I Peaked in High School
It’s often said that the high school years are the best of a person’s life.
And though high school isn’t exactly a blast for every single student, it’s easy to understand why this idea has endured. Popular culture is full of images of carefree teens hanging out with friends and going from classes, to championship games, to weekend nights drenched in moonlight and potential.
Those images aren’t entirely accurate. But even if they were, the implication that high school is “as good as it gets” is pretty bleak. If high school is life’s climax, then just what do we have to look forward to?
Across the cultural landscape, plenty of flowers have bloomed early, but only a few have resisted becoming sun-faded and wilted. Child stars, teen idols, and promising prodigies rise to fame and are quickly written off, embodying Andy Warhol’s prediction that, at some point, everyone will have their fifteen minutes.
However, there’s a short list of people who harnessed their youthful zeal enough to leave a lasting legacy, creating their most revered works before they were old enough to celebrate with a champagne toast.
Here are four such teenaged prodigies.
1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Published in 1818, written between ages 18-19)
Shelley was just 18 years old when she started working on one of the most celebrated novels in history: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Through its iconic “monster,” the book explores topics such as man’s relationship with technology, and the conflict between science and the natural world. The story has become one of the most enduring of its era—a morality tale that’s been read by millions, and experienced by countless more through its many film, stage and TV adaptations.
Though it seems incredible that Mary Shelley wrote such a complex novel at such a young age, the circumstances of her life were such that she had to act beyond her years. At the time the book was written, Shelley was pregnant and traveling around Europe with the already-married man who would soon become her husband, the renowned Romantic poet Percy Shelley. Their child was born prematurely, and didn’t survive. Soon after, her half-sister committed suicide, as did Percy Shelley’s wife.
All the trauma and misfortune of this period (tempered by the joy of her marriage to Percy in 1816) surely helped fuel Mary Shelley’s writing. The resulting book is full of darkness, but also serves as a metaphor for a wide range of issues that we’re still grappling with today (this article explores Frankenstein’s various life lessons in greater detail.)
Frankenstein was published when Shelley was 21, and achieved instant success. But though she continued to write for the rest of her life, none of Mary Shelley’s other books connected with readers in quite the same way.
Mary Shelley: Peaked at 20.
2. Michael Brown, "Walk Away Renée" (Released 1966, written at age 17)
At the tender age of 17, Michael Brown wrote one of the most beloved songs of the 1960s.
“Walk Away Renée,” The Left Banke’s ode to unrequited love, peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1966. The song is a classic of the “baroque pop” genre, and inspired cover versions from scores of artists, including The Four Tops, Rick Price, and Billy Bragg. Rolling Stone later ranked it #222 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“Walk Away Renée” was, at its core, angsty teenage poetry set to beautiful music. Michael Brown wrote it about Left Banke bassist Tom Finn’s high school girlfriend, Renée A. Fladen. Brown was so smitten that he wrote two more songs about Renée—“Pretty Ballerina” (which reached #15 on the Hot 100 chart) and “She May Call You Up Tonight,” both of which are among The Left Banke’s best known tracks.
In 1967, Brown left the The Left Banke, but continued, for a time, to create music, writing for other acts such as The Cherry People (“And Suddenly,” which peaked at #44 in 1968), and briefly playing keyboard for the band Stories (their 1973 cover of the Hot Chocolate song “Brother Louie” was a #1 hit). But of all his compositions, Brown’s adolescent love letter to his friend’s girlfriend remains by far the most famous.
More than fifty years after “Walk Away Renée” hit the airwaves, it’s little surprise that the song still feels so relevant. There is, after all, hardly a more relatable—or more timeless—topic than young love.
Michael Brown: Peaked at 17.
3. S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders (Published in 1967, Written between ages 15-17)
If you read the young adult classic The Outsiders sometime between middle school and high school, you’re in good company—S.E. Hinton’s debut novel has been a staple of the American public school system since the 1980s. But what you may not know is that Hinton wrote the book at about the same age as you were when you read it.
The Outsiders tells of the aftermath of a violent encounter between two rival groups of teens in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the Greasers and the Socs. In the five decades since it was first published, the story has become a favorite of young readers all over the U.S. But when a 15-year-old S.E. Hinton started writing The Outsiders, it was, at least in part, because she was having a hard time finding literature that she could relate to. (Back in the late 1960s, there simply wasn’t a huge market for young adult lit.)
Fortunately, the book was more than just a cathartic exercise for the author, as other teens loved the realistic dialogue and page-turning plot. Today, more than ten million copies have been sold.
While Hinton continued to write after this first splash on the literary scene—her 1975 novel Rumble Fish was on the School Library Journal’s “Best Books” list, and was adapted for the big screen in 1983—her other books never quite connected with audiences in the same way as The Outsiders.
Of course, the fact that Hinton’s first outing was her most successful hardly seems to matter. After all, she essentially pioneered a new genre of literature—one that’s become so popular, it’s now enjoyed by “young adults” and proper grown-ups alike.
S.E. Hinton: Peaked at 17.
4. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Street artist turned fine artist (Made his name between ages 18-22)
Nearly two decades after his death, the work of internationally-acclaimed visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has seen a resurgence in popularity. In 2017, his art was featured in multiple exhibitions across the U.S., and he was the subject of a documentary called Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In November of that year, one of Basquiat’s paintings from the early 1980s claimed the title of sixth most expensive artwork ever sold at auction–racking up the exorbitant sum of almost 111 million dollars.
While it’s debatable whether Basquiat’s peak came during his street art years or his later career as a “fine artist” (read: painter), the latter simply would not have been possible without the former.
It was the early work that put Basquiat on the scene and laid the groundwork for his evolution into a superstar. While collectors may covet the paintings Basquiat created in his 20s, it’s the captivating and pithy “street” style of his late teens that is echoed today by artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
After dropping out of high school before his senior year in 1977, Basquiat began to gain recognition around New York, where he created graffiti under the name “SAMO©” with his friend Al Diaz. The “SAMO” work appeared in an article in The Village Voice in December of 1978.
Soon after, the two stopped working together, and Basquiat began writing the tag “SAMO is dead” all over New York City. This, too, garnered attention, and led to the artist making a number of appearances on the popular cable access show, TV Party.
In the early 1980s, as Basquiat entered his 20s, he gradually moved away from street art—choosing to create on canvas instead of public spaces. Within a few years, he was exhibiting all over the world, and collaborating with Andy Warhol. However, his mental health was also deteriorating, due to his increased drug use. This addiction would ultimately lead to his death by overdose in 1988, at age 27.
Despite his premature death, Basquiat lives on as an art world icon. Unlike the other artists on this list, he created some of his most profitable work into “old age”… his 20s.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Peaked at 22.
If all this talk of young artists peaking early has you feeling past your prime, fear not! There are plenty of examples of creative individuals who didn’t find success until they’d reached retirement age. Author Frank McCourt (August 19, 1930 – July 19, 2009) published his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes and became a millionaire at 66. Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robinson Moses; September 7, 1860 – December 13, 1961) began painting at age 78, when her arthritic hands could no longer stand needlework. She exhibited paintings well into her 90s, and is now widely recognizable as a great folk artist.
So, basically, no matter how old you are, there’s still time.
Regardless of age or art form, the one thing all these creators had in common was their collective desire to leave a mark on the cultural landscape. None of them knew ahead of time how their lives would pan out, nor just what an impact they would leave on the world. What we can all learn from these people is that age is merely a number. And that is something well worth keeping in mind the next time you’re feeling like your best years are behind you.