Mythic realm of the American high school

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?

American 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.

There 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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