I worked in county government for three years. Within a couple weeks I realized that even though I was one of the youngest people in an office building of 500 plus, everyone acted like 15-year-olds.
“This place is like high school!” I exclaimed one day to my new co-workers. They hung their heads heavily, as if defeated and weary. “It’s worse,” they said.
“The court house” was rife with hallway whispering; cliques, whose alliances shifted weekly; back-stabbing and gossiping and pettiness. I earned a poor reputation, but I was used to that; people in high school thought I was a snob, too.
I graduated from high school in 2001 and never looked back. I was 27 when I started working at the court house and at that point, I had no interest in battling lady gangs or engaging in strategic bad-mouthing. I pitied the women (I liked to call them hens, because they clucked when in groups) who spent their days mired in gossip. I wanted to go to work, not relive high school.
I had two reasons. First, I was a grownup, and grownups shouldn’t act like teenagers. Second, I hated high school. I was the new kid in a class of 56 (that’s not a typo) and very introverted. I spent four years as a camouflaged wallflower, invisible only if you were trying really hard to see me, like a magic eye picture.
Last week, I read a disturbing article in Time Magazine that reported high school can have a significant impact on adulthood; the brains succeed, the jocks stay fit, the potheads smoke even more pot, the outcasts are still depressed. It’s not quite so cut and dry as that: some studies indicate people can overcome their social status in high school to find great success in adulthood. But still, the mere suggestion that high school can continue on well past graduation is distressing.
Who wants their life story to be predetermined and based on a few vague criteria about what’s cool and what’s dorky, as dictated by feeble-minded 15-year-olds? High school doesn’t represent the best that life has to offer and we are not at our best in those years, to say the least. Who wants to keep living that, over and over again?
But when I reflect on me at 15 and me now, at 30, I can see the similarities between the girl and the woman. I am now, as then, a non-conformist, a person inherently unwilling to follow a crowd. Today, as then, I hate being bossed around and prefer my solitude over the often imposing dependency of other people. In high school and today, those qualities make people think I’m a snob. I’m just independent.
Maybe high school is the rehearsal for life. The confusing social interaction it requires is quite similar to the confusing social interaction we suffer in the workplace and in society. How we navigate that world is the same in any setting and doesn’t change as we get older.
Hopefully, we get much better at it and make peace with ourselves and transform who we were in high school – the cheerleader, the outcast, the jock or the wallflower – into a happy grownup. Hopefully, we learned a lesson in high school and don’t relive the past.
JH Mae is a feature journalist and short fiction writer based in rural northern New York.
She worked for five years at a local newspaper, followed by three years as a secretary.
She recently left the office life to pursue a full-time writing career and now works in her pajamas.