When Stereotypes Grow Up

I’ve been thinking a lot about high school recently. With the last 4 years of my life mining experiences I had during high school to turn into my debut feature film Acid Test and my recent 25th high school reunion, this is obvious, but I wasn’t expecting the perspective shift that I experienced in the process.

I was raised with The Breakfast Club as the iconic high school experience, the message being that even though there were stereotypes and divisions, we were able to bridge those differences toward a common goal and were, underneath it all, essentially the same.

Not that we stopped stereotyping. I find that I’m often particularly hypocritical about it. I hate being put in a box myself, have struggled with gender and other identity issues over the years, and I love exploring other people’s psyche’s and being compassionate or considerate to different viewpoints. Yet. When it comes to my high school classmates, I have them firmly catalogued in my brain based on the groups and stereotypes that they belonged to.

My brother, who was 7 years younger than me in school, was one of the first challenges to my cataloguing system when he was both a jock and a musician and a brain. By the time he was in high school, the lines seemed to be blurring and when I tried to catalogue him, his friends, his peers, he rejected it. Kind of like when grandparents ask my boys if they have a girlfriend and my girls if they have a boyfriend without thinking that maybe they are not heterosexual. It’s the default bias.

I found all this interesting at the time, but it didn’t particularly challenge my own thinking until the advent of Facebook. Now, I could friend people that I never was actually friends with at the time (if they would accept my invite) and the wonders of the internet provided glimpses into people, their journey, their growth as humans, that I would’ve never had insight into.

First, there was my childhood bully who became a doctor and started posted loving pictures of his kid. Then there were two jocks who became incredible artists. Another came recently with the Coronavirus pandemic where another bully from school posted about his work as a doctor on the front lines, his fellow doctors, and the support, love, and respect he had for his wife and kids and everyone out there. I read these posts in disbelief that someone who, in my mind, had done horrible things could be so compassionate, considerate, thoughtful, mature, and contributing to make the world a better place. Honestly, it was hard for me to accept.

And then came the time I posted to Facebook an image from my senior yearbook which was supposed to be an index to find our pages and had various snarky comments on where we would see these seniors “In the Future.” Mine made reference to the fact that I was constantly making out with my boyfriend. Others poked fun a the nerdy students. One described the senior as a creepy stalker. Coming from people who were not my friends, these weren’t friendly teases but snide remarks from people with power to put it into print. Fellow alums chimed in about how snarky they were and how they didn’t even want to look theirs up. And then the person who actually edited the yearbook, the person responsible for these comments chimed in, apologizing for being such a bitch back then. I was stunned. Surely, I had awful moments in my life, in my stupidity as a youth (and as an adult too) where I’ve apologized to people I cared about. But this person didn’t owe me anything. It was so long ago, who cares right? But obviously, I kind of cared, the people responding cared, and the person responsible cared that this was somehow reflective of who she was – of who she became. And looking back on that, she was no longer that person.

Finally, there was my 25th high school reunion that was held over Zoom. I’ve only been to a couple of my high school reunions over the years, but normally you end up talking to people that you talked to when you were in high school. You catch up with old friends. Rarely do you cross those social lines. I remember at one of the reunions I went to how surprised and almost disappointed I was that everyone had grown up and taken grown up jobs like becoming lawyers and doctors. That feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, the idea that you could be anything, go anywhere, met with the sobering reality that many of us didn’t go that far from home and didn’t do anything terribly exotic. Why was I expecting to go to my high school reunion and somehow travel back in time to how we were then?

On Zoom, we had a beautifully moderated “catch up” with everyone who attended (about 40% of the class). It was an opportunity to hear from people you might not have ever talked to. And while people’s personalities seemed similar to when they were in high school, their maturity and presence as human beings were very different than what I had held in my mind over the years. For many people, there wasn’t a huge jump in their category. The Brain was still the Brain. The Do-Gooder was still the Do-Gooder, it was only a rare handful that switched. But what struck me the most was how everyone had done something that, back in high school, was the BIG question: They had found their place in the world, started raising families, had a confidence and an authority in their world that I marveled at. We had become adults. And that was okay. It was even good.

I read somewhere that within families, it can be very hard to break the dynamics because when adult children return home, they revert to their old identity. No matter how they are in their adult lives, they regress and become kids again. I see it with my own family, the frustration that I’m not seen as an adult and capable of living my own life as well as a difficulty with respecting my brother as an adult who doesn’t need a babysitter anymore. High school is in many ways just an extended family. Four years quarantined with the same human beings as you change and grow and start to put your first steps forward into adulthood. In many ways, I’m sorry I judged so many for their missteps or for their first attempts when I know my own first attempts left much to be desired.

Overall, though, I’m so happy to know that humans can grow and change and become decent people and that what we see through the lens of high school is nothing to judge from.

Interestingly, there’s been some recent parallels in that have challenged this notion. Did Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school discredit the work, career, and man he had become in his adulthood? Is there a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed? Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar speech spoke about the power of change and forgiveness when he acknowledged that he had done terrible things and was given second chances. There’s obviously a race and socio-economic factor where white men are acquitted or given probation instead of jail for rape or drugs or fill-in-the-blank that black men would receive a maximum sentence for. There’s a beautiful poem “Beyond this Place” where poet and Creative Writing teacher Clint Smith muses on black men who are judged by the worst decision of their lives. Where is the growth, maturity, and second chances for them? I have strong feelings about what’s okay and what’s not okay and especially the political elements make everything more complicated, convoluted, and frustrating. But it doesn’t change the basic question.

I don’t want to generalize and assume based on social media that these people have hearts of gold and never make mistakes or hurt people. But it was a reminder of how important it is to challenge your own biases, where you’ve boxed someone into an identity that they don’t inhabit any longer and maybe never did. Especially with the people you judged negatively. Be honest with yourself and with those around you, as much as you are able. Love people as they are. Accept them as they are. Let them grow and change. Hopefully, it’ll be for the better.