By Daniel Rigney
Meryl Streep and I graduated from college in 1971. Different colleges – hers in New York, mine in Texas. She went on to a brilliant career. I went on.
Despite the fact that we were born in the same country just days apart, somehow our paths never crossed in real life, though I’ve seen and admired her in movie theaters on several occasions.
Streep graduated from Vassar after having spent a semester abroad at Dartmouth, about the same time I spent a summer abroad in Washington, D.C. We were briefly on the east coast together. The coincidences just keep coming.
In any case, in 1983, Streep gave the commencement address at her alma mater. I’ll never forget something she said that day. Not because I was there, but because I heard it mentioned on NPR recently while driving creatively through the obstacle course that is Houston traffic.
Streep said -- and it rang true immediately -- that life is like high school. Not like college. Not a box of chocolates. Not a brief candle. Not an actor who struts and frets her hour upon the stage.
Life is like high school.
For Streep, “high school” meant public school in an affluent suburb of New York. Like Streep, I attended a surburban public high school, but this one was in industrial Beaumont, Texas, gateway to Louisiana. My school, Forest Park, neither forested nor parklike, was on the growing west end of Beaumont (French for “beautiful mountain,” though the city was a good day’s drive from the nearest large hill).
Our mascot had the same name as America’s best-selling condom, which made for some amusing football cheers. Our colors were blue and gray to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Our affiliated junior high’s colors were red and gray, the colors of Confederate army uniforms, and its mascot was “the Rebels,” incarnated in an angry fiberglass Johnny Reb. In Beaumont, our New York City was Houston, the throbbing cultural heart of southeast Texas.
Ms. Streep’s high school and mine were hardly clones of each other. Yet when I heard that she’d likened life to high school, I was struck by a bolt of recognition.
Yes, Meryl, I said to myself. That’s it. Life is like high school.
I won't rehearse here the standard pols/jocks/cheerleaders/nerds/hoods analysis of high school society. I’m talking instead about the overlapping gossip networks, the hallway intrigues, the awkward moments, the bullying, the adolescent elite, some of whom would go on to become the corporate elite and middle management -- often the same kids who promoted something called “school spirit,” the micro-patriotism of the secondary-school world.
For some students, there was the experience of being the new kid in school. For others there was the experience of having the wrong pigment or accent or family or shoes or ride to school. (I rode the gigantic yellow stretch limo.)
There were kids whose names you’ve forgotten and the kids whose names you never knew.
Did I mention those awkward moments? We’ve all had them. Add your personal examples here. Use several sheets if needed.
After graduation (for most of us) it was on to more school, or to the workforce, or to political parties, or to corporate parties, or into religious or irreligious organizations. It was on to the upmarket mall, or the downmarket mall, or (for some) the mall in Washington D.C. where the hoovervilles are.
I submit that in each and all of these venues it’s still high school. Which cliques, if any, were you in? Which are you in now?
There are still people whose names we know. People whose names we’ve forgotten. People whose names we never knew and will never know, and couldn’t possibly know in a world school of seven billion students.
Meryl Streep was right. Life is like a high school. A big high school with campuses around the world, to be sure, but a high school nonetheless.
Daniel Rigney is author of The Metaphorical Society and The Matthew Effect.