High School Survey, part 2

The final question in my survey about people’s high school experiences was open-ended and solicited people’s own words about high school. Using phenomenological research techniques, I found several themes in what people said. First of all, of the 48 people (72% of the total number of participants in the survey) who offered open-ended responses about their high school experience, 14 of them (29%) said they had a positive experience. 5 people noted that for them, middle school was worse than high school. One of the themes that emerged in people’s free-form responses was finding community – theater, band, camp, and academics all emerged as ways people found community. Seven of the 14 people who wrote about positive experiences in high school noted finding a community as part of what made high school good or at least more bearable. Nine other people mentioned community (for a total of 16 out of 48, or 33% of all the participants) but overall had negative feelings about high school. For these people, that was directly related to not finding community until they went to college, or to only finding community through things that were completely separate from high school, like camp.

Another theme that emerged was people’s attitudes changing. In some cases, this change occurred in high school, and this correlated with a more positive response in general. As one participant wrote: “I thought of high school as a cruel game, but a game that I played well. I was afraid that all of life would be like high school. Thank goodness that life is not like high school. I have been much happier ever since.” For other people, however, the attitude shift did not come until later, as in the participant who wrote that they could “finally be honest.” Another participant wrote that their “complete lack of self-esteem” colored their experience, and this got better once they got older. Several others noted that they “cared less” about other people’s opinions or “brushed off negativity” more easily as they got older. Four people articulated being “depressed” or haivng had passive suicidal thoughts when they were in high school. All total, 17 people (35%) mentioned some kind of attitude shift in their response.

It’s worth pausing to note that five people (10%) spoke about a negative attitude shift – wherein their perception of life got worse after high school. One wrote about being a proud and happy “radical feminist dyke” in high school who then had to “get sober” before she could “get back to the fabulous woman I was in high school.” Another person wrote about feeling like “there are still bullies” and that life post-high school is “built very much on the high school model.” A third person wrote that they loved high school, but none of their “outrageous expectations” for themselves turned out to have been met. A fourth person wrote that high school was a “slog” and while college was “very fun” life for them, raising childre, is “ a slog again. “ Finally, a fifth person wrote the powerful line that “I find fewer kindred spirits in ‘real life’ than I did in high school or college” and spoke about “real life” being more boring and mundane than high school was.

Two people wrote about being invisible in high school. Both had generally negative things to say about high school, as one might expect, but one noted that that once in college “I found my tribe.” Another one noted that middle school was worse because being left alone was better than being picked on, and then connected their positive shift with the third theme that emerged: freedom. That participant wrote “I was one of the lucky ones to get away AND find what I need.”

All total, nine people (19%) mentioned finding some sort of freedom post-high school, making this the third most prevalent theme in the open-ended responses. One person wrote simply “Much better. It was a fresh start in a new city” – indicating they were able to find freedom in high school and this allowed them to have a positive experience. Another partipant wrote about being a transgender male, and finding the freedom but in being independent in general (“I was expected to be independent when I turned 18 and knew I would be happier on my own”) but also finding freedom in the realization that he could transition and live as a male: “If I knew how much more comfortable I’d be, I might have transitioned earlier.” Another person found freedom in being able to travel outside of the United States, while others found freedom in seeing increased options or less rigidity outside of high school. One person wrote “I thought that high school was pretty much like life would be, but with fewer people and fewer options” and another wrote “Always looked forward to being able to eat where I wanted at lunch and not having a bell tell me where to go every hour.” Another person wrote aobut finding some community through music, and healing in music itself, but more signficantly realizing after high school “I have the choice of who I hang around. Still another person found freedom in leaving their “close-minded town”, similar to the person at the end of the previous paragraph. It’s interesting to note that while sexuality and gender identity figured into a lot of people’s responses, many others wrote about mixed experiences of high school for completely unrelated reasons – something the first part of the survey also revealed. High school is a hard place for a lot of people – being gay or trans is just one reason why it can be hard.

I appreciate everyone who participated, and especially those 48 of you who took the time to offer open-ended responses. I had a really good time reading and analyzing the results, and while what I found might not be particularly mindblowing, it was validating to see it in writing. In other people’s writing. It really does get better – because if we are lucky, we find community, we have more freedom and independence, and we grow as people and see the world and ourselves differently.

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~ by realsupergirl on December 23, 2010.

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