Back to the Future

I graduated from high school in 1982. I did not have a good year, that year in high school, not socially at least. I was co-captain of the girls' swim team, but that was a joke, nobody really voted for me. Plus I was fat.* There were only two senior girls on the team that year so we both got to be "captain," not that any of the younger girls on the team looked up to us or anything, certainly not to me. That was the year my younger sister was on the team, too, and she was the cool one, having all the other swimmers round for parties while I, nerd that I was, did calculus homework in the basement.

That same year, or maybe it was the spring before, my best friend from sophomore and junior years ditched me for another Best Friend, and they and the other not-cool kids (you know, the ones who study a lot and make good grades, which was not-cool, this being Texas and all) hung out together, sometimes telling me about it, sometimes not. I was never quite clear why I got invited to hang out with them when I did and why not when I didn't. Maybe it didn't really mean anything, but it hurt.

It certainly didn't help that I was relatively new in town, only having moved there at the beginning of sophomore year. My accent was funny (we had been living in Kentucky, but I was out of place there, too; I am not sure where my speech really comes from, possibly New Mexico or Nebraska, where I was little). Nor did it help that during that year, it turned out that I was first in the graduating class, which even some of my teachers found something to make fun of me for. (Trust me on this, it had to do with Dante.)

"It's just high school," we are promised. Nothing that happens in high school really matters once you get to college. You can leave it all behind and reinvent yourself.

Except you can't leave high school behind. Because that, according to Matt Ridley in his The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (New York: HarperCollins, 2015) is when our personalities form, when we are becoming the person whom we will be for the rest of our life in relation to our peer group. Here he is relying on Judith Rich Harris's work on child-development, for which, as he tells it, she was basically driven from her field in the 1990s (she has since been vindicated by subsequent studies, although she has not returned to academia as far as I understand). Here is her explanation for where we get our personalities, as Ridley summarizes it (p. 163):
Harris's explanation is ingenious and persuasive. She points out that human beings develop certain social systems as they mature--to socialise, to develop relationships and to achieve and recognise status. Socialisation means learning how to fit in with other people of your own age. Children acquire their habits, their accents, their favoured language, and most of their culture from their peers. They spend a lot of time learning to be similar to these peers. In forming relationships, however, they learn to discriminate between different people, adopting different behaviors with different individuals.
And then in their teens they begin to assess their relative status within their peer group. In the case of men, this mostly means working out how tall, strong and domineering you are, and adjusting your ambitions and personality accordingly.... Women tend to decide their status based largely on relative attractiveness, and they judge their attractiveness based on how others seem to judge them. In both sexes therefore, says Harris, there is a tendency to settle some aspects of your personality in the mid-teens, based on how high you think your relative status is amongst your peers. That, she thinks, is the likely cause of the differences in personality that are not directly or indirectly genetic.
Oh, joy. Let's review. By my senior year, I had no standing other than literal seniority among the girls on the swim team, for which I had busted my butt for three years, getting up at 5:30 in the mornings to drive to the one pool in the city where all four high school teams practiced.** My best friend had broken up with me (oh, yes, there were tears, the kind of scene that Dorothy Sayers describes so aptly in Unnatural Death, when Miss Findlater realizes Miss Whittaker does not love her in return. Or maybe it was in Gaudy Night. Certainly, Miss Climpson would know all about such scenes from living in the boarding houses). My "set" such as it was seemed not necessarily to include me, certainly not like the groups of friends I had left behind in Kentucky when we moved. The one status that I had was top in the class. And that got me mocked by my teachers.*** Let's just say, I couldn't get out of high school quickly enough.

And yet, after today's Facebook drama over one of my blog posts, it is clear I never left. I would need to read through the thread again (helpfully compiled for all those who care in a convenient Dropbox file, although I think there have been some comments added since; I am still getting notices, but I stopped reading several hours ago) to give you some of the juicier examples, but I simply can't go there right now. But I have been here before. I know exactly what this feels like. This feels like coming upstairs in the middle of the party that my sister was having and knowing that I would never belong, could never be cool enough to belong, and yet simply couldn't belong because to do so, I would have to do and say things that I knew weren't me. Worse, that went against everything that I felt was right, even when everyone around was insisting that it was the only way I could belong.

I have been thinking about this for several days now, after reading Ridley's book, how hard I find it to go with the crowd, take the easy way into being accepted. Why don't I just go with what the cool kids say? Why I am so stubborn? My mother always used to say it was because I had been born in Missouri when she and my father were there doing their internships (he was tenth in their medical school class; she was ninth, one of only ten women in a class of a hundred, talk about being the odd one out--my mother is a rock). Now I am wondering if it has more to do with my experience in high school. I have always wondered what it would have been like if we had not moved; if I had been able to finish high school with the friends I had made as a freshman.**** Would my career have been different? Would I have had a different sense of purpose? A different sense of self?

That's the damnable thing about the past. It is always in your future, too.

*On a swim team. With other teen-aged girls, including my younger sister, who was most certainly not fat. Let that sink in a little bit. Now imagine what it was like at swim meets when we had to wear the Lycra suits and couldn't double-suit to keep our, ahem, chests flat. Is it any wonder I hate swimming to this day? And yet, my sophomore year, I had been one of the better new girls on the team, I even got to go to the state meet as an alternate for our relay team.
**It was quite an achievement getting fat, under the circumstances, swimming upwards of 3000 yards a morning in under two hours. I can't tell you how many times I ate until my stomach hurt, only to keep eating an hour later when the carb buzz started to fade and I could feel how lonely I was again. Not that I understood it in quite these terms when I was sixteen. All I knew was, I couldn't stop eating even if I tried.
***Okay, one of them. Okay, it was a pretty good joke, when all the girls had to go to the gym for a personal protection seminar with a policewoman (I think she was a policewoman) and the boys in the class colluded with the teacher in devising a quiz on the Canto of the Inferno we had read for that day. Suffice it say, I could not answer the questions on the quiz, the boys and the teacher all had a good laugh at my distress, and our teacher told us we could drop one of the quizzes from our average for the grade, much to my relief, at which the boys and the teacher had another good laugh. I think it was the Canto about the gargoyles....
****Which wasn't going to happen even if we hadn't moved, but this had to do with my last name and the schedule for the Louisville busing program, not my friends.*****
*****And if you're wondering why we moved, it was because my father left us, and my mother, who was raising us on her own, wanted to be closer to her parents. Her mother died just before Christmas the year I was a senior, a little over two years after we moved. Like I said, my mother is a rock--she has had to be.

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