The 1973 Whitman graduate came to dance under the dome one last time.
It was April 1992, and Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School was scheduled for renovation that summer, including the destruction of the geodesic dome that housed the gymnasium. As a pre-demolition farewell, Whitman alumni had been invited to the Last Dance at the Dome.
During high school, the man played on Whitman’s tennis team and was friends with a few cheerleaders and football players, but mostly he felt like an outsider. He was shy, for one thing, and didn’t come from a wealthy family—a seeming requisite for those at the top of the school’s social hierarchy.
“Those with the money felt like they were better than we were,” he says. “They were a snotty group.”
Roaming the Whitman halls on that April evening, he felt himself transported back to the early ’70s as he observed the former cheerleaders and jocks clustered together again, not mingling with those who’d been nerds or stoners. It was as though nothing and no one had fundamentally changed.
Then he saw Mitchell Rales.
A 1974 graduate who played on Whitman’s baseball and football teams, Rales founded the Danaher Corporation, a science and technology firm, with his brother, Steven, in 1984. The company was ranked 152 on this year’s Fortune 500 list, with revenue of more than $18 billion in 2012. A friend who’d lost touch with Rales after high school, the man didn’t think the billionaire would remember him. But as he approached, Rales greeted him by name and asked how he was.
“That just made my day and my month,” says the Whitman grad, a Bethesda resident who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified. “I turned to my friend later and said, ‘The pretty girls didn’t say hi to me, but the billionaire did.’ ”
We all leave high school eventually—but does high school ever truly leave us? For many, the answer appears to be no. There are reasons for that.
The teen years are arguably the most emotionally charged of our lives. It’s when we’re most attuned to being included or excluded, says Britt Rathbone, a licensed clinical social worker and adolescent therapist in Bethesda.
A single social triumph—an acknowledgement from the popular guy or girl, a nomination for prom king or queen—can mean instant euphoria for a teen. And the smallest slight can lead to a chasm of self-loathing and despair.
A comprehensive review of adolescent brain-scan studies published in 2012 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that the brain reacts to peer exclusion just as it would to physical threats or deprivation. On a neural level, the adolescent brain perceives social rejection as a threat to existence.
“I tried to be friends with the cheerleaders,” one 1980 Bethesda-Chevy Chase alumna says. “But when it didn’t happen, I said, ‘Screw it,’ and just got high with the stoners.”
Our high school friendships help shape who we are—not just during high school, but beyond. Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona followed about 900 students from 10th grade through age 24 and found that “crowd identity effects extend well beyond high school.” Those effects can predict how much we drink and/or use drugs, whether we go to college, and how we proceed in our careers.
For instance, more former high school athletes were, at age 24, on what they considered to be a career path. They also had more friends than others, according to the researchers’ study—titled “Whatever Happened to the Jock, the Brain, and the Princess?”—which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in 2001. But those same ex-athletes also drank more than their peers—mirroring the high school jock stereotype.
Meanwhile, members of the artsy crowd were more likely to have graduated from college—but they were also more likely to visit psychologists and to have a higher rate of attempted suicide than their peers.
A recent nationwide survey—conducted by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder—found that 43 percent of nearly 3,000 full-time employees who were surveyed perceived cliques in the workplace. Twenty percent said they’d tried to fit in with co-workers by doing something they didn’t want to do. And “13 percent of workers said the presence of office cliques has had a negative impact on their career progress,” according to Rosemary Haefner, Careerbuilder’s vice president of human resources.
The survey further found that workers who fit a specific stereotype in high school—the athlete, the cheerleader, the teacher’s pet, the class clown—were the most likely to belong to a clique in the office.
In other words, we seem to form patterns based on our high school identities that we often follow later in life.
Even as adults, we want to be invited to the party, to belong and fit into a group. What happened to us in high school and how we dealt with it affects how we navigate our lives today. That’s why, as that Careerbuilder survey suggests, we may note that the social politics in our workplaces and neighborhoods can feel “like high school” all over again.
And that’s why, even decades later, a supermarket sighting of the guy who teased us mercilessly in class or of the giggling ex-cheerleader who made us feel somehow lacking can bring us right back to high school’s sometimes hellish halls.
We may like to think we’ve lived up to—or erased—the labels we earned in high school. But the petri dish for testing our progress, the high school reunion, can make even the most self-actualized person revert to old social behaviors.
“I’d be happy if I never went to a reunion again,” says a 1978 Whitman graduate who describes himself as a member of the artsy group in high school. At his 10th and 30th reunions, which his high school best friend pressured him to attend, the script hadn’t changed at all.
“There are no new bonds formed at reunions—people stay in their groups,” he says. “I saw the people who adored every minute of high school. Their lives still revolve around Whitman. They made no effort to mingle. If I go to another reunion, it will only be because I’m under duress.”
A 1973 Whitman alumna feels the same way. “I’m just not that curious anymore,” she says. “Back then, I didn’t necessarily want to do stuff with the popular kids, but I wanted them to want to do stuff with me. I wanted to be liked. Now I’m not sure I even care.”
Another 1973 Whitman graduate didn’t have to go to a reunion to feel the sting of old labels. He stayed in the Bethesda area after deciding to forgo college and became a firefighter. “Over the years, when I would run into someone from Whitman and they asked what I was doing, I told them I was a firefighter,” he says. “They always said, ‘Oh,’ like, ‘That’s the best you can do?’ ”
But that wasn’t the worst of it. “I ran into one of the snottiest girls I knew from Whitman now and then,” he says. “Every time I ran into her, it was high school all over again. She talked down to me. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it.”
Then 9/11 happened, and the woman called to ask if she and her friends could do something for him since he had such an “important job.” The man did something he never would have considered in high school. “I actually told her to go f— herself,” he says. “You didn’t care about me and what I do before yesterday, so why now?” he asked.
Finally telling her off “felt good,” he says.
As the firefighter’s story demonstrates, those early rejections tend to stick with us. Studies show that we remember our high school years more vividly than we do other periods in our lives. In fact, those memories are so powerful, according to a 2005 report in the journal Memory, that we retrieve them more often, making them even stronger as time passes.
We also tend to have more memories from our high school years than from other periods, thanks to what’s known as the “reminiscence bump.” Multiple studies have found that these are the memories we produce most often when asked about our lives.
And even if we wanted to leave high school behind, the rise of social media has pretty much made that impossible. Some 22 percent of our Facebook friends are from high school, according to 2011 Pew Research Center data.
One 2000 graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School says she originally joined Facebook to catch up with her friends from high school, but found herself “friending” people she barely knew there. “You can access friends and friends-of-friends and see what everyone’s up to, even if you’re not actually in touch with them,” she says.
Indeed, Facebook doesn’t just connect us with old friends. It offers us a way to check out the people who’ve haunted us over the years. We can see if the Mean Girl has a face full of wrinkles and if the Jock who slammed us into the lockers has a big paunch. We can learn if they’ve been successful in life or ended up stuck in neutral. All without ever having to actually face our demons.
None of this is to say that everyone hates high school and can’t wait to leave it behind. Some people uncover talents they didn’t know they had, enjoy the camaraderie of a sports team or receive encouragement from a teacher or counselor at a critical moment in their lives.
“I loved every minute of high school,” one 1976 B-CC alumna says. “Maybe it was because I hung out with the popular kids, but I also remember having friends in different groups—cheerleaders, poms, jocks, potheads. It was the ’70s, so high school was all about friends and having good times.”
A 1977 B-CC graduate credits his success in life to the high school friends he met during sophomore year. They were more focused on academics than the friends he’d known in middle school. By following their lead, he eventually went on to the University of Pennsylvania, and later had a successful career in journalism.
“High school saved my life,” says a member of the last class to graduate from Woodard High School in Rockville before it merged with Walter Johnson in 1987. “I’m always the last to leave a reunion.”
When this woman’s mother died during high school, students and teachers rallied around her. “I was the [Student Government Association] president,” she says, “so I even had a connection with the principal.”
The woman keeps in touch with about 20 of her closest high school friends, and they continue to be a positive force in her life, she says. “There’s nothing like being with the people who have known you forever.”
But for all those who remember high school fondly, there are others who remember it as a time of drama and self-doubt. Being excluded, embarrassed or mistreated can lead to feelings that can dog graduates throughout their adult lives, especially if those traumatic experiences remain unresolved, says Julie Baron, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with local teens for more than eight years.
“We would hope that as adults we’ve moved past the importance of social standing as a key determinant in our self-worth,” Baron says. But, she adds, many people continue to feel the need to prove themselves to others.
In 2012, the journal Science reported that a complex interplay of genetic, developmental, neurobiological and psychosocial factors—ranging from loving caretakers to the capacity to extract meaning from challenges—determines a person’s response to traumatic situations.
Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck says it’s all a matter of mindset. A leading researcher in the field of motivation, Dweck says people have either a fixed or a growth mindset. In high school, teens with a fixed mindset believe their traits are innate and “worry about every label and every rejection because they believe these reflect on who they really are and who they’ll always be,” she says.
Their internal monologue focuses on judging themselves and others. This intense self-criticism may explain the high percentage of high school alumni who describe themselves as having been “outsiders” then, even though others didn’t necessarily see them that way. A close friend of the Whitman graduate who danced under the dome says she just thought the man was shy and quiet in high school—but not an outsider.