On Isolation and Belonging: Stories We Tell Ourselves 25 Years After High School

Aug 18, 2017
Originally published on August 18, 2017 3:22 pm

It's been 25 years since I graduated from Idaho Falls High School. It's not a milestone I'd necessarily mark on my own, but I found myself strangely disappointed a few months ago when a classmate who was trying to organize a reunion for this summer wrote to say she wound up too busy to plan one.

Maybe it's just where I'm at in my life, maybe it's being a parent of young kids, but I've found myself thinking more and more about my high school years.

High school was complicated for me. I did well. I wasn't the most popular kid, but I had enough friends. But especially in my junior and senior years I felt increasingly isolated. All my friends were wrapped up in relationships with boyfriends. I definitely wasn't. I started drifting away from things that used to be important to me. I quit the soccer team. I started spending more time by myself because that was easier than the performing that came with being out with friends who I didn't understand anymore. The town started to feel suffocating, and I just wanted out.

For many of us, high school meant being what we think we're supposed to be. It didn't matter if you were on the student council, an athlete, one of the cool kids or a kid on the fringes: the high school experience is often defined by insecurity.

The milestone got me wanting to understand how people thought back on themselves. How did they thrive or survive? How did they feel they fit into the high school hierarchy? How did feeling on the outside shape the kind of adults they became?

So I reconnected with some of my fellow classmates and our old English teacher for a series of conversations that aired on Morning Edition. Yes, this is personal and particular, but at the same time, these stories reveal something universal about those years and the kind of isolation so many people feel. They're stories about people finding — or not finding — their place in a high school, and then beyond. That search for a sense of belonging might feel familiar.

Eric Hsu

Married lawyer with two small children in New Jersey

Idaho Falls was a town of just under 50,000 people in the early 1990s. The biggest employer is the Idaho National Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy's big nuclear facilities, and the reason Eric Hsu's parents moved to Idaho Falls from the Midwest where they were educated.

Originally they're from China — which means Eric and his parents automatically stood out. Idaho Falls is rural, white and overwhelmingly Mormon. He was none of those things. But Eric, Idaho Falls High School class of 1992 senior class president, didn't see himself as different.

His identity was shaped by what he saw – which, he says, was a "monoculture."

"It's Caucasian, mainstream, many of them are [Mormon]. It's this very clean-cut world, and that's what I am because I'm a mirror of what I see," he says. "I am laughing at their jokes and I want to dress like them and I am thinking of myself the way I think of them. Now of course, first of all that's not true because the great tragedy is that they would see some difference."

There is one memory from high school though that particularly haunts him.

"I remember during some of our school assemblies the cool thing was to do hilarious skits that you wrote. Some of the stuff we came up with was just horrendously bigoted, like you're making fun of ... [Skyline High School across town] and you're just using what we know to be slurs now," he says. "We would make fun of 'Skyline gays.' That was like a specific phrase that we would use in front of the entire school in assemblies — which I'm horrified to think of that now. I know why that happened. And ... it was cool among a certain crowd to say that and I didn't have the awareness to know what that meant."

Looking back, he says he would ask himself not to pander to get a laugh. "I was thoughtless," he says. "I would want to just be compassionate and think for myself a little bit."

Ken Lance

Married software engineer with six kids in Idaho Falls, Idaho

In small towns, by the time you get to high school, you have known the other students since grade school. And that means lots of history.

"I had a couple things going against me. I mean, one of which was I was socially awkward and a wiseass. What that came across as is I was just astonishingly annoying," says Ken Lance. "I also wasn't coordinated. I wasn't athletically capable. And so much of how you know people is how aggressively you play together."

It made him an easy target, and other kids made fun of him.

He muddled his way through middle school, and by the time he got to high school, he had resigned himself to being on the outside.

"I remember when I was a junior, I actually invited somebody to a dance, and I asked kind of out of the blue clumsily, and they said yes, and it was kind of an awkward experience because I'd never been to a dance before," he says.

But the couple's formal pictures taken that night revealed to him something heartbreaking.

"You sit there and you put your hand behind the girl's back and you hold her other hand to show off the corsage. Thing is that the pictures they took were full body and so you could see that she was actually standing uncomfortably on one foot," he says. "It just sorta changed the whole picture to one where she was feeling so awkward to even be in a picture so close to me. And then of course we went to the dance and just kind of sat there."

He says going to college allowed him to start over — and he was forced to be social all the time. That process of changing took years, he says, and he remembers even after college, when he returned to Idaho Falls, he worried he'd be seen as that same awkward kid. "But in fact part of that fear though was predicated on some perception that I had that those people wouldn't have changed either — which is short sighted," he says.

Ken did wind up working with someone he recognized from high school. He looked him up in a yearbook and discovered he was "a guy that did a fair amount of tormenting."

He says the former classmate later approached him and said he'd also recognized Ken. "And I was just almost paralyzed with fear. And he says, 'You know, I gotta apologize. I had a lot of bad stuff going on in my life back then and I wasn't as considerate a person as I would've wanted to be.' And it just floored me," Ken says.

"If you think yourself being worthy of derision from every angle, having somebody remember you is one thing. Having somebody remember you, come up and apologize, that's something altogether else," Ken says.

Though he knows he paints a pretty bleak picture of feeling isolated in high school, he says it comes with some hopeful perspective: it gets better. "I've seen some real beauty in the world. I've had some wonderful life experiences. I've got a family who I adore. I've got a job that I do well at. And yeah, I still struggle with things sometimes, but it's important to always remember that it gets better," he says.

Shirley Murphy

Retired English Literature teacher living most of the year in Florida

Shirley Murphy says she'd still be teaching English lit at Idaho Falls High School if it weren't for all the papers to grade.

"That's the only reason! I miss students. I don't miss papers!" she says.

She and her husband moved to Florida after retiring in 2008, but they kept their home in Idaho Falls and come back every summer for a few weeks to get a dose of mountain air and reconnect with friends. She's called Idaho Falls home since 1972 after growing up in Georgia, a long way geographically and culturally from this rural town in Idaho. Idaho Falls was not a particularly diverse place back then. It's still predominantly white and Mormon.

She was Idaho Falls High School's only African-American teacher for the four years the graduating class of 1992 was enrolled there.

"When I first got here I asked my husband what had he gotten me into because I did not see anyone who looked like me. But I saw people who acted like me. They were friendly," she says.

The lack of exposure to African-Americans like her left people with a lot of questions and some stereotypes, too. For an example, she says, the Avon lady came to her house and said things like "Every time I come to your house it's always clean" and "You only have two kids" and "Do you know that they are building a Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

"I knew exactly where she was coming from," she says. "I said, 'You know, I don't even eat chicken.' Threw her off. And I love chicken and she could not believe that I did not like chicken, that I only had two kids. She couldn't understand.

"But you see, as opposed to becoming offended I used that time as a teaching tool," she says.

Each year, she led an assembly around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where the student body would gather in the gym and ask her questions about what it was like to be an African-American.

"I wanted to create a safe zone for the students to ask the question that they've always wanted to know regardless of whether they thought they knew the answer," she says.

She says during multicultural week, she had a lot of white students who told her they felt left out because they didn't have an opportunity to go and talk about their race.

"I said, 'Excellent. I'm glad you came to talk to me about that. So if you feel that way for a week, how do you think these students feel the other weeks?' " she says.

Morning Edition's Emily Ochsenschlager and Jacob Pinter as well as web producer Heidi Glenn contributed to this story.

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