I'm not one of those guys who's going to tell you that high school is the best years of your life, because quite frankly, I don't believe that they are. I don't look back on the experience with glassy eyes and a sigh of nostalgia, little cartoon hearts floating around my giant, fluttering eyelashes. And I most definitely don't agree with adults who say, "You've got it easy -- all you have to worry about is going to school." That type of vapid, shallow statement is made by people who have forgotten what it was actually like, the type who plan their 10-year reunion while attending their five-year one.
But there are a few things I did learn long after I graduated that would have made the whole thing a lot easier. Maybe kids today are already wise enough to see these things, but back when I was in school, it would have been nice to know that ...
#5. The Things That Make You Cool Now Mean Nothing After Graduation
There's a really strange, unique phenomenon that happens in high school that you don't find anywhere else in life. It's a sort of social hierarchy that's built around a person's activities, looks, fashion sense and taste in entertainment, a power structure that seems to mean everything for a few years and immediately evaporates within days of graduation.
In a few weeks, the real world is going to stage a bloody coup on this little teen junta.
It's most noticeable among the jocks, who grow accustomed to being showered with praise on a level way out of proportion to what they're accomplishing. Oh, sure, if you're a rare athletic talent bound for the pros or the Olympics, congratulations, you'll be getting that praise for another decade. But at the high school level, just having the right genes, hormones and frame can make you good enough at football to win huge applause from stands full of adults trying to relive their glory years. These kids find themselves having to completely rebuild their identity and status from the ground up at age 20, suddenly living in a world where there are no longer rewards for tackling skinny 16-year-olds.
The non-jocks out there shouldn't start smirking just yet -- the game changes just as much for them. Take the class clowns, for instance. There's a huge difference between someone with a genuinely good, clever sense of humor and the kind of "bet me five bucks I won't eat this" act that gets you attention in a classroom. In fact, that kind of attention magnet is as incapable of adapting to the real world as any personality type in the entire school, including the drug dealers.
"It's just for, uh, college."
If you're a "look at me" class clown, the thing that made your classmates like you is the exact thing that will make the rest of the world hate you. I know, you're just trying to make people laugh, and getting reactions out of people feels good. But if you were known as the guy who goes too far, chances are that you're bad at judging when it's time to hit the off switch.
In high school, the only negative reinforcement you get is a trip to the principal's office, which just makes your act seem edgier. And that's the thing -- this act only plays in that setting, because the school has to put up with it, and everybody knows it. High school is the last time that will be true. A year later, your employer calls you into her office and says, "We've received multiple complaints from your customers and co-workers that you're annoying and distracting. You're fired. But only because we can't legally shoot you in the face."
Sorry, class clown. Your audience is gone, and they're never coming back.
No one will pay you for this.
If I Had to Go Back ...
I'd leave the popular kids to crash and burn on their own, opting instead to hold a private intervention with the class clowns:
"Look," I'd say, "I'm almost as old as some of your parents, and now people pay me to do what you're attempting to do in class. But you need to be careful, because what you're doing right now is the exact opposite of what we look for in the field. Put down the match and pull up your pants, because this is important. What you're doing is annoying people, and it's only funny in the most remedial sense to those who aren't on the receiving end of your incredibly simple, unoriginal antics. You're getting cheap laughs at the expense of the unpopular kids and harried public school teachers. Nobody is going to be amused by that outside of this room.
"Here's a good rule of thumb to follow: If your routine makes most of the people who hear it want to physically fight you, it's not comedy. You're on the right track when people come to you when they want to laugh -- not when you come to them begging them to laugh."
Farts are always funny, but they're difficult to monetize.
#4. Not Every Teacher Knows What They're Teaching
Teachers are an easy target, especially for the aforementioned class clowns. They're an authority figure we can rebel against, and often they have multiple physical flaws ripe for mocking. But one thing we can always count on is that teachers know what they're talking about. They have to, otherwise society wouldn't let them stand up and tell it to two dozen impressionable young minds.
"And here we see the gigantic glass sphere that encases our world."
Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and the danger is that since we're hearing these facts and lessons for the first time, there's no way for us to know what's correct and what they're just stumbling over in the midst of a hangover, secretly praying to demons to make the clock go faster. And most schools won't let you fact check statements on Wikipedia in mid-lecture.
When I was in school, we had a gym coach who was no longer needed in that position. But he had tenure, so they had no choice but to let him teach another subject, and he landed in algebra. He knew enough about the subject to get by, but knew virtually nothing about the more advanced problems, so he got daily lessons, himself, from another dedicated math teacher. It was a daily occurrence for the class to correct him when he flat-out got it wrong.
"This has an area of, oh, let's say a bazillion."
Understand that you are absolutely going to encounter one of these teachers because, after all, the school is a workplace, and no workplace is without a few mouth-breathers that the boss tries to hide away in the corner. The thing is, if you're the manager of a fast food restaurant, you put that type of person on dishes until someone calls in sick. And even when they're working fries in one of those emergency situations, if they mess up, you just have to correct a one-dollar mistake and move on. If a teacher does it, he's directly damaging the intelligence of hundreds of people.
"This is the periodic table of deliciousness. Everything on here tastes incredible in a sandwich."
But the problem isn't just their lesson plans. Teachers are like bartenders for teens. When things go sour, they're the most likely adults that students will turn to for help. When they give advice, we listen, because they're teachers and they must therefore be the best at teaching things. If you can't trust your teacher, then who can you trust? But if he's a moron, every bit of advice he gives you is so much worse than simple misinformation. Bad facts can be corrected. Bad advice shapes who you are.
These people are, after all, only human, and low-paid humans at that. They may be trying their best. But when you're a kid, you don't realize that your teachers aren't necessarily any wiser than the average person, and may in fact be undergoing medication for numerous mental illnesses.
"I don't feel like teaching today. Maybe we'll just watch Star Wars again."
If I Had to Go Back ...
I'd be kicked out of school before the end of the first day. I'm sorry, I know they have a thankless job, but the years have not made me more tolerant of people who have no idea what they're doing. I can see myself stopping that PE teacher mid-class and saying, "Would you like one of the smart kids to take over for you? It's obvious that you're struggling with the material. You know, the only subject you teach. The same exact lesson you repeat every hour from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The lessons that we as a class didn't know yesterday but do today because we actually read what you assigned us. Did you not read the material yourself? Maybe it would be best if you just gracefully declined your tenure in favor of not making us all look like idiots on our first day of college. I hear the middle school is looking for a kickball coach."
#3. No One Gives a Crap About Your Crusades
Above every exit at every high school should be a sign that says, "Remember, most of what matters in here probably doesn't matter out there." It's a bubble where all of the priorities are upside-down -- the contest for Prom King is huge, the kid getting terrorized by bullies means nothing.
For instance, the stupidest thing I remember from high school was a political fight about the dress code. Not the stuff you'd expect: no cursing on T-shirts, or that pants had to have a crotch (I'm taking credit for that one). It was an obscure rule from the 1940s that said girls were allowed to wear hats, and guys weren't. There was a huge school council meeting. Speeches were given. The words "sexist" and "unfair" were used a lot. And in the end, they changed the rule to say that nobody could wear hats at all.
"Hooray, we've ended the real problem in this country: hat hair!"
Our class president and her -- cabinet? -- celebrated that victory as if they had ended sexism itself. In retrospect, I can see why they were excited. No matter how minor, it was their first real taste of taking on the system and directly causing a tangible change. It didn't much matter what that change was. Or that the school officials forgot about the whole thing the next day. They still celebrated that policy change for months.
On the other end of that spectrum were kids who legitimately thought that The Man was out to get them. Teachers had it in for them. The principal had made it his life's goal to get them out of school for good. The police were constantly screwing with them. There were dozens of these people, and they honestly believed it because, at that age, it's natural for authority figures to be viewed as the enemy.
"What's your problem, Captain Fascism?"
It's not until you get a few years of real life under your belt that you realize that the last thing the police want to deal with is a 16-year-old whose rebellion is being put into overdrive by a 12-pack of liquid balls. Every second they spend trying to get you to put your clothes back on is time that they could be devoting to wiping out meth labs or locking down some wife-beating social virus.
"Suburban noise complaints won't solve themselves, son."
No, at that age, the world is still locked firmly in orbit around you, and it's impossible to imagine that to society at large you exist mainly as a series of annoying sounds.
If I Had to Go Back ...
I'd go to that hat meeting, and I'd step up to that podium with the most depressed face I could muster. "Esteemed members of the school council, you'll notice that I'm not wearing a hat tonight. And those of you who know me personally will notice that my grandfather isn't here to support me like he usually does. At 2:31 this afternoon, I got a call from him, and upon hearing my voice he immediately asked what was wrong. I told him about the hat controversy and that because of it, I could no longer don the giant family novelty sombrero that had been handed from father to son for 16 generations. There was silence as I heard a single tear roll down his face. At 2:34, my grandfather died. It is in this spirit that -- no. No, I can't go on." And I'd leave that podium in a fit of tears, never saying another word about it.