When I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had a choice
I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life
— Bryan Adams, Summer of '69
I feel sorry for anyone who thinks high school days were the best years of their lives. My theory is that anyone who enjoyed high school, peaks there, and never goes on to do anything worthwhile or memorable afterwards; those of us who were geeks or freaks or misfits of any kind go on to change the world, create new things, find happiness and joy and fulfilment beyond anything the cool kids in high school ever knew.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, for a number of reasons. Some high school friends got back in touch, via Facebook, after nearly 20 years, which made me think about my own high school days. There’s a bigger context to this, though, so bear with me as I try to explain.
I’ve been saddened, over the last few months, by some of what I’ve seen happening in the world. On any number of fronts, it seems to be becoming an angrier and less tolerant place, and the hatred and alienation seem to be growing. Whether it’s the Tea Party movement in the U.S., or the deep divisions wrought on Toronto by the recent mayoral election or the riots during the G20, or the dismaying news that Sarah Palin can be ranked (by Forbes magazine) as the 16th most powerful women in the world, these are not times that inspire me with hope and optimism for the future.
It’s not just political, either; intolerance seems to be growing at a very personal level. Or perhaps it’s always been there, and it’s just becoming more acceptable to voice; either way, I am sad. How many stories have there been, lately, of gay teenagers committing suicide because they can no longer take the harassment and the taunting, being made to feel like freaks for being honest about who they are? How is it that an elected school board official can rant on Facebook about wanting this very thing to happen — and when he “apologizes” on the Anderson Cooper show, he’s clearly thinking it’s a big waste of time? (Have a look at what passes for his "apology" .)
How is it that almost every debate I had with anyone about Smitherman in the recent election, seemed to degenerate into an anti-gay rant on the part of those opposed to him? (Forget having a reasonable discussion about his policies.) How did reasonable, intelligent, professional people (me?) get branded as “elites” who are out of touch with the needs of the common person?
How did this atmosphere of hate and intolerance sweep politics and the rest of the world? Chris Hedges (author of Death of the Liberal Class) would argue that the traditional “liberal class” — the media, the universities, the church, the arts, the labour unions — has abandoned its traditional (and necessary) role as the catalyst for reform, for social change and for greater equality.
Me? I think it’s because more and more people are refusing to grow up. We’re all still in high school.
Think about it. High school is a microcosm of all of this intolerance and bigotry and narrow-mindedness. There’s a very limited range of tolerable behaviour and characteristics in high school, and if you fall outside that range, your life is probably going to be a living hell for five years. (Sorry, four, now — I’m dating myself, since I actually went to Grade 13.)
Some people still cling to the notion that these were their “Glory Days”, but (with apologies to the Boss), I just don’t buy it. Maybe that’s true if you were lucky enough to be one of the small minority who were acceptably pretty, acceptably athletic, acceptably conventional and non-threatening to the high school societal norm — those “popular kids” that I detested so much. (I certainly wasn’t one of them.)
And you know what I’ve noticed? Those people who ruled the world in high school — the pretty, the popular, the jocks — never seem to go anywhere after that. The cheerleaders become bored housewives with addictions to Valium just to get through the tedium of their days, the jocks get potbellies and drink too much, telling endless stories about the only time in their lives they felt like they were worth something. It’s just sad, really.
The losers, on the other hand, go on to change the world. Albert Einstein nearly flunked out of high school, and I’m willing to bet that Bill Gates wasn’t invited to many high school parties. The geeks, the nerds, the weird kids, the ones who are too smart or not pretty enough or gay or too fat … well, they get to have lives that just go on getting better and better and better, as they discover they can be whoever they want to be and find other people like them in the bigger wider world. (As long as they can make it through high school, at least.)
I was in the second category. I had a few good moments in high school, but you know what? Mostly I hated it. I was too smart; I was very shy; I was awkward and unsure of myself and never felt like I fitted in. I also had a dad who had just become a deacon in the Catholic Church. Now, I’m glad he is — it obviously brings him much joy and fulfilment, and he believes passionately in what he does — but then, especially when my Grade 9 homeroom teacher announced it to everyone, it didn’t help me to feel any more “normal”.
I spent most of my high school years just wanting to sink into the wallpaper and disappear. Thank God, at least, I had two good friends (Mattina and Denise, I owe you big!) to get me through it; I remember grade 13, when they’d both left my school, as the loneliest year of my life. I was smart, for sure, so — even though being the “smart kid” doesn't make you any friends in school — I survived and got out. (It still affects me now. Why do you think I’m too prone to throwing myself headlong into work now? It’s the adult equivalent — like academics then, it's the one thing now that I'm sure I'm good at. And I still sometimes have trouble believing people actually like me.)
But it got better. Oh, it got so much better! I loved university, and moving to England afterward, and coming back to Toronto and starting a professional career and discovering I can kick ass at it. I love that I’ve gotten to know people who were just as messed up as I was in high school and that we’re all now comfortable in our own skins and okay with being ourselves.
Rick Mercer has a great rant about it. (Missed it the first time around, but thanks to Strombo for bringing it to his show — and for giving me the chance to see my two favourite CBC men in one place!). And there are many other talented Canadians who have banded together for this “It Gets Better” video.
The last one is specifically about growing up gay, but I think it can apply more generally to any of you who, like me, were "different" in high school. And if you are gay — like a large number of my friends, some relatives, and many coworkers — you’ll probably appreciate it all the more.
So here’s my wish … that society gets over the growing pains it’s going through right now, graduates from high school and makes it back to an adult world. And learns a little tolerance along the way.
P.S. This is a little off topic, but maybe that’s why I DO count so many gay people among my friends and acquaintances: they can understand what it’s like to have been a misfit. Although I realized one day recently it probably doesn’t do my love life any good, as I was sitting in a bar on Maitland bemoaning the lack of decent straight men … to the 4 or 5 gay men I was having drinks with.