Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about many scary things: the firebombing of Dresden, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the specter of individuals controlled by the state or by technology. But the most unnerving image he ever put on paper may have been this, written when he was 47 years old, recounting the words of a fellow Indianapolis high school grad: "When you get to be our age, you all of a sudden realize that you are being ruled by people you went to high school with ... You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school."
It's a chilling vision. The cutthroat competition, ruthless power plays and rigid status hierarchy all extended into eternity? Even those of us who liked high school wouldn't want to spend a lifetime there.
Or maybe we do. Popular culture is dominated by depictions of high school: Glee and Gossip Girl, High School Musical and Prom. Earlier generations mined the same terrain, from Grease and The Breakfast Club to Beverly Hills, 90210 and My So-Called Life. Our educational system is fixated on the performance of high school students, the key to their all-important college admissions. Social-networking sites mean you never have to lose touch with your friends from high school. And every spring we enter the prom-commencement-reunion cycle, a trifecta of tearjerkers that suggest that high school is still very much with us. The latest trend is "adult proms": formal dances for grownups, complete with sequined dresses and rented tuxedos, which are being held this spring in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Beverly, Mass.; Decatur, Ga.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Prom the way you always wanted it," read the ad for an adult prom in Green Bay, Wis.
Are those four fraught years the crucible in which our adult identities are forged, or are they a passing phase, faded as an orchid corsage? I found myself confronted by this question when the phone rang at my house this spring. "Hello, Annie," said the startlingly familiar voice on the other end. "This is Mr. Frank." In an instant, the 20 years since I graduated from high school evaporated, and I was back in his 11th-grade history class--back in the world of pop quizzes, of homeroom and gym class, of cafeteria cliques and student-body elections. But Mr. Frank was calling to invite me to be the commencement speaker at this year's graduation.
I couldn't have been more flabbergasted if he had called to award me a Nobel Prize. I had been a quiet and studious teenager, a bespectacled wallflower among the chatty debutantes and lacrosse players at my all-girls private school. I bloomed later, in college, where I wrote a column for the school newspaper and co-edited a campus magazine; as an adult, I became a journalist and an author--which, presumably, is why my school asked me to speak. But what would I say? My idiosyncratic path toward career and family would seem to offer little guidance to young people on the matters they find most pressing: What does the future hold for them? How will their teenage experiences affect their adult lives? Will the identities they formed in high school carry over into the real world, or will they be able, if they choose, to leave them behind?