Illustration by Finley Mullen
My older sister hated high school. When she came home for winter break during her freshman year of college, she refused to even step foot on the SPHS campus. As an eighth-grader, this came as a shock to me. I had survived all of middle school with the hope that I would have as much fun as my sister did in high school. She insisted I had glorified her high school experience beyond an achievable reality.
So many who graduated from high school in the real world will tell you that it was the most painful, uncomfortable time in their life. “It will get better in college,” they say. And they may be right, to a point. The end of puberty, school stress, new responsibilities, and often worsening mental illness can accumulate to create a miserable high school experience. The weight of these issues is passed down through anecdotes, movies, and media as a constant reminder that you should not be enjoying yourself. Movies like Mean Girls and Perks of Being a Wallflower reinforce these harmful misconceptions, drilling teenage apathy into the minds of their middle school audiences.
I am of the rare opinion that high school doesn’t suck. A significant part of this can be attributed to the privileges I possess compared to so many other high schoolers. I don’t struggle in school, I don’t have to work to support my family, I go to a good school, and I’m not depressed. But until high school, I was the kid who never had any close friends and spent my weekends sitting at home.
High school has been the best time of my life so far largely because I refused to succumb to the narrative that high school is supposed to be painful. My high school experience has been so great because I cut toxic people out of my social circle and I took every opportunity I could to meet new people, reach out, and better my situation. It took a lot of time and self-confidence but I feel I have finally realized my middle school fantasies.
To shift the high school narrative, we must pay close attention to the messages we send kids at the outset of puberty. Broad, all-encompassing mantras such as “all teenagers are depressed” or “everyone feels ugly” not only normalize mental illness but discourage productive behavior to counter the described misery. These negative messages make those who are miserable feel as if they do not need to seek help while excusing others’ cynical attitudes. While cliche movie characters and exaggerated jokes about high school may help struggling high schoolers cope, we must be careful not to discourage young teens prematurely.
No one’s high school experience will ever be as legendary as the characters’ in Dazed and Confused or match the glory of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But surely there is a way to present high school in a way that inspires people to advocate for their own happiness.