Robert Faris puts an even finer point on this idea. “If you put adults in a similar situation”—meaning airlifted into a giant building full of strangers with few common bonds—“you’d find similar behaviors.” Like reality television, for instance, in which people literally divide into tribes, form alliances, and vote one another off the island. “And I think you see it in nursing homes,” says Faris. “In small villages. And sometimes in book clubs.” And then I realized, having covered politics for many years: Congress, too. “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem,” insists Faris. “It’s the giant box of strangers.”
As adults, we spend a lot of time in boxes of strangers. “I have always referred to life as ‘perpetual high school,’ ” Paul Feig wrote me in our first e-mail exchange, later adding, when we spoke, that his wife’s first order when she landed her Hollywood dream job was to go fire her predecessor. Brown tells me she frequently hears similar things from men in finance—as a reward for outstanding quarterly earnings, they get to pick their new office, which means displacing someone else. (The corresponding shame led one to consider quitting: “I didn’t sign up to terrorize people,” he tells her in her latest book, Daring Greatly.) Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers.
Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.
High school itself does something to us, is the point. We bear its stripes. Last October, the National Bureau of Economic Research distributed a study showing a compelling correlation between high-school popularity—measured by how many “friendship nominations” each kid received from their peers—and future earnings in boys. Thirty-five years later, the authors estimated, boys who ranked in the 80th percentile of popularity earned, on average, 10 percent more than those in the 20th. There are obvious chicken-and-egg questions in all studies like this; maybe these kids were already destined for dominance, which is why they were popular. But Gabriella Conti, an economist and first author of the paper, notes that she and her colleagues took into consideration the personality traits of their subjects, measuring their levels of openness, agreeableness, extroversion, and so forth. “And adolescent popularity is predictive beyond them,” she says, “which tells me this is about more than just personality. It’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to ‘play the game.’ ” Or don’t. Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia just found that kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults. “Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation. “And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”
Yet even the most popular kids, the effortlessly perfect ones, the ones who roamed the halls as if their fathers had built them especially in their honor, may not entirely benefit from the experiences of the high-school years. In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. (Criminals were still most apt to smoke pot; male jocks still had the highest self-esteem.) But one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.
Whether it’s for vindication or validation, whether out of self-punishment or self-appeasement, many of us choose to devote a lot of time revisiting our high-school years. That’s the crazy thing. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that the largest share of our Facebook friends—22 percent—come from high school. Keith Hampton, a Rutgers sociologist and one of the researchers who did the analysis, says this is true for college- and non-college-educated Americans alike. In fact, Hampton suspects that Facebook itself plays a role. “Before Facebook, there was a real discontinuity between our high-school selves and the rest of our lives.” Then Mark Zuckerberg came along. “Social ties that would have gone dormant now remain accessible over time, and all the time.”
Maybe that’s what ultimately got me to that nondescript bar near Times Square last fall. Until Facebook, the people from my high-school years had undeniably occupied a place in my unconscious, but they were ghost players, gauzy and green at the edges. Now here they were, repeatedly appearing in my news feed, describing their plans to attend our reunion. And so I went, curious about whom they’d become. There were the former football players, still acting like they owned the joint, but as much more generous proprietors. There were the beautiful girls, still beautiful, but looking less certain about themselves. There was my former best pal, who’d blown past me on her way to cheerleaderhood, but nervous in a way I probably hadn’t recognized back then. I was happy to see her. And to see a lot of them, truth be told. We’d all grown more gracious; many of us had bloomed; and it was strangely moving to be among people who all shared this shameful, grim, and wild common bond. I found myself imagining how much nicer it’d have been to see all those faces if we hadn’t spent our time together in that redbrick, linoleum-tiled perdition. Then again, if we hadn’t—if we’d been somewhere more benign—I probably wouldn’t have cared.