“New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects”
Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine
20 January 2013
The article looks at high school as a particularly formative time in people’s lives - a point where selves are made and patterns are set for much of our adult personalities. The fear, the hierarchy, the micro-aggressions; “If you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”
The article talks a lot about high school social status, which reminds me of a question I was hashing over with some old friends the other evening: how the hell didn’t I get bullied? I mean, you did, right? It seems everyone I know now was a bit weird in high school and suffered the consequences along with that. I was definitely strange, and mostly fairly unhappy to boot. So I still wonder: how was I not a target?
My school had a toxic bullying culture. In Year 9 my class lost 4 or 5 students (out of only 24) as they moved schools to get the hell away from it all. C. not only left but changed her face - ears pinned, nose job - but she still couldn’t escape us on lacrosse pitch, this time playing for the weaker team. Ouch. We developed a culture of competitive anorexia - and fake anorexia, and wannabulimia - where it was a sign of status to be admitted to the Priory (like the slebs) rather than NHS treatment (like the plebs). Any fat on your thighs, or a 100m time over 15 seconds, or a grade below an A, and girls would talk loudly and publicly about what a disgusting failure they were, as a means of pre-emptively deflecting criticism. And because they really felt they were.
As I said, a toxic culture.
In a toxic culture, making other people feel bad is a way to shore up your own, fragile, self esteem. “At least I am not as unpopular as E., or as terminally uncool as K” - always, always the comparison and ranking. My school was a forerunner of the modern trend for hyper-measured and hyper-competitive childhoods: everyone, at all times, knew where they ranked academically (read out in class), athletically (pinned to notice boards for public scrutiny), musically (grades and orchestral achievements also announced), and socially (who was invited to what party).
I survived because I was the academic yardstick, and I knew it, and they knew I knew, and they knew I knew they knew - pretty much ad infinitum, because it was all about the mind games. In hindsight this must have sucked for everyone else - parents would ask their daughters, “What did Jessica get?”, and that would determine if their progeny’s 92 was a great achievement or not quite good enough. In an environment driven by enormous fear of failure, you do not antagonise the loudmouth who might just say what you secretly fear about yourself - “You don’t get it. You’re wrong. You’re a bit thick”. Not a nice way to have to survive - and I hope I never actually played that card on another student. (To my teachers: Sorry.) But high school is in many ways about learning to survive - and I did, so for that I cannot be but grateful.
Perhaps I was safe because essentially I had left high school even while I was still there. The interests and friends who occupied my time were substantially out-of-school ones. People wondered what I got up to - older boyfriends? blowjobs? heroin? - the truth being little or none of the rumours, of course. But being more worldly than your potential bullies can be easily achieved with the right reading list (existentialist novels, cult fiction, theory), and of course I hated conformity and despised social norms because that was the mode of teenagerdom I was following.
From there, what? - a bit of nihilistic attitude and then, bang! “I don’t care,” and “I’m not playing your game,” - and then I was free to get on with my own private dramas in relative peace. My school years still weren’t happy, but other people weren’t the problem.
I wasn’t sure how to end this post, so I looked up my old school and its alumna on Wikipedia. Lucy Prebble; her first play The Sugar Syndrome: “At the beginning, Dani (short for Danielle), a girl of seventeen, has just come home after spending some time in a clinic for eating disorders.” She follows this up with Enron, another study in upper-middle class skullduggery (and Diary of A Call Girl, on which no comment). Then Ella Hickson is talking about her generation with three plays on youth and family and damage - and Clemmie Moodie is a “3AM Girl”, i.e an award-winning gossip columnist on the Daily Mirror. Meanwhile I’m, what? An anthropologist of contemporary online chatter, performance, reputation and influence.
Guildford. You might leave, but you never escape.