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)