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Joss Whedon On Getting Through High School

Higher Learning

Remembrances of the first year of high school, and advice for getting through your owm, for some of your favourite grown-ups.

Collage by Sonja


Joss Whedon

I went to the same school, with the same people, for 10 years. I knew everyone—including the teachers, as my mother taught history there. In the middle of tenth grade my mother took a sabbatical abroad and I found myself going from Riverdale Country School, in the Bronx, to Winchester College, a 600-year-old all-male boarding school in southern England. I had never traveled alone. I had barely left the house. Also, I was quite small.

Winchester is timelessly beautiful, famously academic and a bastion of blithe cruelty. Everyone else was used to this; I was the only new kid. Older boys relentlessly bullied younger, and teachers (called “dons”) bullied everyone, often physically. All the students, even boys younger than I, knew each other and came from the same social strata. The school had its own language—literally; there was book of “notions” to be memorized and tested. And on top of it all, I was of course that most dread creation, an American. It was clear to me from the start that I must take an active role in my survival.

Rule One: DON’T BE LIKE THEM. I knew I was going to be mocked as an outsider and a weirdo, so I established my weird cred before anyone had time to get their mock on. Our study area was a great room ringed by tiny wooden cubicles (called “toys,” in both the plural and the singular—Know Your Notions!), about 50 to a room. On the first day of term I posted a notice outside my toys that was pure nonsense, a portentous abstraction that conveyed the simple message that ridiculing me would not only be weak and redundant, but might actually please me in some unseemly way. As boy after boy read the notice and either laughed or puzzled, I could feel a small patch of safe turf firm up under my feet.

Rule Two: BE LIKE THEM. My next defensive aid appeared quite unexpectedly, as we were all bunking down (12 to an ice-cold room) for the night. All the boys started doing a bit from an episode of Monty Python (which was a cool thing to do back then—no, you’re mistaken; it was). When there was a lull, I unthinkingly chimed in with the next line. I was answered with unfiltered silence, and then one of the older boys called out from the corner, “OK. He’s in.” He literally said that. Like a cheesy movie: “He’s in.” And I, in whatever limited capacity I have to be, was. Speaking their language startled them as much as making up my own had.

Rule the Most: F@#K ’EM. We all want to be accepted. If possible, liked. Loved. But nobody ever got to be popular by desperately wanting to be. (Well, maybe Madonna.) Whether you crave attention or anonymity, you’ll be thwarted if you focus on those goals. I was actually gunning for a bit of both, but I only succeeded, in the end, because I knew I had the right to be myself. The judgments of others, however painful, would always be external. I was fiercely calculating about establishing myself as someone not to be trodden on (I’d had plenty of that from my brothers, thank you), but it really only worked because I knew, as much as a tiny-15-year old can, who I was. I was a short, annoying, existential, girl-repelling mess—but I KNEW that. I honored that. I defended that. And as intimidated as I super-incredibly was in that alien environ, I never lost that.

Rule Where You Realize I’m Super-Old and Skip to the Next Article: LEARN. High school is, among other things, school. If you have teachers worth a damn, stop worrying about where you fit in and work for them. Knowledge will serve you long after you’ve forgotten the names of everyone you feared or admired. And will prove subtly invaluable the next time you find yourself in a new situation, trying to fit in. You know the old saying: Knowledge is power.

And it’s always, always about power. (Should this have been a Rule?) Everyone has it. Not everyone knows how to express it. And high school is, institutionally and hormonally, an easy place to forget you have it, particularly since so many people are focused on establishing or abusing it. But the power people take from others is nothing next to the power that comes with simple self-acceptance, with being comfortable in your (changing) skin. It’s not just Survival of the Fit-ins. There’s room for something new.

Full article at Rookie Mag


  1. 20 September 2011 at 02:33

    I saw this post on Whedonesque. I love it!

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