Mythic realm of the American high school

Last updated 10:23 24/02/2012

When I was 15 I switched from an all-boys boarding school in Christchurch to a co-ed high school in Havelock North.

As I geared up for this change, two things directly affected my anticipation for my new school: the recent surging popularity of Dawson's Creek, and American Pie's release in movie theatres.

Many years removed, it is sad to admit. But for an impressionable mind, why are depictions of American high schools so seemingly romantic?

fonzieAmerican high school, as evidenced in these movies and television shows, is a heightened realm filled with smooth, adult-shaped kids. There's a clear social hierarchy of cliques constantly in flux and battle, but enough people on each step of the ladder that you'll never be alone. This whole social tussle plays out in locker-lined corridors and in predatory dining halls, where well-groomed and well-spoken teenagers talk about being misunderstood in an extremely self-assured manner.

In this high school fantasy, there's a sports team that people rally behind and cheerleaders to idolise. Teachers are either old and mean, or young and inspirational, and you get to run straight out of class when the bell rings. Young romance has the capacity to change your life forever. Your downtime is split between working in menial jobs where you really just do nothing and have well-scripted, meaningless banter and kicking about with your friends engaging in harmless but hilarious shenanigans. There was always a party on a Friday night.

Except, none of this really happened. There was no dining hall and no clusters of lockers to slouch on aimlessly. I was barely groomed and not particularly well spoken. I was a little restless, but far from being identified as the misunderstood genius I probably wanted to be. The teachers seemed strained, overworked and underpaid. There were groups and cliques, but we mostly all just ignored each other and stuck with our own. Girls just seemed confusing. The menial jobs (I worked at DEKA) were pretty dull, and the long summers only sporadically entertaining.

It was a good time, and I was happy, but only in retrospect does it hold any weight in nostalgia: I spent a lot of time playing video games with my friends (I was the whipping boy playing Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64) and smoking cigarettes on my lunch break.  

Everything in my personal realm seemed much less poignant and seminal. But the fact that the comparison of my own high school experience was instinctively made to TV and movies is evidence to me of how strong this influence was.

The funny thing is, the American high school on TV doesn't even really resemble the actual American high school.

Over coffee this morning I got LP, in-house resident American, to expound on this.

dawsonThere were some cliques, she said. But they weren't as well defined. "I, for one, was in the really cool, alternative and intelligent clique," she said, laughing a little harder than she usually does at 8am.

No one hung out in the dining hall. People did cluster a little around lockers.

"It bothers me when I see the kids just running out of class when the bell rings. No one ever did that. You always had to wait to be dismissed," LP exclaimed.

In a small Californian town, sports were important but still easy to ignore. The jocks were a factor. There was some drama and gossip, but nothing crazy. There were proms, and homecoming queens.

"The high schools on TV have some basic seed of truth in them. But when I look back on it, it is still just a slightly insecure and awkward time to think about. I wouldn't relive it again if I was paid."

Researching this blog, I shared emails and conversations with people, gauging their own feelings about this topic, and it all inevitably came back to one thing: it's a bunch of bunk...

So it was even more perplexing to find that these American high schools still had some power over me.

Talking to LP this morning about her high school experience, about the time she started reminiscing about getting caught with alcohol at the school dance, I was transfixed.

A few years ago I found myself in LP's hometown of Grass Valley, northeast of San Francisco, for a few months. School broke for summer holidays and suddenly kids were loitering everywhere, chatting on street corners and driving through town packed into old Hondas.

I found myself nostalgic for the mythical summer I imagined them destined for, simultaneously knowing that it would probably be boring, frustrating, insecure and hormonal.

I've re-watched American Pie a few times since I was 15. It's a pretty stupid movie: juvenile, with no depth or real feeling and understanding.

Still, even in the later part of my 20s, these cultural depictions of American high schools have a hold over me I can't shake. Such I guess, is the power of pop culture?

So how did fictional American high schools affect your own formative years? What were your own personal favourites?   

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22 comments
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kidcudi   #1   10:33 am Feb 24 2012

Breaking news: journalist reveals that television fiction is dramatised.

Diane   #2   10:40 am Feb 24 2012

Haha, brilliant blog today!

So glad i'm not the only one who feels this way.

When i've watched The OC, One Tree Hill, Veronica Mars etc, those high school kids look like they're having the BEST time. They're all gorgeous, they all get treated like adults. They come and go from school and home as they please. They have no rules. They can travel half way across the country and not even say two words to their parents about it. And i'm sure that no one gets arrested as much as these kids seem to.

I honestly started to think that this is how it really was! I'm also quite jealous that I never got an American high school upbringing, which is largely because of how much fun the TV shows make it seem.

meep   #3   10:47 am Feb 24 2012

no its not lol what is drama its what people cant handle!

exchange   #4   10:56 am Feb 24 2012

I did a year in a U.S high school as a student exchange & found it to be very similar to the movie/tv image

KC the 2nd   #5   11:06 am Feb 24 2012

I'm fascinated with all things USA - possibly because I grew up watching shows like Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210, while reading Sweet Valley High and the Point Fiction Series. So I've always wondered what high school in US is really like.

Thanks for this blog - it provides some insight!

Amy   #6   11:14 am Feb 24 2012

So true. I remember resenting my high school for being nothing like I percieved American high schools to be!

Joan   #7   11:17 am Feb 24 2012

Hate to say it, but the TV version of US High Schools isnt that far off the mark - except for perhaps Glee.

I spent two years as a teenager in the US and obviously went to school there. TV depiction isnt too far off the mark. There are the drop dead gorgeous cheerleaders, the Football jocks, the nerds etc.

It actually was a pretty fun time!

Coley   #8   11:26 am Feb 24 2012

When i was at university, an American exchange student here in NZ explained that the US high school and varsity that we saw on TV/in the movies was quite accurate. My mind hole was blown - on one hand I wanted to be there, because my experience in NZ seemed utterly boring in comparison. On the other hand, I was glad for being in lil' ol' NZ, as she also painted a picture of not fitting in, and not signing up to all the hype.

Rafal   #9   12:00 pm Feb 24 2012

I was at an American high school in the early 80's. Then I immediately spent two years in a country South Island high school. Probably the best is to compare the two. 1. I experienced some xenophobia while in the US as a teenager, which thankfully never resulted in violence but the threats were not pleasant. I'm a white male. In New Zealand I never experienced being an outsider, and I found it easier to relate to a variety of people, as opposed to certain cliques or 'special groups'. 2. In the US, somehow I found that there was a big gap between the life at school and everywhere else. Most of the kids seemed to 'disappear' after the final bell and I was not part of anythign that went on during holidays or weekends. In New Zealand, the new friends would invite me to parties, weekend camping or their homes. 3. Without having any Americana expectation I intuitively knew that you had to be of certain type in order to fit in into a group that you wanted to join. In my Kiwi high school experience, fitting in was more based on personality as opposed to whether you wore cool clothes or not, or listened to the right band. 4. In my US high school if you wanted to approach a certain girl, you needed to have the right intermediary contacts, not so in New Zealand, you did not need to have felt so weird and awkward. 5. Sport was absolutely massive in the States. I participated in sport every term, we practiced 1.5-2 hours every day and played at home or away once a week. By comparison, two New Zealand high schools that I attended had very scant sporting opportunities. Even rugby and cricket had practice only twice a week. There were no school sports on weekends in the US, always at night after scho

Jen   #10   12:19 pm Feb 24 2012

DEKA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-) Awesome.


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