….Or, well, it is, in the sense of being a thing that happens to you from the age of 5 or so to 18, it just in no way will resemble the rest of your life.
Backing up a bit, last week I ran across this post at Jennifer’s place, featuring a video by Felicia Day and the Guild crew. They seem to do one big music video release per season, and they are always awesome, and this one is no exception. As is a common theme with geeks and other people who spent middle and high school on the part of the social totem pole which is buried in the ground, and go on to wind up as perfectly respectable and likable people who are awesome in their own right, the theme is celebrating going from the bottom to the top.
I tapped my foot along with it and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Then I got to thinking, successfully transcending the social realities of high school isn’t that much of a thing to celebrate so much as getting over with as quickly as possible, just because life immediately ceases to be like school the second you leave it. Lots of people continue going through the motions as though it were, but it’s because the only patterns they know and no one bothered to tell them that contrary to preparing them with rigorous accuracy for adult life, school gave them a highly artificial reality that must be adjusted away from. There should really be some sort of an exit briefing at or after graduation, just so you are warned, whether or not you choose to listen to any of it.
1. Never again will the norm of your life involve moving through a highly regimented schedule you did not choose with a peer group that all closely resemble each other, monitored by authorities who take an interest in everything you do.
Unless you go to prison or join the military, which are the only two adult-life environments that have any close resemblance to school. Even in the military you volunteered to be there and the end goal is for you to either leave after having performed adequately, or become the authorities. Only in prison are you treated as an incompetent population to be managed as closely as possible for a time-based sentence.
After school, you are free- and expected- to manage your own time, which you may do as well or poorly as you choose to, though if you consistently do it badly you will find yourself with a shortage of people willing to give you money in exchange for your time and efforts. Authorities largely do not care about your life beyond your performance, though strong leaders may take an interest in helping you manage those areas of your time that relate strictly to your job. If no one is paying you for your time currently, you can do whatever the hell with it you wish so long as it’s not actually illegal, and no one but you will care. This is the point in your life where you find out for yourself that staying up all night all the time and eating ice cream for dinner actually make you feel like crap with no input from your parents or any other authority at all.
This is one of the areas of transition from the school system to universities that is easiest for students to miss completely. College looks like school, and feels like school, but now you have a lot more freedom, including the freedom to look at a scheduled class you don’t really want to go to and then not go. However, instead of being warehoused by an educational system, now you are actually paying to be taught things at specific institutions; using your freedom to blow off “authorities” is actually a shot downrange at your own feet. This phenomenon is one of the major disconnects between adult students and students transitioning in from high school.
2. Your social life isn’t a zero-sum game anymore.
You are no longer bound to a particular age and location-based peer group who can only be escaped via a major life upheaval that can only be ordered by some other authority. Never again will you be with any people other than your family who care what you did when you were thirteen, unless that something was the sort of thing that will get the justice system to try you as an adult. If they find out anything about your life when you were in school, it will be a mildly interesting background note in contrast to who you are now, rather than finding out Who You Really Are.
If there’s a clique and they don’t like you and exclude you? You can just leave, and find some people who enjoy your company. They need have no relevance to you at all. At the absolute worst, they could be your co-workers, but at least then you can be making an evaluation of how much your job is worth to you in money, time, and aggravation factor to remain there even though the working environment is chilly and hostile- and you can go get a different social life outside of work.
You still do need social skills, you don’t get allotted friends, and acquiring them may be an uphill battle if you were raised by wolves and are essentially starting from scratch.
However, you aren’t restricted to a single pool of people who all know each other and have all known YOU since the third grade, you aren’t in a hierarchy in which every person who gains in popularity must do so at the expense of someone else, and the people you think are really cool may not think this of themselves and probably don’t really think of themselves as being in any way above you or others. (If they DO, this is generally because they are a narcissist. People behaving the way high school students do normally as adults are behaving pathologically.)
If absolutely no one wants to spend time with you and you are regularly expelled from the company of others, it may be time to do some serious self-examination (especially if you have the vague inkling you may have been raised by wolves and do not know any of the social rules others seem to take for granted), but for the most part even obnoxious trolls can find other trolls to share under-bridge space and trollish camaraderie with.
3. Your hobbies are just your hobbies, not your identity.
Adolescents are in a weird psychological space where they’re transitioning from having their identities mainly defined by their parents to being self-generated, and being adolescents in a social species, they tend to accomplish this first by letting anyone OTHER than their parents start providing some of the definition. Our culture has a lot of easy tropes for kids to fall into and build a self-image around, so that art mirrors life and life mirrors art pretty much Because. This is how a kid can believe whole-heartedly by the time he’s twelve that if he excels at math he must shun athletics, or if he excels at athletics as part of the conditions for membership in his tribe he can never reveal he really likes Star Wars.
In the adult world, your hobbies are what you do or work on because you enjoy them, not defining aspects of your identity. At your job you’re just another person in a business suit or uniform, and no one gives a shit if you were a geek or a nerd or a jock or a stoner or a metal kid or what have you. You can be a powerlifter and also have a serious investment in your D&D group and no one will care. Your gym buddies will probably not want to talk about your campaign and your DM will probably not want to know about your squat PR, but who knows, especially if members of both groups are actually friends rather than just friendly.
Speaking of, nothing of what you internalized in school about what you can and can’t learn or do, for fun or otherwise, is true. Even if you were fat and slow and uncoordinated in school, you can be a powerlifter or rock-climber or be a speed skater or whatever the hell you want to, as long as you’re willing to put in the work and practice at it. Even if you sucked at math, you can learn it later, and better yet you can shop around for a teacher who can show it to you in ways you can grasp. If you really want to you can put all your focus into developing your strength to mass ratio and join the damn circus, though it will be a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice for not much unless you REALLY want to be an acrobat.
The bad news is that seriously doing anything takes work, practice, and tolerance for frustration and failure, and due to the limited number of hours in the day and weeks in the year, you have to pick only a handful of them to be really good at any of them. But you aren’t restricted from any of them because of what little tribes in the artificial world of school you belonged to.
4. You can never count on everyone having closely shared experiences again unless you work at it.
In school, everyone is your age, most other people are probably your ethnicity, if they aren’t the standard norms of gender/sexuality they probably won’t have admitted it yet, you’re probably from about the same socioeconomic background, and everyone is, obviously, in school together. If nothing else they have a shared experience called Mrs. Johnson’s Math Period.
As an adult, any given other person you meet may be from a radically different background from yours, may be from an entirely other country or culture, may have had formative experiences so different than yours you may as well be from different countries. You may have nothing whatsoever to relate to each other over other than whatever experience you are currently sharing.
If you work hard enough at it, you can avoid this as much as possible, and some people do spend their adult lives making as sure as they can that everyone they are likely to encounter is going to be extremely similar to them. This does come with the downside of having the same narrow perspective, and the same constant experience of everyone constantly comparing each other to everyone else, forever. It can be very refreshing to be dealing with a group where nobody thinks to make very many comparisons because there are very few meaningful ones to be made.
5. In the real world, people’s tolerance for bullshit is directly proportional to the rewards of putting up with it.
The most common incentive to put up with inefficiency, byzantine and bizarre rule sets and authority structures, bureaucracy that exists for its own sake, and other soul-suckers familiar to anyone who’s been through a school system, is called a paycheck and it can make up for quite a lot. In school you do it because the alternative is not-school, which is generally a much harder row to hoe, in real life you are much freer to put it down and walk away, and people will. This is particularly true if whatever activity you’re engaged in is a for-fun hobby group where the paycheck incentive is absent.
In an extra-curricular group in school, you do it because you signed up to do it and because it will nebulously look good on your college transcript. You learn a handful of things about how people behave in small groups and if you are very lucky one or two other things.
In a local sports league, gaming group, book club, cooking circle, or any other collection of enthusiastic amateurs who get no rewards other than those intrinsic to the group or the activity, either someone or several someones have excellent skill at managing people with no reason to be there other than those rewards, or you find out what it looks like when a group of people collectively realizes they do not have to put up with bullshit and the only authorities are self-appointed.
If you were wondering, I went to a good school (private), and while I definitely wasn’t climbing the social ladder, I wasn’t the fat kid in the cafeteria getting milk poured on her either. You can make things better or worse with different school systems and approaches, or you can sign up for an entirely different set of problems via homeschooling, but a lot of things that make school a weird and artificial world stem entirely from the fact that the people inhabiting them are children, and as such are not yet mentally or emotionally mature. Everything that happens in school is of devastating emotional import even when the people involved are worthless jerks because the world of a schoolchild is very small, because they ARE still a child.
We shouldn’t celebrate becoming better and stronger and cooler people than we were in school, though broadly speaking being better and stronger is always nice. We should celebrate having left the world where any of it matters more than an footnote.