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But she remains in touch with her inner outsider. "I'm still a dork," she claims. "I'm sure my dorkiness has helped me in my work--helped me to connect with teenagers and convey their sense of the world in my writing." Robbins wants kids who are suffering through high school now to know what she's come to realize in retrospect. "There is nothing wrong with you just because you haven't yet met people who share your interests or outlook on life," she tells readers of The Geeks. "Unless you are doing something unhealthy or destructive, take pride in your beliefs, passions and values. Know that you will eventually meet people who will appreciate you for being you."
For some unhappy teens, though, life is bad in high school and threatens to stay that way if they don't get help. For these students--the ones with drug and alcohol problems, the ones who are bullied and harassed, the ones who drop out of school altogether--intervention by adults is more important than ever, says Crosnoe. "Education is critical to making our way in today's society, especially today's economy, and kids who miss out on the full academic and social experience of high school will feel the effects of that lack reverberate through their lives for many years to come."
For the rest of us, high school is one important experience among many--a lasting influence but hardly determinative. In the study by Zax and Rees, the authors ended on an unexpected note. "The most striking result," they said, was how little they were able to predict about people's adult lives from characteristics measured in adolescence. At least 75% of the variation seen among people in middle age couldn't be foretold from what they were like in high school--meaning, they wrote, that "there is plenty of opportunity for individuals to rise above or fall below the level to which their endowments and environment might direct them."
This, I've decided, is what I'll tell the class of 2011 at my high school: Don't put any limits on what you think you can do. I was a shy, bookish teenager who hid behind long hair. Now I go on television to talk about my books and articles and give speeches without feeling a single butterfly. What you'll become may be beyond your imagining now. Who, after all, would have predicted that a long-haired loner like Bruce Springsteen from Freehold High School in New Jersey would become the Boss? That Barry Obama, the scholarship kid at Punahou School in Hawaii, would become President of the United States?
Or consider the student who was the Tuesday editor of his high school's daily newspaper, the kid who worked at the family hardware store in the summer, the one affectionately called Snarf by his classmates for absentmindedly sniffing his armpits. Who would have predicted he'd go on to write Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle? To his classmates, he was just "Kurt Snarfield Vonnegut Jr.," as the gibe in his high school yearbook went.
But that was before: before Vonnegut fought in a world war, before he fell in love with his wife and raised his children, before he trained his keen eye and acid tongue on the foibles of American society. The same society that just loves to reminisce about high school.