Similarly, a friend of the Woodard graduate confessed at a recent reunion to having been “the biggest jerk in high school.” He explained that he felt isolated after his parents’ divorce, so he started using drugs and, as a result, was sent to boarding school. “I was so sad for him,” the Woodard graduate says. “I’d known him from elementary school and had no idea what was going on. I never thought he was a jerk.”
Unlike those with a fixed mindset, Dweck says that people with a growth mindset believe they can change and improve upon their characteristics. “Those with a growth mindset are not as vulnerable [in high school] and would, I believe, have a much easier time moving beyond high school setbacks later,” she says.
People can switch from one mindset to the other, however. “We found that when we taught high school students a growth mindset about their personality, they became much less sensitive to slights, less likely to label themselves after a rejection, and less likely to become depressed or hostile in the face of social adversities,” Dweck says.
An additional factor that can influence post high-school resilience is the timing of a teen’s physical development. Many boys who mature early are more popular as teens because they can get the girls, Rathbone says. As adults, they may have a more difficult time coping once things are no longer handed to them. “It’s the boys who develop later, who struggle socially in high school, who are more resilient,” he says.
Girls who mature early, on the other hand, may have a harder time as teens. They often get attention for bodies they’re not ready for. But like the later-developing boys, they learn about coping.
“You can turn a bad experience into something good,” Rathbone says.
For those haunted by their high school selves, redemption comes in many forms. For the firefighter, it turned out to be that opportunity to finally tell off his nemesis. Ironically, they became friends after that.
For a 1980 B-CC graduate, it was party planning. The woman considered herself an outcast during high school. “I didn’t trust a lot of people,” she says.
Living in an apartment with her mother during high school, she didn’t have the kind of money her classmates had. “They were all summering places or going on ski trips,” she says. “They’d go on the school trip to Europe and come back and talk about it. I was really down on myself and felt like a loser. At 16, you don’t know it’s not your fault.”
She tried to fit in, mostly with the theater kids or hippies. But the mean girls found in her a ready target. “When we were alone, one cheerleader would say, ‘Oh, I love your hair,’ but behind my back they would make fun of me and ignore me in the hallways,” she says. “I know they thought: I can’t be seen with that hippie-theater kid. When they hurt my feelings, I would get up in their face and say really loudly, ‘Why aren’t you talking to me? You were talking to me yesterday.’ ”
The graduate went to her 10th and 20th reunions, which she describes as “snooty affairs at fancy hotels,” and felt as much an outsider as in high school. The turning point came years later, when she met up with some B-CC graduates at Steamers Seafood House in Bethesda.
“I hung out with them,” the woman says. “It was casual and it was a really, really good time. I thought it would be great to have a reunion like that. Then I thought: Maybe I could pull that off.”
So she took on the 30th reunion—throwing it herself. She rented the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad’s banquet room and persuaded The Nighthawks, a local ’70s blues band whose founder, Mark Wenner, is a 1966 B-CC graduate, to play at the gathering.
“People started RSVPing like crazy,” she says.
The atmosphere at the party was casual and nostalgic, with lava lamps and retro candy. “Three years later, I still get emails about how great that party was,” she says. “Now I have all these friends from high school that I actually hang out with—people I never would’ve been friends with at B-CC. It’s been a very healing process.”
Except for one niggling little thing.
At the party, she recognized a woman who had been a cheerleader and one of the meanest girls in high school. The woman made sarcastic comments about her party-planning choices the entire evening.
I didn’t just watch the iconic teen movie The Breakfast Club, I lived it. I was the Ally Sheedy character: artistic, withdrawn, more of an observer than a cheerleader.
During my freshman year at Thomas S. Wootton High School, I had a brief flirtation with the “in crowd.” In ceramics class, I’d been lucky enough to score a seat next to a popular girl. Within weeks we’d bonded over Bon Jovi, and eventually I was invited to football games and house parties with the cool clique. But I couldn’t believe how much work it required. The rules. The regulations. The outfits. So I donned all black instead and watched from the sidelines with the other outliers. And when I finally graduated, I headed to New York and Los Angeles to establish a writing career.
In 2009, though, an illness brought me back to Montgomery County.
I was in a kickboxing class in 2010, my illness finally under control, pounding the bag with the best of them when I overheard the woman next to me commenting to her two friends on the tree-trunk thighs of the beautiful young woman in the next row. The three laughed and high-fived their boxing gloves.
In the weeks that followed, I watched as they jealously guarded their positions in the front row, talking only to each other and often whispering about someone else. Then I realized I knew them. They were the popular girls from high school, the ones I thought I’d left behind.
It got me wondering about the others in my graduating class—the rebel, the brain, the goth. Where were they now? As it happened, my high school reunion was coming up, and both that and Facebook made it easy to find out.
I learned that our class president, Adam Lipsius, owned a production company in Colorado and had just directed his first feature film, 16-Love. He’d been a creative force of nature in high school, helping our class raise enough money for a prom at The Ritz and graduation at the Kennedy Center, with enough left over to buy the school a fax machine. Little wonder he’d done well.
Then there was Dave Porter, who affected an asymmetrical haircut and had a penchant for wearing trench coats and combat boots. He’d moved to Los Angeles and was now the musical composer for AMC’s hit TV show Breaking Bad. His artistic and introverted nature had proved a perfect fit for the creative solitude of composing film scores.
At the reunion, which took place in August 2010, the class “geek” showed up in a Ferrari with his hot blond wife on his arm. Another classmate, a girl who’d been considered a nerd as well, now looked like a supermodel. (She’d married a plastic surgeon, but still…)
It was reassuring to learn that some people do transcend their high school identities. Perhaps they’re driven to do so because their high school years were so painful.
But the Mean Girls? They’d stayed behind, still clinging to the identities they’d forged in high school. And I had to wonder if geography really is destiny, if staying in place means being left behind in more ways than one.
Eventually an injury forced me to quit kickboxing, and I figured the Mean Girls were gone from my life. But as I was jogging in my Gaithersburg neighborhood one day, I ran into the Queen Bee.
She was sitting alone, looking at the lake there, and she seemed upset. I went over to say hello and we began talking. I learned that she and her high school sweetheart were going through a divorce. She felt lost and alone. She had barely acknowledged me in kickboxing class, yet she seemed to know all about me and my time in L.A.
“I wish I’d done what you did. Left here,” she said. “I wanted to do that with my life. Be famous or something.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I fell in love. I didn’t want to let him go.” And then she added, “Now I’ll never know what could’ve been.”
I then recalled another time in kickboxing when one of the Queen Bee’s two friends talked about maybe training for a marathon. “You don’t run,” the Queen laughed. The others laughed, too, the matter seemingly closed.
But I couldn’t help but feel the wannabe runner’s suffocation. She’d had the same two best friends for decades, and they weren’t going to let her outgrow them. Now the Queen Bee was realizing that in clinging to the past, she’d sacrificed a future.
That’s not to say that staying close and connected isn’t a good thing. I know another group of girls from high school who all live on the same street and married men who are also best friends. Now their children play together. I’m not sure it gets any better than that. But there’s something to be said for at least spreading your wings a bit, leaving the old labels behind and reinventing yourself. Perhaps it’s harder to do that when you see yourself as already on top.
When I left Montgomery County, I considered myself an outlier. But in the years since, I’ve reinvented myself, first as an actress; then as an author with a young-adult novel, The Possibility of Fireflies, to my credit; then as a screenwriter. The film based on my book is scheduled to begin shooting in Vancouver in November.
My return home was intended to be a brief detour before I resumed the life I felt I was meant to live. Not long after coming back, though, I met someone I soon began dating seriously. I asked him recently about his high school years. Imagine my dismay at learning that, despite my best efforts, I’d followed the same path as Ally Sheedy at the conclusion to The Breakfast Club: I’d fallen for The Jock.
Dominique Paul is an author and screenwriter living in Gaithersburg.
Gabriele McCormick, a freelance writer who lives in Urbana, is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine.