Some of this long piece by Paul Graham, on the misery suffered by nerds in high school, is US-specific, and some of it seems exaggerated. Mostly, though it rings true. For many of us, the early years of high school were made miserable by a mixture of the system, the attitudes of adults ... and, above all, the attitudes of other students. Perhaps our own unwillingness or inability to conform to arbitrary requirements for popularity also played a role.
The article makes the important point that it's not just a matter of adolescent hormones - indeed, smart teenagers can be, well, quite smart and sensible if they are treated more or less like junior adults. Sure, we were all inexperienced at that age, and we may have had a simplistic picture of the world, but that wasn't entirely our fault. Partly it was the fact that we were presented with a simplistic picture of the world. Nor was the problem that the world as a whole is as bad as the artificial setting of junior high school: by and large, that's not so, as Graham explains. Much of the problem is that contemporary Western society, whatever its many virtues (and it certainly has these!), does a poor job of handling the adolescent maturity gap. By their teenage years, many kids are ready to take on some responsibility, to have active sex lives, and to hang out to an extent with the grown-ups, but the social system as a whole works against this.
There are good reasons for the current set-up, mainly that there is now just so much to learn to have even a minimal understanding of the natural and social worlds, and that training for any decent career requires a specialised base of knowledge and skills that takes years to acquire. As a society, we need to offer lengthy education to adolescents and young adults, but we also need to work out strategies to avoid the damaging adolescent maturity gap.
Have a look at Graham's piece and let me know whether it's true to your experience of high school. As I mentioned, some of it seems US-specific - the jock culture over there may not be much worse than the Australian equivalent, but it sounds more relentless. It also takes a rather different form from what I experienced growing up in the beach-oriented ambience of coastal NSW, where such things as prowess in the surf and a good suntan were even more important than belonging to sports teams. Still, the picture is close enough to my own experience to be recognisable.
Here's a sample of Graham's thinking that, I think, contains much wisdom:
Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.
Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.
And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.
Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.
What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.
Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.
If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.