships help shape who we are—not just during high school, but beyond. Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona followed about 900 students from 10th grade through age 24 and found that “crowd identity effects extend well beyond high school.” Those effects can predict how much we drink and/or use drugs, whether we go to college, and how we proceed in our careers.

For instance, more former high school athletes were, at age 24, on what they considered to be a career path. They also had more friends than others, according to the researchers’ study—titled “Whatever Happened to the Jock, the Brain, and the Princess?”—which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in 2001. But those same ex-athletes also drank more than their peers—mirroring the high school jock stereotype.

Meanwhile, members of the artsy crowd were more likely to have graduated from college—but they were also more likely to visit psychologists and to have a higher rate of attempted suicide than their peers.

A recent nationwide survey—conducted by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder—found that 43 percent of nearly 3,000 full-time employees who were surveyed perceived cliques in the workplace. Twenty percent said they’d tried to fit in with co-workers by doing something they didn’t want to do. And “13 percent of workers said the presence of office cliques has had a negative impact on their career progress,” according to Rosemary Haefner, Careerbuilder’s vice president of human resources.

The survey further found that workers who fit a specific stereotype in high school—the athlete, the cheerleader, the teacher’s pet, the class clown—were the most likely to belong to a clique in the office.

In other words, we seem to form patterns based on our high school identities that we often follow later in life.

Even as adults, we want to be invited to the party, to belong and fit into a group. What happened to us in high school and how we dealt with it affects how we navigate our lives today. That’s why, as that Careerbuilder survey suggests, we may note that the social politics in our workplaces and neighborhoods can feel “like high school” all over again.

And that’s why, even decades later, a supermarket sighting of the guy who teased us mercilessly in class or of the giggling ex-cheerleader who made us feel somehow lacking can bring us right back to high school’s sometimes hellish halls.

We may like to think we’ve lived up to—or erased—the labels we earned in high school. But the petri dish for testing our progress, the high school reunion, can make even the most self-actualized person revert to old social behaviors.

“I’d be happy if I never went to a reunion again,” says a 1978 Whitman graduate who describes himself as a member of the artsy group in high school. At his 10th and 30th reunions, which his high school best friend pressured him to attend, the script hadn’t changed at all.

“There are no new bonds formed at reunions—people stay in their groups,” he says. “I saw the people who adored every minute of high school. Their lives still revolve around Whitman. They made no effort to mingle. If I go to another reunion, it will only be because I’m under duress.”

A 1973 Whitman alumna feels the same way. “I’m just not that curious anymore,” she says. “Back then, I didn’t necessarily want to do stuff with the popular kids, but I wanted them to want to do stuff with me. I wanted to be liked. Now I’m not sure I even care.”

Another 1973 Whitman graduate didn’t have to go to a reunion to feel the sting of old labels. He stayed in the Bethesda area after deciding to forgo college and became a firefighter. “Over the years, when I would run into someone from Whitman and they asked what I was doing, I told them I was a firefighter,” he says. “They always said, ‘Oh,’ like, ‘That’s the best you can do?’ ”

But that wasn’t the worst of it. “I ran into one of the snottiest girls I knew from Whitman now and then,” he says. “Every time I ran into her, it was high school all over again. She talked down to me. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it.”

Then 9/11 happened, and the woman called to ask if she and her friends could do something for him since he had such an “important job.” The man did something he never would have considered in high school. “I actually told her to go f--- herself,” he says. “You didn’t care about me and what I do before yesterday, so why now?” he asked.

Finally telling her off “felt good,” he says.

As the firefighter’s story demonstrates, those early rejections tend to stick with us. Studies show that we remember our high school years more vividly than we do other periods in our lives. In fact, those memories are so powerful, according to a 2005 report in the journal Memory, that we retrieve them more often, making them even stronger as time passes.  

We also tend to have more memories from our high school years than from other periods, thanks to what’s known as the “reminiscence bump.” Multiple studies have found that these are the memories we produce most often when asked about our lives.

And even if we wanted to leave high school behind, the rise of social media has pretty much made that impossible. Some 22 percent of our Facebook friends are from high school, according to 2011 Pew Research Center data.

One 2000 graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School says she originally joined Facebook to catch up with her friends from high school, but found herself “friending” people she barely knew there. “You can access friends and friends-of-friends and see what everyone’s up to, even if you’re not actually in touch with them,” she says.

Indeed, Facebook doesn’t just connect us with old friends. It offers us a way to check out the people who’ve haunted us over the years. We can see if the Mean Girl has a face full of wrinkles and if the Jock who slammed us into the lockers has a big paunch. We can learn if they’ve been successful in life or ended up stuck in neutral. All without ever having to actually face our demons.

None of this is to say that everyone hates high school and can’t wait to leave it behind. Some people uncover talents they didn’t know they had, enjoy the camaraderie of a sports team or receive encouragement from a teacher or counselor at a critical moment in their lives.

“I loved every minute of high school,” one 1976 B-CC alumna says. “Maybe it was because I hung out with the popular kids, but I also remember having friends in different groups—cheerleaders, poms, jocks, potheads. It was the ’70s, so high school was all about friends and having good times.”

A 1977 B-CC graduate credits his success in life to the high school friends he met during sophomore year. They were more focused on academics than the friends he’d known in middle school. By following their lead, he eventually went on to the University of Pennsylvania, and later had a successful career in journalism.

“High school saved my life,” says a member of the last class to graduate from Woodard High School in Rockville before it merged with Walter Johnson in 1987. “I’m always the last to leave a reunion.”

When this woman’s mother died during high school, students and teachers rallied around her. “I was the [Student Government Association] president,” she says, “so I even had a connection with the principal.”

The woman keeps in touch with about 20 of her closest high school friends, and they continue to be a positive force in her life, she says. “There’s nothing like being with the people who have known you forever.”

But for all those who remember high school fondly, there are others who remember it as a time of drama and self-doubt. Being excluded, embarrassed or mistreated can lead to feelings that can dog graduates throughout their adult lives, especially if those traumatic experiences remain unresolved, says Julie Baron, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with local teens for more than eight years.  

“We would hope that as adults we’ve moved past the importance of social standing as a key determinant in our self-worth,” Baron says. But, she adds, many people continue to feel the need to prove themselves to others.

 In 2012, the journal Science reported that a complex interplay of genetic, developmental, neurobiological and psychosocial factors—ranging from loving caretakers to the capacity to extract meaning from challenges—determines a person’s response to traumatic situations.

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck says it’s all a matter of mindset. A leading researcher in the field of motivation, Dweck says people have either a fixed or a growth mindset. In high school, teens with a fixed mindset believe their traits are innate and “worry about every label and every rejection because they believe these reflect on who they really are and who they’ll always be,” she says.

Their internal monologue focuses on judging themselves and others. This intense self-criticism may explain the high percentage of high school alumni who describe themselves as having been “outsiders” then, even though others didn’t necessarily see them that way. A close friend of the Whitman graduate who danced under the dome says she just thought the man was shy and quiet in high school—but not an outsider.

 

Similarly, a friend of the Woodard graduate confessed at a recent reunion to having been “the biggest jerk in high school.” He explained that he felt isolated after his parents’ divorce, so he started using drugs and, as a result, was sent to boarding school. “I was so sad for him,” the Woodard graduate says. “I’d known him from elementary school and had no idea what was going on. I never thought he was a jerk.”

Unlike those with a fixed mindset, Dweck says that people with a growth mindset believe they can change and improve upon their characteristics. “Those with a growth mindset are not as vulnerable [in high school] and would, I believe, have a much easier time moving beyond high school setbacks later,” she says.

People can switch from one mindset to the other, however. “We found that when we taught high school students a growth mindset about their personality, they became much less sensitive to slights, less likely to label themselves after a rejection, and less likely to become depressed or hostile in the face of social adversities,” Dweck says.

An additional factor that can influence post high-school resilience is the timing of a teen’s physical development. Many boys who mature early are more popular as teens because they can get the girls, Rathbone says. As adults, they may have a more difficult time coping once things are no longer handed to them. “It’s the boys who develop later, who struggle socially in high school, who are more resilient,” he says.

Girls who mature early, on the other hand, may have a harder time as teens. They often get attention for bodies they’re not ready for. But like the later-developing boys, they learn about coping.

“You can turn a bad experience into something good,” Rathbone says.

For those haunted by their high school selves, redemption comes in many forms. For the firefighter, it turned out to be that opportunity to finally tell off his nemesis. Ironically, they became friends after that.

For a 1980 B-CC graduate, it was party planning. The woman considered herself an outcast during high school. “I didn’t trust a lot of people,” she says.

Living in an apartment with her mother during high school, she didn’t have the kind of money her classmates had. “They were all summering places or going on ski trips,” she says. “They’d go on the school trip to Europe and come back and talk about it. I was really down on myself and felt like a loser. At 16, you don’t know it’s not your fault.”

She tried to fit in, mostly with the theater kids or hippies. But the mean girls found in her a ready target. “When we were alone, one cheerleader would say, ‘Oh, I love your hair,’ but behind my back they would make fun of me and ignore me in the hallways,” she says. “I know they thought: I can’t be seen with that hippie-theater kid. When they hurt my feelings, I would get up in their face and say really loudly, ‘Why aren’t you talking to me? You were talking to me yesterday.’ ”

The graduate went to her 10th and 20th reunions, which she describes as “snooty affairs at fancy hotels,” and felt as much an outsider as in high school. The turning point came years later, when she met up with some B-CC graduates at Steamers Seafood House in Bethesda.

“I hung out with them,” the woman says. “It was casual and it was a really, really good time. I thought it would be great to have a reunion like that. Then I thought: Maybe I could pull that off.”

So she took on the 30th reunion—throwing it herself. She rented the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad’s banquet room and persuaded The Nighthawks, a local ’70s blues band whose founder, Mark Wenner, is a 1966 B-CC graduate, to play at the gathering.

“People started RSVPing like crazy,” she says.

The atmosphere at the party was casual and nostalgic, with lava lamps and retro candy. “Three years later, I still get emails about how great that party was,” she says. “Now I have all these friends from high school that I actually hang out with—people I never would’ve been friends with at B-CC. It’s been a very healing process.”

Except for one niggling little thing.

At the party, she recognized a woman who had been a cheerleader and one of the meanest girls in high school. The woman made sarcastic comments about her party-planning choices the entire evening.

Mean Girls The Sequel

I didn’t just watch the iconic teen movie The Breakfast Club, I lived it. I was the Ally Sheedy character: artistic, withdrawn, more of an observer than a cheerleader.

During my freshman year at Thomas S. Wootton High School, I had a brief flirtation with the “in crowd.” In ceramics class, I’d been lucky enough to score a seat next to a popular girl. Within weeks we’d bonded over Bon Jovi, and eventually I was invited to football games and house parties with the cool clique. But I couldn’t believe how much work it required. The rules. The regulations. The outfits. So I donned all black instead and watched from the sidelines with the other outliers. And when I finally graduated, I headed to New York and Los Angeles to establish a writing career.

In 2009, though, an illness brought me back to Montgomery County.

I was in a kickboxing class in 2010, my illness finally under control, pounding the bag with the best of them when I overheard the woman next to me commenting to her two friends on the tree-trunk thighs of the beautiful young woman in the next row. The three laughed and high-fived their boxing gloves.

In the weeks that followed, I watched as they jealously guarded their positions in the front row, talking only to each other and often whispering about someone else. Then I realized I knew them. They were the popular girls from high school, the ones I thought I’d left behind.

It got me wondering about the others in my graduating class—the rebel, the brain, the goth. Where were they now? As it happened, my high school reunion was coming up, and both that and Facebook made it easy to find out.

I learned that our class president, Adam Lipsius, owned a production company in Colorado and had just directed his first feature film, 16-Love. He’d been a creative force of nature in high school, helping our class raise enough money for a prom at The Ritz and graduation at the Kennedy Center, with enough left over to buy the school a fax machine. Little wonder he’d done well.

Then there was Dave Porter, who affected an asymmetrical haircut and had a penchant for wearing trench coats and combat boots. He’d moved to Los Angeles and was now the musical composer for AMC’s hit TV show Breaking Bad. His artistic and introverted nature had proved a perfect fit for the creative solitude of composing film scores.

At the reunion, which took place in August 2010, the class “geek” showed up in a Ferrari with his hot blond wife on his arm. Another classmate, a girl who’d been considered a nerd as well, now looked like a supermodel. (She’d married a plastic surgeon, but still…)

It was reassuring to learn that some people do transcend their high school identities. Perhaps they’re driven to do so because their high school years were so painful.

But the Mean Girls? They’d stayed behind, still clinging to the identities they’d forged in high school. And I had to wonder if geography really is destiny, if staying in place means being left behind in more ways than one.

Eventually an injury forced me to quit kickboxing, and I figured the Mean Girls were gone from my life. But as I was jogging in my Gaithersburg neighborhood one day, I ran into the Queen Bee.

She was sitting alone, looking at the lake there, and she seemed upset. I went over to say hello and we began talking. I learned that she and her high school sweetheart were going through a divorce. She felt lost and alone. She had barely acknowledged me in kickboxing class, yet she seemed to know all about me and my time in L.A.

“I wish I’d done what you did. Left here,” she said. “I wanted to do that with my life. Be famous or something.”

“Why didn’t you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I fell in love. I didn’t want to let him go.” And then she added, “Now I’ll never know what could’ve been.”

I then recalled another time in kickboxing when one of the Queen Bee’s two friends talked about maybe training for a marathon. “You don’t run,” the Queen laughed. The others laughed, too, the matter seemingly closed.

But I couldn’t help but feel the wannabe runner’s suffocation. She’d had the same two best friends for decades, and they weren’t going to let her outgrow them. Now the Queen Bee was realizing that in clinging to the past, she’d sacrificed a future.

That’s not to say that staying close and connected isn’t a good thing. I know another group of girls from high school who all live on the same street and married men who are also best friends. Now their children play together. I’m not sure it gets any better than that. But there’s something to be said for at least spreading your wings a bit, leaving the old labels behind and reinventing yourself. Perhaps it’s harder to do that when you see yourself as already on top.

When I left Montgomery County, I considered myself an outlier. But in the years since, I’ve reinvented myself, first as an actress; then as an author with a young-adult novel, The Possibility of Fireflies, to my credit; then as a screenwriter. The film based on my book is scheduled to begin shooting in Vancouver in November.

My return home was intended to be a brief detour before I resumed the life I felt I was meant to live. Not long after coming back, though, I met someone I soon began dating seriously. I asked him recently about his high school years. Imagine my dismay at learning that, despite my best efforts, I’d followed the same path as Ally Sheedy at the conclusion to The Breakfast Club: I’d fallen for The Jock.

Dominique Paul is an author and screenwriter living in Gaithersburg.

Gabriele McCormick, a freelance writer who lives in Urbana, is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.

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