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Why high school matters

Reseda High School front entrance

It helps when your high school has an impressive front entrance. (Image from Reseda High School.)

As I work on The Ghosts of Reseda High (and planning to go there soon to do research), it made me think about high school in general. Why do we make such a big deal about it, at least in the United States? High school is only three or four years. If we live until we’re 80, high school is only 3.75-5% of our life. Some say high school is the “The Best Years of Your Life.” That may make sense when you’re 18. If you’re 45, and you still think high school is “The Best Years of Your Life,” something is wrong with your life.

Yet, we go to reunions and homecoming games. We reminisce on Facebook. We watch Glee, read Harry Potter, and write YA novels. High school pulls on us, especially as we get older. It’s not just because high school was the last time we looked good in shorts.

I believe high school matters because that’s where we start defining ourselves. It’s when we begin to figure out who we are and where we’re supposed to fit in the world.

Before high school, we defined ourselves through our parents. We wanted to please them (or at least avoid the consequences if we didn’t.) We had to please them because we were dependent on them. As we grew older, we became less dependent. We could make our own money and drive our own car. We began taking classes where our parents couldn’t help us with our homework (because they forgot what they learned in high school, or it covered technology that didn’t exist when they were kids).

Greater freedom brought greater responsibility — along with the responsibility of making difficult choices. We had to figure out what type of career we wanted, and if we were going to college and where. We had to find the type of person who attracts us, how to approach that person, and if we’re lucky to connect with that person, how to have a mature and lasting relationship.

We dealt with those challenges in different ways. Some of us, like me, clung more tightly to our parents and their values. Others rebelled against them. Some didn’t want to deal with those challenges, so they tried to drug them away. Some found themselves in circumstances where they had to deal with those challenges without the support with the people they depended on.

Instead of a Grease-like fun fair, high school was a crucible — a boiling cauldron of hormones, passions, and temptations. Our high school years were filled with humiliations, heartbreaks, and the occasional tragedy. We were forced to figure out what truly matters to us and what type of person we are.

As the years pass and we look back at the results of the choices we made, we can point to our high school — with pride or regret — and say, “This is where I started to become the person I am today.” Of course, the work of defining ourselves doesn’t end at high school. Our view of who we are and our place in the world changes with age and circumstance. But high school is when that work begins.

That’s the way I feel about Reseda High School. It was where I learned about death, became a writer, and made wonderful memories. It was where I made lifelong friends. It was where I started on the path to become the person I am today.

That’s why high school matters. It’s our culture’s initiation rite, our vision quest, our warrior training. It’s where we discover our life’s mission and start to gather the tools to carry it out. It’s how children become adults. Because we have passed through that gauntlet, high school will always have meaning for us, no matter how long it has been since we’ve been there. It is the place where we started to become the people we are.