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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Justice, beauty, and truth in High School

When I see school supplies arrive in stores during August, a lot of big feelings emerge. 


I feel rage towards a system that encourages ruthless competition among students in the classroom and on the sports field. I feel guilty about how I treated some of my classmates because I perceived them to be “popular” (whatever that means). I feel sad that the pandemic defined my high school experience. I feel nostalgic for warm California afternoons spent driving home and jamming to Taylor Swift with my older sister.


I don’t always feel compassion towards my high school self, but these days, I try to hold onto that feeling and act on it.


For me, it’s almost effortless to look back on my life and imagine all the ways I could have acted differently. It is much harder for me to recognize that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.


In high school, I had a very strong sense of justice, or my version of it, at least. I was hellbent on making the world — or, my high school — follow my vision of righteousness. It was simple to me: a select few students and I were smart, so we were better than everyone else. If you didn’t take all AP classes, play a varsity sport as a sophomore or fill your time with countless extracurriculars, you were a waste of California taxpayers’ money spent on that free lunch of yours. You were not worth any of my limited time of day because you would never contribute as much as I did to the world.


How limited that viewpoint was. How much that viewpoint overvalued the economy. How devoid of love for humankind that viewpoint was.


Like many nerdy girls with glasses and braces, I imagined myself as the hero of the story. I saw myself as a late bloomer who would go on to be a success. I sincerely believed that if I acted like the nerdy girl in the movies, my story would end up like hers. I dreamed of one day returning to my high school reunion “glowed up” with a face of expensive make-up, a Birkin bag and a high-powered attorney lifestyle to boot. When I felt lonely, which was very often, I told myself it was because I was at the top of the totem pole and being “misunderstood” was a rite of passage for aspiring world-changers like me. I was being persecuted for my faith in myself.


I took a sort of sick pleasure in feeling like I was an outcast. I thought I was so [insert positive trait here] that people didn’t know what to do with me. I created this narrative in my head that people didn’t like me because I was too intelligent or good, but really, I was often just cold and distant to people I didn’t understand. In return, they were cold and distant to me. Soon there was a twenty-foot-wide wall between us and no avenue for diplomatic relations to proceed. Maybe that wide wall started with a small brick of conflict that either I or my classmates started. I catapulted anger, distrust and resentment over that wall without ever checking to see whether it was my enemy behind it or an imaginary monster. I understood my classmates’ silence as the prelude to an even more catastrophic attack. There’s a possibility that they thought the same about me.


I didn’t understand boys who played football or girls who were cheerleaders. I didn’t understand students who played pickleball at lunch or walked to Dunkin’ Donuts after school. I didn’t understand my teachers, who were just trying to make us care about something other than ourselves. I didn’t understand anybody, including myself.


The tricky part was that I thought I understood my classmates. I thought I could psychosocially analyze them into neat little paradigms and permutations. I thought I knew them better than they knew themselves. But the truth is, I didn’t know anything about them and I made no effort to understand them beyond the characters I fabricated in my head. I thought they were seeing right through me, into my dark, unlovable monstrosity of a soul, but the truth was, they didn’t know anything about me beyond the mask I put on. So together, we grappled with each others’ pretend personas and our own assumptions, fighting a war that we made up as we went.


This rotten mindset bit into me this summer when I returned home and worked at my local Target. I met an old classmate whom I didn’t actually know in high school. We might have passed by each other in the corridors at some point. In the mid-July sun’s scorching rays, he confided in me that he thought I would hate him when we first met and that he was pleasantly surprised with how funny and kind I was. I think that High School Lexi, if she had been aware of his existence, would have acted like she hated him. She would have dismissed him as dumb, unoriginal and primitive.


This former classmate, now friend, attends a highly-regarded community college while working for his father’s welding company. He plans to own a welding truck rig when he gets older, and previously worked as the head line cook at a fast food joint in our hometown. He is an incredibly industrious, kind, humorous individual that I totally would’ve skated past in high school because I didn’t care to get to know him beyond what I assumed about him. He dreams of seeing snow fall from the sky and loves to body surf at Huntington Beach. He is as complex of a human being as me, you and everybody on this planet. He deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter if I understand why he chose to earn an associate’s degree or how he makes meaning in his own life.


The point is that I look back on my high school self with shame, but I also feel compassion for the terrified young girl trying to forge her path in the world. At the hormonal, body-odorous hellscape that is a Southern California public high school, I was doing the best I could to make sense of the meaningless plane we exist in. I didn’t know how to deal with loneliness as a result of my unique background and personality. Unbeknownst to me then, everybody has a unique background and personality, so I wasn’t a freak of nature, much less superior to anyone else. This doesn’t excuse the fact that I was condescending and angry most of the time, but it does help to clarify why I acted that way and make certain that I will not continue to do so.


In the broader picture, my high school experiences speak about fearing the unknown. If we don’t know how to handle uncertainty — in my case, not knowing exactly what others think of us — then we act with fear, which often manifests as aggression or coldness. In many situations, those behaviors exacerbate the interpersonal problem rather than fix it. We’re all doing our best to figure out our values and live according to them. We don’t have to fear people we don’t understand. Acting with fear doesn’t make the world more peaceful or less dangerous. It’s okay not to understand someone, but it isn’t okay to treat them cruelly, coldly or selfishly because of it. It isn’t okay to be so high on your righteous horse that you can’t look around and see all the people around you riding on their righteous horses too.


I don’t wish that I could go back to high school and redo it all over again. In fact, I would rather eat a bowlful of lava than have to live through high school again. Thankfully, however, I’m not being asked to do either. The magical thing about life is that you don’t have to go back to all the mistakes you’ve made and flagellate yourself until you feel you’ve been absolved of your sins. I am clinging to the great mercy that I can become a better person by learning my lesson, apologizing to those affected and go on living in a new, improved way. The time we have on this chunk of rock hurtling around a flaming ball of gas is much too short to ruminate infinitely about the past. 


I’ve decided to keep moving forward, past high school, past yesterday and into the future. Please join me.


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