In the fall of 2011, Tavi Gevinson, the 16-year-old force behind the web magazine Rookie, solicited a wide variety of celebrities for advice about how to survive high school. Among the wisest essays came from Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life. “In high school,” she wrote, “we become pretty convinced that we know what reality is: We know who looks down on us, who is above us, exactly who our friends and our enemies are.” The truth of the matter, wrote Holzman, is that we really have no clue. “[W]hat seems like unshakable reality,” she concluded, “is basically just a story we learned to tell ourselves.”
There happens to be a body of contemporary research that suggests Holzman is right. Adolescents often do take a highly distorted view of their social world. In 2007, for instance, Steinberg and two colleagues surveyed hundreds of adolescents in two midwestern communities, asking them to decide which category they most identified with: Jocks, Populars, Brains, Normals, Druggie/Toughs, Outcasts, or None. They also asked a subsample of those kids to make the same assessment of their peers. Then they compared results.
Some were predictable. The kids who were identified as Druggies, Normals, or Jocks, for example, tended to see themselves in the same way. What was surprising was the self-assessment of the kids others thought were popular. Just 27 percent in one study and 37 in a similar, second study in the same paper saw themselves as campus celebrities. Yes, a few declared themselves Jocks, perhaps just as prestigious. But more were inclined to view themselves either as normal or none of the above.
Faris’s research on aggression in high-school students may help account for this gap between reputation and self-perception. One of his findings is obvious: The more concerned kids are with popularity, the more aggressive they are. But another finding isn’t: Kids become more vulnerable to aggression as their popularity increases, unless they’re at the very top of the status heap. “It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.
It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings. But these statistics also suggest that teenagers cannot tell when they are being rejected (Hey, guys, wait for me!) or even accepted (I thought you hated me). So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of Utah, did a well-known pilot study at McLean Hospital a few years ago asking teenagers to look at a picture of a face and identify the emotion they saw. Every adult who looked at that picture—100 percent of them—saw fear in that face. Not the teenagers. Half of them saw anger or confusion, even sadness.
It was a really small study. I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into it. But its results sum up the entire high-school experience, in my view: mistaking people’s fear for something else.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” And it is, certainly, in the sense that it’s the last shared cultural experience we have before choosing different paths in our lives. But for years, I’d never quite understood why high-school values are so different from adult ones. In fact, whenever I spoke to sociologists who specialized in the rites and folkways of this strange institution, I’d ask some version of this question: Why is it that in most public high schools across America, a girl who plays the cello or a boy who plays in the marching band is a loser? And even more fundamentally: Why was it such a liability to be smart?
The explanations tended to vary. But among the most striking was the one offered by Steinberg, who conjectured that high-school values aren’t all that different from adult values. Most adults don’t like cello or marching bands, either. Most Americans are suspicious of intellectuals. Cellists, trumpet players, and geeks may find their homes somewhere in the adult world, and even status and esteem. But only in places that draw their own kind.