Are we now being judged by high school?
The revelation that Mitt Romney, in high school at Cranbrook School, once led what Post reporter Jason Horowitz describes as “a prep school posse” to tackle John Lauber, pin him down and cut his bleached-blond hair has proved troubling to quite a few. If that’s a good-natured prank or shenanigan, say they, I’ll eat my hat. This was cruel and callous and no wonder the other participants and observers felt so terrible later.
Still, it is at moments like this during election season that I sigh and say, “Hey, remember that time Andrew Jackson shot a man?”
But of course this is different.
This is high school.
The secret to a good high school experience is to have a bad memory.
Look through any yearbook. Thumb through any literary magazine. High school is no one’s best angle. You are too serious, or not serious enough. You care too much about what other people think, or too little. You make the mistake of wearing T-shirts that tell people that “the voices in my head don’t like you,” or dressing in pink every Thursday because That is What You Do. You make too many extra-credit dioramas. Your skin looks terrible. You gape in every picture as though trying to give your best impression of a startled haddock. All your Favorite Quotations that seemed so Thoughtful and Profound make you wince five years later.
And with good reason: You are not the same person you were in high school.
High school is the primordial soup out of which we gradually emerge, if we are lucky.
You come back to the reunion. “Oh,” you say, “look! Gail still has gills!”
“But Nerd Jeff! Jeff’s figured out how to make fire!”
Most life after high school is a form of revenge.
The nerds gather and conspire against the jocks. The 4-H Club president goes on “America’s Next Top Model.” The prom court vanish into obscurity and never leave town.
If Romney really were king of Cranbrook, I pity him. Most literature and film suggests that there is a perverse lack of correlation between ruling the high school roost and going on to rule much of anything else. But then again, most literature and film about high school is the vengeance of those who were locked into their lockers and called demeaning names.
If we judged our leaders by who they were in high school, we would have precious few leaders left.
Ben Franklin probably liked to dip pigtails in ink, and George Washington never met a cherry tree he didn't want to chop, and Abraham Lincoln — don’t get me started on the guy.
If we’re judged by high school, who would escape hanging?
The great dread of Facebook was that everyone would judge you by your spring break. Eventually, our pool of elected officials would be reduced to the select few who had never done anything wrong. And those are the last people you want to be in charge of anything.
High school, especially an all-boys high school, bears a certain undeniable resemblance to “Lord of the Flies.” I went to an all-girls school, which meant that the worst thing that could happen to you would be that you would become overconfident in your math ability or someone would severely dent your self-esteem, or — well, actually, watch “Mean Girls.”
Fewer people, nowadays, are running around with spears and painted faces, shouting about hunting the Beast and cutting its throat and spilling its blood. Thank heavens. There are policies in place. But the instinct remains.
Pranking and bullying are absolutely serious. But there is an apocalyptic quality to high school. It is uniquely harrowing. The hallway of lockers is a gauntlet. The day you get out of it, it suddenly occurs to you that none of it mattered. But until that day — it is the universe. Things that in the real world would be venial are absolutely venal. This is why you meet someone in an airport decades later and feel compelled to apologize.
If we disqualified people who behaved like jerks in high school from running for public office, our political system would collapse. Maybe we would be the better for it. Most of the noisiest objections to Mitt Romney hinge on things he did more than 30 years ago. Put the dog on the roof of the car. Bullied someone in high school.
Most life is premised on the idea that you will not be the same person that you were in high school. This would be a shame. You will have a certain superficial resemblance to the person you were. You will still be using the same knees.
But there are dozens of each of us. We are not quite who we were yesterday. The person we were at band practice and the person who showed up at summer camp a week later were entirely different. There are better reasons to judge anyone than how he acted when he was 17. This is not to say that what he did wasn’t cruel, or that it tells us nothing about him. But as a criterion for the presidency, I’d put it just a few notches above the curious incident of the dog in the crate.
Yes, it was awful. But if Romney’s policy positions over the years have shown us anything, it is that he is capable of great change.
We are not who we were in high school. Thank God for that.