by Maya Katalan '11, Germantown Friends School
Oh, to be young and in love. Each smile and glance is accompanied with a violent butterfly riot in the couple’s stomachs. Long, late telephone conversations make the night last forever, and the only fight they’ve ever had is about who should hang up first. Secretly scrawled love notes from him live in the far crevice of her sock drawer, and he gets teased by his buddies from the football team for falling so hard for a girl. Does this sort of love, the tender but heart wrenching kind, exist at GFS? Maybe if the telephone calls are replaced by video chats, the love notes are sent via text message (exceeding the 160 character limit at least twofold), and by the football team you mean Advanced Physics.
While the stereotypical trappings of teenage romance are not entirely extinct, there is no doubt that an alternate, less ingenuously earnest culture has dominated our generation’s social scene: that of the hookup. This ubiquitous term describes much and at the same time nothing: “hooking up” can mean a myriad of things and calls forth an equally varied number of connotations. Usually, though, the hookup is associated with a more casual, less emotional scenario than the aforementioned. Yet within the hookup culture there is a distinct and recognized subcategory reserved for the pairing of an older boy and a younger girl—at GFS it is the senior/freshman dalliance that always raises eyebrows but never really surprises anybody.
Let us revisit the young and in love, this time a senior boy and a freshman girl at GFS. Inconspicuous glances are exchanged across Hargroves. A welcome collision occurs in a doorway, becomes a moment’s flirtation of jokes (him) and giggles (her), and ends as he heads off-campus and she heads off to musical rehearsal. It is probably well known that the two are linked, and the situation is looked upon with mixed impressions ranging from indifference to amusement to disgust. What is widely agreed upon is the fact that this is a phenomenon so familiar that it is almost commonplace.
At the heart of the situation is the question of why. Why is it that we have come to recognize the pattern of pairings between senior boys and freshmen girls, students that would otherwise seem to inhabit alternate universes. One common explanation involves maturity level. In many cases girls mature more quickly than boys their age, making them more compatible with the boys in older grades. But the speculative reasoning is deeper than just that. As one senior girl I spoke to explained, there is a perceived thrill that accompanies attention from an older boy, specifically a senior. This idea of a particular sort of allure attributed to seniority is one that was echoed by many of the students I talked to about the causes of these cross-grade pairings. Upperclassmen students told me that, regardless of if they were involved in any type of relationship with senior, as freshmen they were to some degree intimidated by the oldest boys in the school. The senior/freshman hookup acts on this psychology. A freshman girl who feels like she has outgrown the boys in her grade looks up to these older boys and responds to the attraction they hold as a result of their age and, more importantly, their status as seniors. This girl isn’t social climbing or conniving: she is just subject to the puzzling but prevalent attitudes about “seniority” that pervade our social culture.
Why, then, does a senior boy, the proverbial “big man on campus,” find himself attracted to the younger girl? One senior boy suggested that the underlying cause of the cycle is the cycle itself. When girls hookup with older boys in freshman or sophomore year, the freshman or sophomore boys are neglected by girls in that regard. Then, once they get up in the grades, they go for the younger girls because of this pattern that they’ve witnessed— after feeling somewhat second rate compared to the older boys in freshman year, senior year is the time to capitalize on their “senior allure.” Hooking up with freshman seems to have become high school lore: a taboo to some, an accomplishment to others. Based on the experience of being overlooked by the girls in their grade, senior boys may see freshmen girls as more available, less demanding, and more likely to find them attractive.
These possible reasons behind the senior/freshman hookup lead us to one of the most commonly heard objections to the situation: can this ever really be a fair, functional, and balanced relationship? If the girl is acting on her possibly subconscious respect for seniority and the boy is acting on his conceptions of the younger girl’s availability, are the two even actually into each other, or is each of them just attracted to his or her preconceived notions about who the other one is?
As far as equality in goes in these relationships, most do not hesitate to admit that it is certainly possible for the standard of respect in a relationship to be muddled by the age difference. The most obvious assumption is that the boy is taking advantage of the younger girl’s naïveté, and the girl is unable to stand up for herself because she is intimidated by the boy. This is not always the case—the one thing that most everyone agrees on when talking about senior/freshmen relationships is that their success depends on the unique circumstance. Some boys are more conscious of a girl’s feelings, some girls share their feelings more freely. There is no guarantee that the relationship will be a respectful one or a disrespectful one. One senior boy told me that, while he is happy for his friends when they get attention from girls, he does not hesitate to tell them when they may be out of line as far as their treatment of girls, especially younger ones. And girls resoundingly alluded to some sort of power that a freshman girl gets from this relationship: while it may seem like an exploitation on the surface, some girls may feel empowered by getting the attention and, hopefully, the respect of a boy who is her elder.
Just as problematic as any potential breaches of respect, however, are the inequalities in the relationship that can’t be avoided. Freshmen are clean slates entering high school. They have not yet experienced many of the established GFS customs and experiences, let alone many of the experiences that accompany high school. In contrast, seniors have one foot out of the open doors of GFS. The college process serves as a figurative disconnect between seniors and the school as it forces them to imagine a life beyond GFS, and off-campus privileges and, often, an overabundance of free periods is the literal disconnect that gives seniors the potential for a life outside of GFS whenever they don’t have a class. This awkward opposition provides a potentially irreconcilable difference: if the freshman and the senior are in vastly different points in their lives, the relationship won’t be standing on solid ground.
The most puzzling aspect about the buzz surrounding senior/freshmen hookups may be that it has nothing to do with age and everything to do with grade. Ask someone about a senior and a sophomore hooking up and they will readily share a list of couples and, remarkably, these couples will often be somewhat respected relationships of the “boyfriend/girlfriend” type—a distinction that is used tentatively and sparingly for the senior and the freshman. Somehow, the juiciest gossip is reserved for the pairings that come from opposing poles of the high school; once the grade gap is broken, the stories lose their sparkle and their controversy quota. This could be a hint to some truth of high school on a larger scale: perhaps our conceptions about the status and associations that come with class are more entrenched than we think. If a freshmen is the quintessential ingénue and the senior is the archetypal alpha-male, even if we don’t seriously believe these outdated, politically incorrect notions, we look about the situation as dramatic, exciting, and scandalous. A sophomore girl has experienced the senior before he was a senior: she has seen him when he was just a mere junior, admittedly an upperclassman, but certainly not at the top of the school. We probably aren’t convinced by the stereotypical, slightly embarrassing movie portrayal of seniors as jocks and cheerleaders who rule the school, but to some extent we consider the notion of seniority when looking at these inter-class relationships. Even at GFS, where ideas surrounding coolness and status are not always typical, we are not entirely immune to the thrill of a forbidden romance.