Saturday, June 18, 2005

High School

I visited the campus book store today. I got the book that I was wanted, Becker's Electromagnetic Fields and Interactions, which now sits comfortably next to my copy of Jackson's book. I'll have to return the earlier book by Abraham and Becker on Monday. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Electromagnetic Fields is bound together with a second volume, Quantum Theory of Atoms and Radiation.

Book stores are dangerous places, though; you never quite know what will follow you home when you leave. I got two other books: Hackers and Painters, a collection of essays by Paul Graham; and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I read some time ago, but never got for myself. After I left the store, I sat outside at a cafe for a while, reading, sipping, and watching.

The first essay in the collection is Why Nerds are Unpopular. The essay is available online, and it's sufficiently short that there's not much point in my summarizing it here; nevertheless, I'll quote a paragraph from the setup:

I know a lot of people who were nerds in school, and they all tell the same story: there is a strong correlation between being smart and being a nerd, and an even stronger inverse correlation between being a nerd and being popular. Being smart seems to make you unpopular.

The rest of the essay develops the thesis that high school popularity is a full-time job, and that those folks who are more interested in playing with computers or model rockets than in being popular simply won't be popular.

Wait. Did I go to high school?

Yes, of course I went to high school. I went to an average public high school in the northern part of Maryland. But for many years, I've been bothered by something about my memories of high school; they seem incomplete, inconsistent with the tales told by my friends and by everyone else I know who went through high school around the same time. I remember some very good teachers and some not-so-good teachers and some teachers between, but I seem to remember all of them as generally well-intentioned people who had at least a passing interest in their respective topics. Several of the classes were actually quite entertaining, whether it was from Alfonso the Silky Chicken dancing around our feet in biology, or from Frau Walker illustrating how to do a stage fall in German class, or from being allowed to make a paperweight out of the kidney of Stiffy the Cat in anatomy class (the cats were injected with blue and red latex to make their circulatory systems easy to see, so the network of veins on the outside of the kidney was strikingly pretty). And how could I forget Bob the water molecule? Even some of the duller classes could be amusing: I remember sitting in the back of a class taught by a teacher who had an unfortunately monotonous presentation style, watching the heads of those in the front row bob up and down as they fought off sleep. Every so often the head bobbing would synchronize, and at least once that year I saw every head in the front row -- save one -- droop down and jerk up nearly at once.

I don't remember much physical fighting. I don't remember that I was ever bullied. I don't even remember observing most of my peers treating each other particularly viciously. I'm sure there must have been sex, drugs (or at least beer), and rock-and-roll; only the last came within my sphere of direct observation. There were cliques, but I don't remember anyone who seemed particularly snotty about it. And I was more popular than not, I suppose -- how are such things quantified, anyhow? -- though to the extent that I thought about it at all, I probably would have guessed I was a nerd: I was tall and gawky, and even then my hair was constantly disheveled from a habit of combing my fingers through my hair when I was thinking; I was not particularly athletic; I made no particular attempt to dress fashionably; and I spoke then much as I speak now. I was involved in the quiz team -- mostly as an onlooker, since I was never very quick to buzz in even on the rare occasions when I knew something -- and I sometimes went to math or computer puzzle competitions, but I wasn't part of any of the other standard extracurriculars. I may have nominally been part of some class council or the other, but I only remember once being asked to do anything with it. I wasn't very socially active. I had a part-time job doing programming work, and I spent a lot of my free time programming or playing computer games; I taught myself about topics that I thought were interesting (most of which involved math); I practiced martial arts; I read an enormous amount of science fiction; and the rest of the time I played with the cats, wandered about the woods, or stared into space.

I don't miss high school. I may have been less testy than the average teenager, but that's not saying a great deal; I certainly spent time feeling grouchy at the world without knowing why (though I remember being aware that those feelings were not rational, which helped). College was much more interesting; and, though I love my parents, I was relieved when I was able to leave and live on my own for a while -- and I suspect they were relieved, too. Nevertheless, I remember it as a time that was more happy than not, and while I may sometimes have simply memorized lists of tripe for a test (and then promptly flushed them from my thoughts), I did learn some things in high school.

I had a rich college experience: I learned to be a mathematician, and I learned about some of the very clever things that people long dead thought of, and that people still living continue to think of. I befriended interesting people, worked on fun projects, and generally charged boldly forth. Yes, I also stayed out late, I wandered around in some places I probably wasn't supposed to be (tall and gawky is an excellent shape if one wants to climb over things), and I probably also did some fairly boneheaded things. But I also learned, much more than I did in high school, how cruel, petty, self-destructively stupid people can be. So my general opinion of humanity went down somewhat after high school; and this seems to be the opposite of what happened with many of my peers. Why?

For a long time, I thought that I just wasn't very observant when I was in high school. That explanation is inadequate, though. I think people are fascinating, and I did not suddenly become more curious or observant about them at the start of college. I did have some more opportunities to observe in college, as I was more sociable as a college student than I was as a high school student; and that difference probably has something to do with how I remember high school. Recently, though, I've come to think that my impressions of high school -- and later of life after high school -- are driven by the same observations most other people make, but perhaps interpreted somewhat differently.

High school is an odd environment. Students have little really unstructured time during the ordinary day in which to make mischief (though an extraordinary amount of mischief can be done in a short period, particularly if such mischief is planned out during a particularly boring class). I was lucky enough to have some interesting classes, and to have academic things that I thought were interesting to think about in the not-so-interesting classes; consequently, I spent little time fuming at my situation, stewing over some perceived slight, or trying to mentally figure out who was doing what with whom. On the other hand, if I saw someone acting out of boredom, I could understand, and feel empathy or amusement. At worst, I might find it irritating, but often I could feel some humor at my own irritation. I remember the guy sitting next to me in an art class once stuck his paintbrush in my ear, just because he was bored and wanted a reaction; I didn't jump out of the way as he expected, and I was a little irritated at having my earlobe painted green -- but it was funny at the same time, even if it wasn't exactly something I wanted to encourage. I think he was more embarrassed about my having a green ear than I was. He apologized, I cleaned off my ear, and we got along reasonably well after that.

There are probably other things that I've forgotten which I managed to attribute to boredom rather than to malice or stupidity. I may have felt differently if I were physically bullied, but I never had problems with that, probably due to a combination of the company I kept and the fact that, however bony, I was tall enough that I probably didn't look like an easy target. Then, as now, I tried to be courteous to my peers. Then, as now, I would be happy to talk about my interests when asked, including those interests that might be relevant to classwork. I wasn't going to feel artificially persecuted, and my peers apparently saw no particular cause to persecute me in earnest. And because I didn't spend much time hanging out with people, there weren't really opportunities for me to seriously offend or be offended; nor was I particularly inclined toward gossip. So I had friendly, or at least civil, relations with most everyone I knew. And, of course, I had some very good friends; I still talk to many of them.

In high school, most potential unpleasantness seemed to derive from boredom or from insecurity. It is hard not to feel some sympathetic amusement when observing the disaffected youth of Harford County, as Pete would call them. But I find the insecurity of the disaffected youth easy to deal with in comparison to the earnestness -- and sometimes smugness -- adopted by college students. I met people in college who knew the Truth was that I was an infidel (whom it was their duty to either save or condemn); who knew the Truth that I was an oppressor (Caucasian and male -- what else could I hope to be?); who knew the Truth that I was as good as killing babies abroad or Uncle Sam at home. How can you have civil relations with someone who can't hear you over the roar of a nonsensical Truth? I watched newly independent men and women dealing, alone and sometimes for the first time, with independence and responsibility, love and heartbreak, personal finances, and death. It is not surprising that some turned to some One True Way, others fell apart, and others revealed a dark side -- greed, self-delusion, political sleaziness, and plain malice -- that I could not easily shrug aside. Nor is it surprising to watch as people rise up, cope with life in all its aspects, and reveal that they have virtues beyond what is habitual: strength, courage, intelligence, wisdom, kindness, and native goodness.

Perhaps I was not so unobservant in high school after all. Perhaps I had some sense that school politics and biases were a game, as artificial as football. Perhaps it lines up with the feeling I had even then, that the accomplishments during high school years that I should be proud of -- that anyone should be most proud of -- were at most tangentially related to high school. High school students do live in the real world, but not during school hours. And after high school? Spilled beer on the floor, charred carpet where someone set the furniture on fire, these things are a source of irritation or amusement -- whether the culprit is in high school or college -- but they ultimately signify little. The world after high school has plenty of arenas where people can and do pull pranks or play at popularity. Those just aren't the arenas that I find most interesting.

Of course, it's still possible that I missed a lot of what went on while I was in high school out of an absent-minded lack of observation. That would be okay with me, too.