As the guest on a Los Angeles radio show, I asked, “Is there life after high school?” In response the switchboard lit up like a pinball machine as callers competed for air time to tell their adolescent tales.
One call came from a great-grandmother who said she still liked to get out her yearbook from half a century ago and read over margin notes about dates: who she went out with, where, and what they did.
A recent graduate called to complain that his class vice-presidency had little value now, and a twenty-six-year-old bragged about the fight he’d won eight years before.
Finally, a man named Luke called, a 1939 graduate who told about his recurring dreams of high school. The dreams were vivid, Luke said, actual memories of horsing around in class, throwing spitballs, and winning a fight in his senior year. Even though he’d get out of bed and try to walk them off, the dreams kept right on coming — every week or so.
Luke, it turned out, had been a star athlete in high school, the winner of eight out of nine possible letters — “which is hard in the St. Louis system,” he assured us. Now retired and in his fifties, by his own admission Luke had done little of consequence as an adult. “My life’s been pretty mediocre since high school,” said Luke.
“You know that question you asked — ‘Is there life after high school?’
“Well, in my case there isn’t.”
Ken Minyard, the show’s host, was at first uncertain if this topic had substance. But as the show proceeded, Minyard himself began to be invaded by memories of his own Oklahoma high school days two decades before. Ken remembered in particular a guy dunking him in a pool, and said that to this day if anyone tries in the slightest way to push him around, he feels the very same rage he felt in that pool.
What impressed Ken more was that he still remembered the name of his high school tormentor — both names, first and last. He felt odd, and a little embarrassed, that such trivia should stick in his mind.
In fact, Ken is not odd at all. At Ohio Wesleyan University several hundred subjects were tested on their recall of high school classmates. Graduates fifteen years out of high school could identify by name ninety percent of their classmates’ pictures, and even those nearing their fortieth or fiftieth reunion recognized seventy-five percent of classmates’ faces. Although prompting with yearbook pictures produced the best results, the researchers found that recent graduates usually could name several dozen classmates off the top of their head, while older subjects remembered nineteen names on the average without prompting.
In my own interviewing, I’ve found it common for people to remember a roll call of high school classmates’ names and talk of these old acquaintances as if they were next-door neighbors today. “This guy,” or “that girl,” are not phrases we use to convey high school memories. What we say is, “So Ellen Markowitz reached down and grabbed my …,” or “and right there in class Jim Oates began to … ”
But names are just the most prominent detail sticking out in high school memories. I’ve also been told, down to the taffeta slip, what was once worn to a prom, and the precise phrases used to tell off Faye Clemens. Cheers from games are commonly remembered word for word, and can today be recited not just by ex-cheerleaders but by those who were listening in the crowd.
Two things I find people remember with uncommon accuracy are how many times their picture appeared in the yearbook and exactly what was written under their senior picture. One woman who couldn’t recall every word of the caption did remember its meter. “The first line was dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah — something about my heart. “Gay and carefree all the while,” I think it ended.
Just as interesting as what people do recall from high school is what they don’t — like education, the supposed reason for gathering An occasional inspiring teacher may stand out in memory, but rarely anything that went on in a classroom beyond passing notes.
The one place where academic memories do show up is in dreams. Dreams set in high school are unusually common, and one dream in particular: showing up unprepared for a big test.
The dream next most often recalled has to do with a locker that won’t open, usually because the dreamer has forgotten its combination.
But none of these standouts from high school memory — the dreams, the names, the prom dresses, or the yearbook captions — can convey the feelings with which they’re described: the way voices crack, hands grab the air, and eyes dart wildly around the room as people talk about their high school years.
It’s as if the adolescent within never dies, that inside each of us lies a high school kid napping. This kid may sleep for years without waking, and lull us into believing we’ve grown up. Then someone will nudge him awake with a rude question. Or we’ll catch a whiff of brownies baking and be cut again by that snub in Home Ec. Or hearing Johnny Mathis sing “The Twelfth of Never” will float us right to the sofa where Carla Rollins first let us touch her breast. Even a single glimpse of Happy Days on TV may be enough to take us helplessly back to all the clanging lockers in the hallways of our mind.
Finding the teenager within alive and kicking still can be exciting. It also is embarrassing. The single word I’ve heard most often used to describe the feeling of looking back on high school is “embarrassed.” After explaining in great detail why he only got two letters rather than three in his senior year (because of missing baseball practice), one forty-five year-old ex-jock told me, “I’m embarrassed about not getting that letter. But what embarrasses me more is that I’m even talking about it.”
Most embarrassing of all is how easy it is to recall now what mattered most then: status.