The high school student is a complex animal, going through many different stages before emerging at graduation as a well-rounded, confident individual. As a high school teacher, I’ll be the first to admit that the most accurate generalization to make about teenagers is that it’s impossible to make generalizations about them; the four years of high school each bring some noticeable changes in students.
Freshmen are aptly named; they come to the high school fresh from middle school, with a fresh view of the world. They are optimistic and idealistic, believing that smoking and drinking are wrong, that it is important to get good grades, and that their parents are their strongest allies. However, at this age, this freshness sometimes works against them. They tend to feel as if everyone else knows more than they do, does more than they do, and understands more than they do. Freshmen often need to be told to face forward, as they spend so much time looking around the classroom at their classmates, monitoring their own behavior in terms of everyone else’s. They live in constant fear that they will miss out on an important piece of gossip or that something essential will change in the few minutes they’re not paying attention and leave them in the dust.
Sophomore year is a very logical successor to freshman year; sophomores are palpably relieved to no longer be freshmen. This relief manifests itself in a new-found confidence: sophomores have more trust in their own interests and choices. However, this confidence is often expressed in negative ways. Sophomore girls are more likely than their freshman counterparts to wear revealing clothing, and sophomore boys tend to try out a particular brand of cockiness that results in everyone striving to be the class clown.
Sophomores have a stronger sense of belonging; they know the ropes, as they’ve done this before. They feel more secure in their identity, and feel freedom to try new activities and sports, and maybe to reach outside their groups of friends to meet people. However, this sense of self also has a downside as well. In this push to express their uniqueness, sophomores may experiment with risky behaviors.
Junior year comes as a wakeup call to many students. All of a sudden, college is no longer an abstract concept somewhere in the distant future, but a very immediate reality. Students become more aware that actions have consequences, and are shocked out of the comfort zone of sophomore year by the realization that they need to decide who they are and what they want out of life. Juniors are easily recognizable by their stacks of SAT prep books, full agendas, and, unfortunately, miserable expressions. The future, to a junior, is large and scary. The stress of increased schoolwork and SATs puts a lot of pressure on these students, and this pressure can negatively affect students’ relationships.
Friendships become strained as students realize that they are in competition with their friends for class ranks, and differences in academic abilities become more visible as students begin to plan for the future. As a result, students may feel isolated. In addition, relationships with parents may suffer as the parents’ expectations may feel too high for the student to live up to. While this is a year of much change and maturation, the battle to get through it leaves many students with some scars.
Senior year should be divided into trimesters based around the college admissions process. The first part of the year looks very much like an extension of junior year; it is categorized by writing college essays and scrambling to complete and mail applications in time, all while maintaining a high GPA for the final grades that colleges will see. Once applications are in, the senior class seems to hold its breath for several months, waiting to hear from the schools. This breath is released as students hear back from colleges.
While this time of year causes heartbreak and disappointment for many students, it still provides closure for all of them, and a sense that they can begin to enjoy their lives again. This begins the final round of soul-searching that high school students go through, because even though they are now the big fish in the small pond, their reprisal of their roles as freshmen is looming in the distance. They are aware that they will not only need to, once again, figure out who they are and what they want out of life, but that they will have to do it without the safety net of mom and dad. This lends a certain gravity to the demeanor of seniors, even as they focus on socializing and enjoying one last hurrah.
As I watch my students go through these stages, I often wish that I could sit them down and impart to them the wisdom I’ve acquired through both my own experience as a high school student and through my constant interaction with students throughout the past few years. But, of course, the key to figuring out who you are is to do it yourself.