Guest post by Mohnish Soundararajan
Author's Note: Mohnish here. When I was at Year On (previously UnCollege), the big message was this: starting something that matters is important. And when I released this article in 2014, people loved it so much that I decided to do just that – start something. So I released Moonwalk, a podcast about growing up and doing it effectively. From friendship to high school, it covers it all and backs it up with incredible research (ex. psych, animal biology, and more). You can find it here. Check it out, and enjoy the article.
A couple years ago, I almost died.
“Unlock the door man!” I said. Of course, I knew how these things went. It was the classic ‘lock-him-out-of-the-car-then-drive-off’ maneuver. It was late, there were girls in the vicinity, and the conditions were perfect: why not make a scene? So I jumped on top of the car. As I gripped the roof, I felt a jolt and then, the car started picking up speed.
He didn’t know I was on the roof.
The pace started to quicken. I yelled. No response and the car started hitting twenty. Then thirty. Then — without thinking, I smacked the windshield. Crack. My friend slammed the breaks. I flew off and hit concrete.
Flash forward a few years.
It was me and my best friend, in high school Econ, ripping up a quiz in front of our entire class during the last semester of our senior year. The reaction we got was nothing short of hysterically beautiful.
And it was worth 10 points.
There was no denying how great it was to graduate, college acceptance and denial letters in hand. It was a time where everyone felt like they could look forward to the future without the burden of the past, while also pretending that the college they were going to was their dream school.
Yet, after a barrage of quizzes, notes, tests, study packets, folders, textbooks, and frantically shared finals study guides, high school had both given and taketh away.
It had taken a toll I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And after we left, none of us could. There are stories that we tell ourselves and then, there‘s the truth. When I was in high school, I — as well as everyone else — had our stories wrong.
I remember one of my classmates asking the teacher:
“Why is this important? When will I ever in my life need this?”
Our science teacher made jokes that were raunchy enough to get a laugh but didn’t push the envelope enough to be arrested for sexual harassment. Here, though, he looked visibly pained when she asked, like she had just told him some awful knock-knock joke and he just had to sit there and take it. For a moment, I really thought he was at a loss for words.
“You just need to know this stuff to get into college. It’s good for you”
And that was that. In my four years, I realized that no one had a good answer to this question. Because after it was all over, most of the work we did in high school was pointless, unusable, and forgotten.
The truth is that we knew back then that all the work we did was simply practice for a future so far off we couldn’t even conceptualize what it would look like. No one was excited to learn and build their future. Talk to any high schooler and they’ll tell you, the first hour on a Monday is like being physically assaulted by the devil.
The problem is that adults, policymakers, and nearly anyone east of the west coast believe that being uninspired for 8 hours a day was a rite of passage, a mark of tradition, not something that could be improved, changed, even solved — even though in history, especially the Renaissance, teenagers looked up to adults because they had the expertise, the wisdom, and the well-grown beards they themselves wanted to inherit. Their teachers truly inspired them.
Now, teachers don’t play that role.
Instead, it’s a “love-hate-mostly-hate” relationship with teachers. They aren’t judged by how much they taught you, a useful metric, but by how often they let shit slide. The best teachers, we thought, were always athletic coaches.
Every break we got, we took. I remember a stretch of three days with no homework and thinking: I’m so glad I don’t have to learn today.
And that was when I kind of sensed that high school was starting to lean me away from wanting to work hard, from wanting to crack open a book, and exploring what I was capable of. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, especially not the teachers. But it felt like it was mine.
We tuned in to teachers the day before the test, not because we wanted too, but because we had too. I like to say the difference between an author researching American Literature and a student studying it, is that the student is probably trying to find a window to jump out of.
When you’re in it, there is no life outside the school hallways. You seem to know everyone yet, at the same time, you don’t know everyone. As far as your 15-year-old self was concerned, high school was the world and that was all there was to it.
And you care — more than you’d like to admit — what other people think. I remember walking into the school restroom and about 3 guys checking, wetting, and matting their hair. It was like walking into the early moments of some bizarre beauty pageant nightmare but with dudes.
For most people, high school is awkward and frustrating. And outside of high school, there was truly nothing to do. If you felt like your town was empty, sterile, and fake, well, that’s because it was. A precondition of being a good parent is moving to the suburbs, where ironically, giant nursing homes are erected for students and seniors alike. It was scribbling away at homework, glowing phones, hanging out in basements, discovering alcohol, and trying our best to accrue new experiences in a place where new experiences were in short supply.
Those new experiences get stunted when we realize there’s only so many people in this small, small town. You’re forced to be friends with the same people regardless of whether or not they’re the types of people you love being around or if they’re even a good fit. I was lucky to have great friends in high school, but I was also painfully aware of the people that didn’t — not because they were insane or weird, but just for the fact that they were an island of one, end of discussion.
There is nothing you will miss more than having a locker, walking in the hallway, chatting with friends, giving out ridiculous handshakes like it was free candy, wondering who will say “hi” to you in the hallway (and who won’t), and of course, truly understanding the silent anxiety of picking a lunch table.
With nostalgic-tinted glasses, I tell people I enjoyed high school. But I also recognized the bullshit that was so classically emblematic of it.
When you’re older, you get to choose who you’re tight with, who you fit in with, and what you want to do. Yet high school, more than yourself, dictates the terms and conditions — for better or worse.
Like many smart adults have told me, finding out who you are is a long, arduous process that takes years. But it’s incredibly noticeable during your high school ones, a time where you’re making fake and real friends and you’re picking up good and bad social skills and you’re learning a lot more quickly about yourself than you ever have in your entire life.
Because even if you feel lost, that’s fine — the long con is that most people in high school are.
After I flew off the car, nothing really changed. I loved telling and imagining the story like it had life-changing implications* and that I saw every moment of my life before I hit the ground — me at 10, me at 30, me marrying Kate Upton — not because it did, but because it should have. It was nearly the most exciting thing to ever happen to me at the time and like every high schooler attracted to the dramatic, I wore the moment with a badge of honor. It wasn’t that I was too risky or reckless or that my friend was in the wrong or anything. Nobody got hurt, we got ice cream afterwards, it was fine.
No, the thing about that is, it just happened. Sort of like how high school just happens. You start it, you do it, you’re done, and you look back, and you’re like, whoa, what just happened? What did it all mean? What did I just do?
And no one is giving answers because, like a science teacher, most of the time, all they have is an empty gesture — a nod, a wink, a smile, maybe a pat on the ass if they’re creepy, and then? You’re on your way.
During Prom, I remember the moment when the Sophomore escorts and I arrived in suits, freshly pressed. Prom was new to us. And when we arrived we were (how do I put this delicately…) ready to get some ass. After it happened, we traded hilarious stories, somehow wrecked a hotel room, and realized we had just gone through something Lifetime movies were made of. Prom, the big deal. And at 16, it was the biggest of deals, on top of flying off a car or getting shot in a parking lot. At the time, it was nice knowing that. But afterwards, the next Monday?
We went straight to class. And just like that, it was over. And all we had left was nostalgia.
*For that more fun version, here it is
Hey - thanks so much for reading. Now go check out my website. If you liked this piece, you'll love my podcast, Moonwalk. And even if you didn't like the piece (totally cool) - check out the podcast. It's wild and different.