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50th Reunion Spurs Memories

by Ken Potts

Posted: July 21, 2019

Thoughts of the 'In' crowd…

I knew it was coming. But I was still a bit surprised.

"50th Anniversary High School Class Reunion."

Fifty years? Almost against my will, my mind wandered back to my high school years, especially to memories of my classmates.

Not fond memories, I guess I should add. I wasn't an athlete or a student leader, certainly not "Mr. Popularity." I guess I was a decent student, but that was about it. And in my high school, that didn't count for much.

I've come a long way since then. I feel pretty good about myself and my life. But I can't help wondering about the kids I went to school with who did stand out, who seemed to have everything going for them. Where are they now?

A few years ago, a team of researchers attempted to answer just that question. They looked at the high school star athletes, student leaders, top scholars, cheerleaders -- the popular students and where they were in their lives 10, 15 and 20 years later.

What they discovered might give us pause, especially when we think about our own children entering the teen years. For it seems that being a high school standout can be as much a curse as a blessing.

Though some of such adolescent "superstars" continued to excel as adults, a significant number seemed stalled, stagnant or stuck in their life's development. They did not follow up their early success with similar accomplishments in their adult later years.

Obviously, the researchers tried to figure out why. They came up with three explanations.

First, they suggested some of what they were observing was simply the old "big fish in a small pond" idea. High school is a small pond when compared to our society as a whole.

When we consider the number of high schools, and thus the number of "small pond" big fish coming out of them, it makes sense that we can't have that many standouts in the big pond of the adult world. There is only so much room for successful professional athletes, actors, models, scholars, politicians, and other high-profile adult pursuits.

Second, some of the high school superstars seemed to have learned a set of skills that worked in high school, but not in the real world.

High school, it seems, had taught some of them that excelling in athletics, cultivating popularity and looking good were enough.

And as we've all experienced, such skills often aren't enough. There is an entirely different set of skills, including reading, writing, arithmetic, thinking logically, planning, persevering and working with others that we must have if we are going to achieve -- or even survive -- as adults. Sadly, these skills don't always fit into the high school fast track.

Third, the researchers observed that many of the high school standouts seemed to have given up on themselves. They felt discouraged, disillusioned, defeated and let down by the world.

They had "peaked early" and easily. Success had come so soon, and with so little real struggle, that they were not prepared for the deflating experience of the adult struggle of choosing a direction, of starting out slowly, of stumbling and falling, of growing weary, of losing their way.

They wound up looking back longingly for those "glory days" and losing confidence in their adult selves and the adult world.

For those of us who were not "in with the in crowd," there may be some secret satisfaction in the results of this research. Perhaps "they're finally getting theirs."

But my guess is that we can feel some sympathy for these folks, too. We've struggled enough in our own lives to realize that, ultimately, we're all on the same journey.

I am planning on going to my 50th reunion. It will be my first. I no longer see those people as standouts, superstars or part of the "in" crowd. They're just people like me, trying to get by. And I guess I'd like to see how we're all doing.


Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of SamaraCare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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Posted: July 21, 2019

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