How a Movie Reminded me that High School was Terrible

The other night my husband and I watched a new movie, Booksmart.

The plot follows best friends Amy and Molly who, during their final days of high school, suddenly realize they’ve spent the past four years focused exclusively on academics and missed out on the experience and joys of partying with their classmates.

What follows is a pretty comical (and at times sweetly emotional) escapade of trying to catch up on four years’ worth of missed high school shenanigans.

The movie made me laugh — a lot — but more than that, it struck a tender chord with me. I couldn’t help reflect on how my own high school experience wasn’t all that far-removed from Amy and Molly’s.

I met my childhood best friend in kindergarten and, for the whole of our school-aged years, we remained inseparable.

We were both a bit dorky. She was acutely insecure on account of struggling constantly with her weight, and I was acutely introverted, terrified of drawing attention to myself.

It’s not that we were unpopular, per se. We weren’t disliked, as far as I know, and we did occasionally hover at the fringes of the so-called “popular group”, but we were, inarguably, what one might call “outsiders”.

Like Amy and Molly of Booksmart, we were also extremely studious.

I can’t say for sure whether we were excluded from the social goings-on of our peers because we were focused on good grades, or if the fact that we aimed to excel academically made us uninterested in participating.

I know in some ways I wished I’d been part of the “normal” high school experience, but our insecurities made us fiercely codependent. Being one half of a twosome meant my perspectives were rarely my own. Rather, they were shaped as a mutual experience, an agreement of what we had chosen to think and feel.

We agreed to believe, like Amy and Molly of Booksmart, that our focus on academics made us superior to our classmates, and that because of this, it didn’t matter that we didn’t get up to the kind of hijinx that sparked gossip in the hallways come Monday morning.

But then, in twelfth grade, things shifted.

We started spending time with a girl who, for the sake of privacy, we’ll call “Tracy”.

Honestly, I’m not sure what compelled Tracy to want to start spending time with us. I think it began under the premise of studying for a French exam together. Maybe she was intrigued enough by our seeming wholesomeness that she decided to stick around.

Tracy was vastly different from us. She was popular and outgoing and didn’t have any trouble making friends or talking to boys. Unlike us, she was well-versed in the “normal” high school experience. She regularly attended house parties and occasionally hooked up with guys.

She became our window to the other side, our gateway to all the things we’d missed out on.

Better yet, she was our bridge to finally — finally!— hanging out with guys.

The fact she played hockey and spent many hours at the local rink meant she spent a lot of time around guys. She was also deemed “hot” by these same guys (because she was), and that meant there was always some boy around vying for her attention.

At the same time we began hanging out with Tracy, my best friend had lost a significant amount of weight and was feeling confident and attractive for possibly the first time ever. I, meanwhile, remained profoundly shy, which is probably why she and Tracy started spending more and more one-on-one time together.

One night in late fall we had plans to all see a hockey game together after I’d finished work. When my shift ended and I called my friend to see if I should come straight over, her sister answered the phone and offered some flimsy excuse about how she wasn’t home, and no, she didn’t know where she was.

This was the year 2000, long before the advent of smartphones and social media, and I had no choice but to accept that my alleged best friend was avoiding me.

The next morning she finally picked up the phone.

I’d planned to interrogate her about the previous night, but before I had the chance, she started mumbling in a strained voice, “I’m such a bitch. [Pause.] You should hate me because I’m such a bitch. [Pause.] I’m the worst best friend, I’m such a bitch.”

By this time my heart was racing with panic as I worried what she could have possibly done to warrant this kind of profession.

As it turns out, she and Tracy had in fact gone to the hockey game we were all meant to attend, and had recruited her younger sister to field my phone call with a poorly-built excuse (as I’d suspected).

After the game ended, the two of them headed to a house party to meet up with a couple guys.

And I expect you can guess the rest.

I was gutted.

What hurt most was the fact they had purposely conspired to leave me out because I was awkward and shy, and because my presence wasn’t conducive to the night of misbehaviour they had planned.

In hindsight, of course, I’m grateful to have not been present. I escaped the gossip that quickly began circulating about what had transpired that particular night.

As an adult now, I can’t help think I should’ve made the choice to end the friendship then and there. But being a teenager is hard. Everything feels potently dire, and we often lack the ability to discern what’s best for us.

My entire life up to that point had revolved around having one best friend. Not only did I have no one else to hang out with, I didn’t know what life looked like outside the context of our friendship.

I wish I could tell myself now that I deserved better, that I was clever and resilient and would have been able to manage whatever difficulties lay ahead. By the same token, the choices I made as a teenager — the fact I chose to subject myself to some supremely toxic behaviour over the proceeding months — shaped who I am today, and that’s not a bad thing. I don’t hate who I am today.

Unsurprisingly, my friend and Tracy became ultra-chummy after their night of debauchery. They also regularly made me feel like an outsider for lacking the sexual “experience” they claimed to own. They treated me as unknowing and prudish, doling out “wisdom” like they were granting me secret access to an exclusive members-only club.

Sadly, their manipulations worked. I felt so left out by their camaraderie, it became increasingly important to me that I catch up to their sexual prowess.

So you can imagine, by the time winter rolled around, how thrilled I was to get involved with my first “boyfriend” (quotations very much deliberate). He and I spent all New Year’s Eve making out in my best friend’s rec room, groping each other inexpertly, and I was overjoyed — ecstatic! — to not only feel like someone actually liked me (despite my awkwardness), but to finally experience firsthand the things my friends spoke so obsessively about.

My happiness was short-lived, however. I found out a couple weeks later that my purported best friend had invited my “boyfriend” over to study one night (while he and I were still allegedly involved, yep), and the two of them proceeded to hook up.

You think that’d be the proverbial straw — that I simply wouldn’t tolerate any more — yet still, my fear of becoming friendless in the final year of high school meant I continued to subject myself to the terrible toxicity that had come to saturate our friendship.

By the time graduation arrived, the two of us had endured a tumultuous year of vicious nastiness. But, being codependent as we were (or perhaps more appropriately, as I was), we had endeavoured to work past our drama.

Neither of us were seasoned drinkers by the time grad celebrations began. We’d only just begun in the early spring experimenting getting mildly drunk on sickly-sweet B-52s and Alabama Slammers.

We hadn’t, however, indulged in full-blown binge-drinking, which is precisely how it goes when you defer all your high school delinquency to the very last year.

The night of our grad campout, we headed off with little more than a tent and several bottles of purple-coloured California Cooler.

The weather that day was hot — absurdly hot — and between the sugary drinks, beating-down sun and lack of hydration, we got drunk fast. Really fast, along with the couple hundred or so of our classmates stumbling across the stretch of sandy beach.

The fact people kept commenting on how surprised they were to see us there partying and drinking, no less, only encouraged us to prove how “normal” we were.

At some point in the late afternoon the two of us got separated. I don’t remember how, much as I don’t remember eating dinner or the sun going down or when I changed from my swimsuit into jeans and a sweatshirt.

I do remember huddling after dark in a driftwood shanty with three guys I knew, but didn’t know, and that they were passing a joint between them (I, thankfully, had the wits to decline).

It sounds like a risky situation, and I suppose on one hand it had the potential to be, but we grew up in a small town, and I knew all three of the guys I was hanging out with — distantly, at least.

In fact, I had developed a small crush on one of them the year prior in Career and Personal Planning class because he had dark hair and dimples and made me laugh when we were grouped together on a budgeting exercise.

And I told him as much.

The other two guys left, and we started kissing. Or maybe we started kissing, and then they left. Either way, things quickly escalated and within the next hour, at my behest, I was losing my virginity in my tent on the beach among the better part of my graduating class.

He was sweet. We stayed together the whole rest of the night. He wrapped a blanket around my shoulders as we huddled close to one of the many bonfires blazing along the shore. Later, he laid out a sleeping bag for us away from the crowd, and we tried to sleep (unsuccessfully) and watched as the light crept slowly above the horizon.

It wasn’t a terrible way to lose one’s virginity, all things considered.

By the time the sun had risen, I was mostly sober and warming up by a fire with some of my classmates when I saw my best friend tromp past me and towards the hill with her gear. I could see it on her face: she was livid.

I caught up with her, firing questions about what was wrong, what was going on?

She was furious, hissing that I had abandoned her, and that she’d wound up hooking up with someone she hadn’t intended to.

As had become the pattern of our friendship, I was once more being held responsible for actions beyond my control. But, ever the mediator that I was, I worked to calm her down and assemble my own gear so that we could trek to the water taxi together.

Her anger at me about our grad campout and what had apparently happened as a result of my absence gradually fizzled out, only to be replaced by some brand new drama.

There was no tidy resolution like at the end of Booksmart, but then again, our attempt at a “normal” high school experience — one involving alcohol, drugs and fumbling encounters with the opposite sex — stretched out over the course of the year, instead of one comical night framed within an hour and 45 minute run-time.

It took me another many months after graduation before I smoked pot for the first time, got violently ill on Bacardi 151 and drunk-dialled a guy I liked (not all in the same night, thank heavens).

And it took me another 11 years before I ended my best childhood friendship.

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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