Welcome to high school. If we were living twenty or thirty years ago, this is the week when the Seniors would have initiated you into high school. Freshman initiation is really no longer practiced, but when it was, it usually involved the Seniors giving the Freshmen a hard time for a few days. I attended a classical Christian school back in the 1990s, when Freshman initiation was still allowed, and for my class it meant having to do pushups, being dressed up in silly wigs, and getting marched around downtown carrying a sign and chanting, “No more protests!” all at the command of the Seniors. At the end of a rather tame week of pranks and ersatz bullying, the seniors threw us a little party and welcomed us into the club.
Around twenty years ago, a spate of horror stories about hazing at college fraternities and military academies hit the news and initiations of all kinds were put on hold. At the same time these horror stories hit the news, an important change was taking place in the way American parents raised their children. Simply put, American parents were becoming very sentimental about their children. Sentimentalism is simply a belief that no pain is ever justifiable. Even though you are only fourteen or fifteen, perhaps you have already met some sentimental parents. Your friends might have sentimental parents.
When I say that sentimentalism is a belief no pain is ever justifiable, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is parents who do not spank their children. If you have friends who were not spanked when young, they have probably repeated to you the reasons their parents gave for not spanking. Your unspanked friends may say things like, “How do you teach a child not to hit others by hitting them?”
By the time you’re in high school, though, spanking or not spanking is a long way back in the rearview mirror, but sentimentalism is not. Sentimental parenting still exists when children enter high school, it simply takes different forms. In high school, sentimentalism involves parents complaining to teachers, “My son is very discouraged by the C he got on his essay,” because everyone knows that teachers can give whatever grades they want on essays, so they might as well give A’s because A’s make students feel good, whereas C’s make them feel less good. The question of whether a student deserves a C is often unimportant, as is the question of whether it will be better in the long run for a student who deserves a C to receive a C. Sentimentalism also involves parents telling teachers, “My son is working very hard in your class so you should give him higher grades,” as though hard work should always pay off immediately and exactly in the ways we want it to pay off. Truth be told, there are plenty of parents who spank their children when young and nonetheless say these sorts of things when their children are older.
Given how common these sentiments are, even among classical Christian families, it is no surprise that freshman initiation is no longer practiced, because freshman initiation involves the infliction of a little pain for reasons that strike most Modern people as unnecessary and arbitrary. “What good,” asks the concerned mother or father, “could it possibly accomplish to harass and embarrass freshmen students? High school is already a time of life where human beings suffer from self-doubt and low self-esteem, hazing them will only make things worse. Some people are scarred for life by hazing.” Despite the fact that teenage depression is far higher now than it has ever been, and despite the fact far more teenagers now report feelings of alienation and worthlessness than they did twenty-five years ago, and despite the fact that teenage suicide has been rising fairly steadily over the last fifteen years, there are nonetheless a good many people who feel as though we are far better off today because sentimental parenting has become common and things like freshman hazing no longer take place.
I am not necessarily arguing that we should bring freshman hazing back, because the problem is not that we have gotten rid of freshman hazing. The problem is that we have replaced freshman initiation with freshman affirmation. Twenty years ago, becoming a freshman meant enduring the seniors calling you a “runt” and a “worm.” Today, becoming a freshman means enduring everyone telling you, “Congratulations! You’re amazing. You’re going to change the world,” which, ironically enough, has proven to be even more demoralizing and dehumanizing than being called a “runt” and a “worm.”
The people responsible for doing away with freshman initiation never honestly questioned why freshman initiation existed in the first place, although any high school teacher could have told you. Freshman initiation existed because freshmen typically think entirely too highly of themselves. They believe that moving beyond middle school is a great achievement and so, having entered high school, they tend to behave like top seeded amateurs when they are actually bottom ranked pros. To be fair, though, at the end of 8th grade you had accomplished something. But as high school students, you’ve accomplished nothing. This same precipitous drop will happen again in four years. The coolest guy on his high school campus is a nobody the day he shows up at college.
This is not the first time you have experienced this precipitous drop. It happened several years ago when you quit playing with toys. You may remember a certain Christmas when your parents bought you an amazing toy sword which you thought the coolest thing you had ever seen. You took it to your friend’s house expecting he would be jealous, but his parents had purchased him a real pocket-knife. At seeing his real pocket-knife, your fake plastic sword seemed spectacularly unimpressive and stupid, even though it looked just like the sword Captain Jack Sparrow uses in Pirates of the Caribbean. The fact that your friend’s pocket-knife was only a few inches long did not matter, because it was real. Girls, you might remember something very similar happening on a certain Christmas years ago when you received a beautiful doll from your parents, only to discover that one of your friends received a tube of real lipstick from hers. Granted, a pocket-knife isn’t particularly impressive when compared to a twelve-inch Bowie knife with a whale ivory handle, and a cheap tube of Target lipstick isn’t much compared to a Coach cosmetic case filled with designer makeup, but both the pocket-knife and the Target lipstick are real. In both situations, your friends had entered a higher reality, and the price for entering a higher reality is going back to the bottom. In order to go on to the next reality, the higher reality, you always have to be willing to go back to zero. This will be true for the rest of your life.
The thing is, going back to zero is painful.
In the past, freshman initiation was a way of reminding freshmen they had gone back to zero, because it’s easy to forget. However, the beautiful thing about going back to zero is that you get a clear picture of what it takes to get to the top. Because we now live in a culture of freshman affirmation—even though the unsentimental rules of reality remain unchanged—you still go back to zero when you become a freshman, it’s just that no one tells you, which means you never get a clear picture of what it takes to get the top, which is why a good many adults in their mid-20s now live in their parents’ basements and blame everyone but themselves for it. If someone had been unsentimental enough to tell these people they weren’t amazing, weren’t special, and that their plastic swords and plastic dolls weren’t cool anymore, they might have apartments of their own.
Because I don’t want you to be living in your mother’s basement when you’re twenty-six, I would like to help get you back to zero by telling you some unsentimental truths about high school.
First, all the other grades have been doing this for longer than you have, they have different goals than you do, and they don’t need your help to accomplish those goals. On your first day of sophomore year, you’re closer to college than elementary school, which means that if you still think of school as a place to look cool, make people laugh, and have fun, you’re wasting your time. The smart students at this school are trying to make something of themselves— by which I mean they’re trying to accrue the kind of knowledge and skills that have value beyond high school. They not only want to learn the art of public speaking, learn to write, learn to do chemistry, and to interpret great literature, they also want to learn how to talk with adults, how to reason with them, to convince and persuade them, and to glean as much as possible from them about living a happy, satisfying life. Simply put, very little of what had purchasing power in 8th grade, at least so far as winning respect from your classmates, has any purchasing power today. The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can be done with all the petty jealousies, rivalries, and class clowning that seemed so important last year. That kind of thing is just plastic pirate swords and baby dolls today.
Second, you probably already know this, but not everybody in high school is actually in high school. There are plenty of sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are still stuck in 8th grade, because they haven’t figured out that it’s possible to fail at becoming an adult. Everybody is bound to get bigger and older, but the longer you wait to put the foolishness of middle school behind you, the less likely it is you’ll ever do so. If you’re still acting like its cool to fail tests and make people laugh during class by the end of freshman year, there’s a good chance you’ve locked yourself into that frame of mind for the next decade. Students who are constantly affirmed, constantly praised, and constantly told they are “amazing” never find a reason to actually do anything amazing, which is why overpraised high school students are spiritually disoriented by the time they’re in their mid-20s. They look at the maudlin, mediocre, unaccomplished, but supposedly “amazing” lives they have lived and wonder, “Is this it?”
Third, remember that God loves you and that your teachers love you and want you to live a satisfying, righteous life that pleases God and God’s friends. Remember also that such lives are rare and they are rare because they do not come easily. Christ often tells His followers that they can have their good things now or later, but not both. In Hebrews, St. Paul teaches that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Accepting the discipline of your teachers now means not getting offended when they tell you your work deserves a C, not an A, and not feigning surprise when you’re told that at the ripe old age of 15 you lack the spiritual maturity to lead a Bible study. If you want people to tell you that you’re amazing now, they’re not going to tell you’re amazing when you’re 34. You only get to be amazing once. You can be amazing now, when it won’t really matter, or you can be amazing when you’re married and have four kids. Your choice.
If you’re willing for people to tell you’re average now, they might say nice, true things about you in twenty years. That’s what I want for you.