Take Your Seats

What does high school really teach us?

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Shannon Sorenson

Everyone reading this loved high school, right? High school was one long pizza party, correct? None of you were awkward or stressed out or plagued by a string of social embarrassments broken up by occasional cannon blasts of pop culture, junk food, and hormonal imbalances? No one wished they were someone else? No one went to bed each night to stare at their dark plaster celling, wondering why reality just doesn’t jive with the expectations of parents, peers, teachers, television, and a mob of marketing executives screaming something different at you every day. Right?

No one ever felt, back in high school, like they weren’t good enough? Like you were built wrong? Like you were alone?

I’m being sarcastic. I mean the opposite of what I write. Because I suspect some of you, in fact, did not particularly enjoy high school. At the very least, it was probably a mixed bag.

I’ve heard people muse that no one ever gets over high school. That we’re always basically who we became back then. The insecurities and fears we develop get etched onto our bones, and they never go away. We just learn to live with them. 

Even when the stakes are higher. Even when the problems are more complex and the goal posts have moved. Even if you eventually get the stuff you always wanted – even then – the core of who you are is whatever you forged back in high school. 

If you were kind, that’s still in you. If you were an asshole, that’s still in you. Somewhere, that kid is still living inside you, and you can listen to them, or you can ignore them. 

That’s what I’ve heard. And I don’t know about all that. I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist. I’m not even good at having basic conversations with other human beings. But I know this:

I hated the desks in high school. 

My high school had these old, metal, one-piece desks. They were fabricated during a time in American history when teenagers were lean, athletic creatures yearning to hit the soda shoppe after school. That was not me. I was a chubby, shuffling creature who enjoyed Pop-Tarts for breakfast and couldn’t get Snow’s “Informer” from playing on a relentless loop inside his skull. 

These desks where not made for me. 

I had to squeeze into them. The desk part always dug into my stomach, a constant reminder that my belly was ... there. The wooden panels on the back of the seat where always loose and squeaky. The compartment under the seat was usually too small for my books and binders, which often spilled onto the floor. They smelled weird and metallic. They were wholly unpleasant. 

Because I went to a Catholic high school, I can only assume these desks where crafted using secret, mystic technology devised by the Church for the Spanish Inquisition. They’re probably diagrammed on a dusty, tattered scroll tucked deep within the subterranean Vatican archives.

Totally factual history aside, believe me when I tell you these desks made me feel awful. They amplified my insecurities. I obsessed over how they made my body feel. It was a distraction. Eventually, I developed an anxiety about these desks. And that anxiety is still with me today, though it has morphed and mutated over the years. 

We all have hangups like this, right? 

I know this desk thing is nothing – nothing – compared to what many of you went through back in high school. It’s not that big of a deal. But for me, it’s a reminder. I try to remember that we are all dealing with stuff. Big stuff and small stuff. Bad stuff and good stuff. And we’ve been dealing with it for decades. 

I guess, in a way, high school has taught me that the least we can do is give each other a little patience.