The Truth About High School

It was one careless moment in the cafeteria that she now believes will haunt her forever, or at least until graduation, whichever comes first. Blond, smart, athletic and well off, she must have thought she could get away with sitting down with a couple of gawky skaters from the fringe of high-school society, if only to interview them about hip-hop music for the school newspaper. She should have known that in high school, appearance outweighs motive by 100 to 1. There were giggles and stares, then loss of gossip privileges and exile from her seat at the center table next to the jocks. Now, a year later, recovered from a bout of anorexia as she tried to starve her way back into favor, she has found new friends. But the formerly cool sophomore, too humiliated to bear being identified, views her years in a West Coast high school as "hell."

It should come as no surprise, given the events of two weeks ago, that teenagers can turn their social lives into a matter of life and death. Since the invention of high school, adolescents have been forming cliques and mentally ranking them--it is, says David Zinn, adolescent psychiatrist at Chicago's Beacon Therapeutic Center, excellent practice for an adult society "dominated by hierarchies." The relative positions of some groups have shifted over time, reflecting changes in adult society: jocks are, like their adult models, bigger than ever; cheerleaders are less exalted, perhaps because girls are now playing more sports themselves; while kids are still doing drugs, they've lost some of their demimonde glamor. In general, Zinn believes, high-school kids are more tolerant of differences than they were a generation ago. Minority kids, penetrating deep into the heartland, are less likely to be regarded as exotic freaks. But one of the biggest changes, says University of North Carolina pediatrician William Coleman, is driven by simple loneliness. As adolescents spend less and less time with their parents, cliques increasingly fill the emotional vacuum, and the high-school game of acceptance or rejection is being played for even higher emotional stakes.

Athletes enforce the social code at most high schools, which helps explain why they're usually at the top. "It's pretty common," says senior Lowell Crabb, a varsity football and baseball player at South Pasadena High, near Los Angeles, "to see jocks picking on the fat kid or the wimpy kid, or anybody who's different." Jocks were like that even in the old days, before their games were broadcast on the school's in-house cable channel, their teams were ranked nationally by USA Today and big-city newspapers sent reporters around to interview them. Now Chicago psychiatrist Marc Slutsky believes their aggression is a response to the increased pressure they labor under. While schools have grown more and more concerned with nurturing students' academic self-esteem, athletics are becoming increasingly performance-driven and professional. "These kids get the least sensitive treatment," he says. "All that pressure on them saying 'don't screw up' gets displaced onto others."

Once high schools were divided simply into the in-crowd and everyone else. But as they have grown larger they have spawned a fabulous diversity of gangs, cliques, crews and posses. These include athletes and preppies and wanna-be gangsters; pot-smoking skaters and sullen punks; gays and nerds and, yes, morbid, chalk-faced Goths. Cliques proclaim their identities with uniforms that are surprisingly similar from coast to coast. Chinos and button-down shirts mark kids as preppies a thousand miles from Andover; baggy jeans signify hip-hop on a Laotian kid in Iowa no less than on a homeboy straight out of Bed-Stuy. Long before most people had heard of Columbine High School, the black trench coat was a potent symbol for kids in places like central Texas who would rather suffocate than conform to how the cool kids thought they should dress.

In contrast to a generation ago, cliques are much more likely to have both boys and girls in them, Zinn says, a development he traces to early exposure to sexual imagery on television. "Familiarity with the opposite sex comes much earlier now," he says. "You don't find as much mystery or excitement attached to it."

The lush diversity of cliques has made student life more democratic. "This isn't like a pyramid with one group on top," says Eva Greenwald, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago, population 2,700. "Think of us as living in a lot of different bubbles." Conversely, in schools this size students can live not just apart from their peers, but almost unaware of them. Andrew, a senior athlete and honor student at Cal High School in Whittier, Calif., eats his lunch with his friends every day in the quad. After four years at Cal, "I have no idea what goes on in the cafeteria," he says. "I've actually never been in there."

Some students jealously guard their turf. At Glenbrook South High School, in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, the groups even take their names from their perches: the fashionable "wall people" who favor a bench along the wall outside the cafeteria, and the punkish "trophy-case" kids who sit on the floor under a display of memorabilia. When freshman Stephanie Hernandez sat at the wall one day last fall, she was ordered off the bench by a football player, and hasn't sat there since. "It's just a piece of plastic with holes in it, but they love it," she says. "OK, you can have your bench."

Must life be like this? Experiments in creating egalitarian high-school cultures have met with mixed results. The Paideia School, founded in 1971 as a liberal alternative to the white-flight academies springing up in Atlanta, sought to pre-empt jock culture by decreeing that every student had to be on a sports team. "I'm not a jock, I'm an athlete," says junior Will Arnold, a distinction that might seem superfluous for the captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team. This system has worked well, but it was tested last year when both the boys' and girls' basketball teams made it to the state finals, and hero-worship reared its unfamiliar head. "It can be seductive," headmaster Paul Bianchi says. "People like to see their names in the paper." Glenbrook South, home of the wall kids and trophy-case kids, makes an extraordinary effort at inclusiveness, offering something like 70 clubs and 23 sports and both regular and alternative student newspapers and theater groups. But still, says principal David Smith, there's no avoiding the fact that "adolescence is a tribal society. It's just the nature of the thing."

Fitting in is partly a matter of choice. Wearing black trench coats to school is not just a neutral fashion choice, but a way of flaunting one's indifference to the ruling cliques, which is precisely why the cool kids find it so infuriating. But fitting in is also a gift. To be popular, "either you have money, you look good or you play football," says Steve Walker, the gregarious captain of the football team at Merritt Island High School, 50 miles east of Orlando, Fla. Lacking those, you could try throwing a really great party, he says, but "other than that, I couldn't tell you, because I've been popular all my life. As long as I show up, the party's going to be OK."

In some ways, the system works, assigning kids the roles they're comfortable with. As an experiment one day last month, Lauren Barry, a pink-haired trophy-case kid at Glenbrook, switched identities with a well-dressed girl from "the wall." Barry walked around all day in the girl's expensive jeans and Doc Martens, carrying a shopping bag from Abercrombie Fitch. "People kept saying, 'Oh, you look so pretty'," she recalls. "I felt really uncomfortable." It was interesting, but the next day, and ever since, she's been back in her regular clothes. The lines drawn by teenagers are frequently unfair, often hurtful and generally enforced by physical and psychological intimidation. Which is why it's worth bearing in mind that high school only seems as if it lasts forever.