You can graduate from high school, or drop out, or opt to earn your GED, but some miserable part of you never leaves that period in life, and last week, that sad fraction of all of us was called back, as if to some obnoxious assembly, by the ghosts of other lives.
I hated high school — not for one reason in particular but for dozens of reasons just barely out of focus. The smell of soft dissolving sandwich bread, of sneakers and industrial bleach. The institutional setting: I always accepted I had to be there; I can handle blunt submission to power, but the pep rallies and the school spirit days and the dances and ceremonies — you didn’t just have to be there; you had to like it, which is a more hateful kind of oppression.
All that amid puberty, powerlessness and the wanting uncertainty of what comes next in life amounted to an experience not unlike what cattle go through at livestock shows, right down to the weird glamour. Sometimes it was fun; mostly it wasn’t, but as of 2009, it was over.
And then came, in bleak, back-to-school September — the least auspicious of all the months — allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh was involved in an attempted sexual assault during a drunken high school party in the 1980s. (Kavanaugh denies this claim.) And Wednesday, attorney Michael Avenatti released a statement from another high school acquaintance of Kavanaugh’s, who says, among other things, that she attended a D.C.-area house party in the 1980s where Kavanaugh was present while she was drugged and gang-raped. (Kavanaugh denied the new allegation as well, saying, “This is ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is, and this never happened.”) From the Twilight Zone, maybe, or perhaps just from some other high school. Whatever the case, we’re all back in high school now, or maybe never left.
Shortly after the first allegation, selections from Kavanaugh’s 1983 yearbook emerged, showing that he considered himself a “Renate Alumnius” [sic] (Renate being a local student at a Catholic girls’ school); that he had something or other to do with “100 kegs” (“or bust,” mind you); that he was party to all kinds of inside jokes that are potentially sinister and also potentially petty; in high school, the two intermingle. And there we were, poring over the juvenile ephemera of a high schooler’s yearbook, trying to understand what it meant, what it means, with the same unsettled frustration of outsiders looking in on a clique’s jokes.
Kavanaugh then went on Fox News to say, among other things, that he was a virgin in high school and for many years thereafter. The Internet quickly lit up with debate that could have transpired over a lunch table: Was the high-school-aged Kavanaugh a total virg, or did he, like, definitely do it? An explicable expenditure of time for reluctantly chaste 15-year-olds; not so much for anyone else.
Meanwhile, the Renate of Kavanaugh’s yearbook infamy — who had previously signed a letter of support attesting to Kavanaugh’s good character — was presented with her notation in his annual, and asked for comment. “I learned about these yearbook pages only a few days ago,” Renate Dolphin told the New York Times, “I don’t know what ‘Renate Alumnus’ actually means. I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way. I will have no further comment.” Lesser betrayals have happened at prom crownings, with pig’s blood.
For her statements, Kavanaugh’s first accuser was labeled a “lying whore” by conservative commentator Steven Crowder, who resorted to YouTube to apply the moniker, probably because there’s no obvious locker to Sharpie it onto. The newest claims are still fresh enough to be making the rounds, but their target can probably expect more of the same.
God, it makes me wonder about the nostalgia laced into recollections of high school. Any season in hell has to have its high points. But moral courage and reliable judgment are the differences between the high school specimen and the adult one. High school is a stage of development that some part of us — a weak and wandering part — never leaves, and indeed a stage that some people wholly remain in.
I guess the temptation to revert is always there. But for anyone who made it out, coolheadedness, careful investigation, mercy and wisdom ought to take the place of everything that came before. The impulsive, reckless, casually brutal high school mindset isn’t even useful in high school; it’s that much less worthwhile so many years beyond.