The Formative Years

At least my high school experience didn't end with a giant demon snake attacking the senior class.

At the Washington Post, Jay Mathews wonders why people are often asked about their college background as opposed to their high school experience. In addition to pointing out that more people attend high school, he also suggests that the high school years are more formative:

“High school defines us. It is an educational experience we nearly all share. Useful abilities, such as reading, writing, math and our own peculiar talents for the most part take root in high school, or don’t, to our sorrow. High school offers lessons in love, social dynamics, news and what we are most likely to enjoy in our adult lives, at work and play. Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., gave me more than my colleges, Occidental and Harvard.

High school dramas are staples of television and cinema. Far more people attend high school sporting events than those at colleges. High school teachers are far more likely to have an impact on the lives of students than college professors.

Yet we don’t act as if any of that high school stuff is important. In a lifetime of social gatherings, I cannot remember ever being asked where I went to high school. The college experiences, on the other hand, are frequently discussed.”

As a YA writer, this claim intrigues me. I love looking at the teenage experience. In high school, you start learning who you are as a person and how you can interact with the world. Everything is filled with deep meaning; fights seem more intense, friendships seem like they’ll last forever, heartbreaks are the most painful. But does that mean high school forms who you are?

I think that it’s not so much that the high school experience is more important or that it should be talk about more. Instead, I think it’s probably more personal. It’s hard to talk about those experiences at a cocktail party. Events from high school can sound insignificant when you look back at them and can be hard to explain. I think this is one reason that YA is so compelling as a genre. It looks at those seemingly insignificant moments and examines how meaningful they really are.

Still, I’m not sure that I’d say my high school made me the person I am more than my college did. There’s more I did at college that I can point to as helping foster who I am now, but there’s a lot from high school that meant a great deal to my emotional and social development. There’s a vast emotional difference between a high school freshman and a high school senior, and high school helps you get to that emotional place. At that point, you’re more ready to form who you are, either through college or work or travel.

High school starts you on the path to discovering who you are. I don’t think it ultimately creates that final person, but it certainly starts you on that journey. And that’s what I find exciting about YA as a genre. It’s so much about discovery and personal growth.

Do you think high school formed more of who you are now than any other time in your life?

(H/T Kim Briggs)

4 thoughts on “The Formative Years

  1. Love the photo and caption!

    I think part of why I love YA so much is that I don’t feel I appreciated its good parts while I was there. I spent my entire high school experience working on getting myself out a year early; for my third and final year, I spent mornings at the high school and afternoons at the community college.

    When I look back, I remember how busy I was just trying to get out. Now, through writing and reading, I try to fill in the blanks.

    I came into myself somewhat in college, but even more so in law school. It was good to move away for the latter and feel comfortable really testing my boundaries in a way that was more difficult in my hometown.

    Interesting thoughts to ponder!

    • I figured someone would share the Buffy love. 😉

      And very much agree about how moving away can help you test your boundaries. I think that’s why I feel more “formed” by college than high school.

  2. Some great insights here.

    If there’s one thing I remember about high school (ten years ago…wow) it’s that the only social hierarchy that I or anyone else thought about was the one we were in at that moment. As you get older, even in college, you become exposed to other opportunities. You begin thinking about success in “the writing world” or in “the business world” or maybe even in Hollywood or Washington.

    But in high school, you’re so restricted in terms of freedom that the only playground, so to speak, where you can show your talents, develop skills, practice social dynamics, is the school itself. I had the interesting experience of writing a high school shooting scene in one of my books, and the character I created–the shooter–is a boy who has lost grasp on reality because he cant comprehend that life exists outside of the pain he feels within his school. We all know what that’s like on some level.

    Annie, great post as always. I agree totally that high school years are more formative and that we attach great meaning to everything when we’re at that age, probably because we only understand about half of what’s going on. If only people were more open to talking about these experiences.

    Rich

    • “If there’s one thing I remember about high school (ten years ago…wow) it’s that the only social hierarchy that I or anyone else thought about was the one we were in at that moment.” That really sums it up perfectly, Rich. I think that’s why so much of high school can feel so intense and immediate–it’s easy to imagine your social hierarchy as the whole world.

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