Upon entering a party recently at my high school reunion, I met a woman who lived for four years in the dorms with me, but led a very different existence. I remember her as funny, smart, and very engrossed in what she and her friends were doing. I remember feeling that she was laughing at me. I remember watching Dallas lightening storms together with others in her dorm room. I don’t remember her being unhappy, but I do remember my being so.
When I saw her, I asked her how often she had come to reunion. ”This is my first one, and I’m really nervous,” she confessed.
“Really!?” I said, surprised that she hadn’t been involved before now. ”Why not?”
“Because girls were mean and I was just so glad to get out of here,” she said. “But I guess after 25 years, it’s time to face it.”
I was stunned at how many girls in our class were coming back for the first time- or only the second time. And all of us had the same story- “I didn’t like the pressure… I was scared to see everyone… I didn’t have fun then and didn’t see why I should… I loved my education, but the girls, not so much.”
It made me think about how many of my own fears were shared- and how ungrounded.
And it made me think of how so many of us had responded to pressure- both inside and outside, by avoiding the place and the people connected with that pressure.
Pressure’s a funny thing. The only way to get diamonds from coal is to provide a lot of pressure over time. Certainly, our school provided academic pressure. We were given high expectations, asked to analyze and evaluate, and provided strong instruction. We wrote papers longer than most I wrote in college. I learned the five-paragraph formula, the function formula, and the formula for benzene. I took Calculus, Organic Chemistry and AP English, as well as Latin and Latin American History. It was a curriculum designed to produce not just college-bound, but graduate-school-bound students.
And such academic pressure added to social pressures. All students in high school feel social pressure. Recent, and very sad reports about bullying certainly show that. There are the Queen Bees and the WannaBees, and if you’re not on the inside, you’re on the outside. You’re solidly in one clique and excluded from others. In high school, you’re trying so hard to fit in, anything that causes you to stand out is kept hidden. The hiding can cause its own internal pressure. Many women finally shared the drama in their lives that they had kept private in high school- alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, bulimia- even a hidden marriage! But when you’re expected to be academically, athletically and personally perfect- that’s a whole lotta pressure.
Expecially when the pressure comes from inside… not just outside.
One of the challenges of gifted education is the role of expectations. So many gifted children feel that they have to live up to a certain level of expectation- and if they don’t, then they are failures. And some people crumble. We had one girl from our graduating class of 93 commit suicide in her 20s - a fact whispered about, not discussed openly. Perhaps not statistically significant, but a very, very significant loss. Was it because of the pressure of expectations? I have no idea. But I can see the toll pressure took on so many others. In some cases, it took 25 years before we could face each other again.
Interestingly enough, college for most of us was great fun. College was significantly easier than high school- academically and socially. Many of us reported that we were not only well-prepared for college, we were bored. Several people talked about being bored in their adult lives- that their career was not exciting, that their neighbors were not people who were interested in the same things that they were. The pressure from high school was released- some looked back on it fondly and many, many others did not.
The great irony, of course, is that by any measure, the women in my graduating class are “successful”. Some are financially successful. Some are personally successful. Some are surviving- and that, given their circumstances, IS success. And many of us have matured enough to recognize that we have to live up to our own expectations and not the expectations of others.
Interestingly, we have much more in common with each other now than we did in high school. Pehaps we’re listening more and expecting less. But I do have to say- the pressure cooker of high school created an awful lot of diamonds that I now call “friend”.