The dystopian vision of high school

Gerry Canavan has linked to a nice article on why Americans’ high school years seem to shape them so disproportionately. It’s worth a read, though I think it might still lean a bit toward the more sensationalistic and dystopian vision of high school that American culture fetishizes.

I recognize that the experience can be very difficult and even traumatic for some people, particularly those with non-normative sexual identities. Yet these dystopias are not about people with such obvious “problems” — they are precisely about what the culture at large regards as “normal” people. And this of course means mostly white people: all the mainstream cultural fantasies related to the black or Hispanic high school experience are fantasies of a white teacher swooping in to save them, and this includes even The Wire.

If those of us who are broadly “normal” look back honestly on our high school years, I imagine that most of us would find that it looks more like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life than like the “classical” pop-culture high school with its clearly-defined groups, its ruthless status competitions, etc. — a time characterized above all by confusion and unusually intense emotions. What does it say, though, that those shows, universally regarded as truer and more realistic than standard high school fare, were lucky to make it through a single season?

In other words: Why is our cultural fantasy one that puts forward high school as a non-stop reality TV show? I wonder if the findings about the disproportionate “memory space” of adolescence has something to do with it — we gain satisfaction from a presentation of high school as a high-stakes drama, one that matches our perception at the time. Perhaps the use of actors and actresses in their twenties is part of this as well. In high school, that special person was the hottest person in the world — how deflating would it be to look back and realize they were just a gangly teenager? How much nicer, as well, to model the high school relationship on a passionate adult romance rather than admit that it mostly consists of reciting cheesy love poetry to yourself in your imagination? (I’m thinking here of a particularly embarrassing opening sequence on My So-Called Life where the protagonist shares her poetic reflections on the experience of love…) One might also cite fantasy elements such as the apparent ability of the characters to get around easily without a car, etc., a clear contrast to the feeling of being utterly trapped in one’s home in a suburban high school experience.

Is it a desire for greater legibility in retrospect? The fantasy of what I could achieve if I went back, knowing what I know now? There’s another element at play, though, if we realize that the viewers of these cultural productions are mostly adults (or at least post high school). After all, the “classical” high school drama presupposes a degree of freedom that is unimaginable in the context of the hegemonic “upwardly mobile” high school experience, where every moment is carefully scheduled and calculated. Perhaps they serve partly as a “Lord of the Flies”-style cautionary tale to calm the bad conscience of the adult world that has made the baby boomer experience of the carefree high school years impossible.

What’s interesting, though, is to look at the high school fantasy that most unambiguously appealed to young people themselves when I was growing up: Saved by the Bell. This fantasy gives us a tight-knit group of representatives from all the various “tribes” (the jock, the smart driven girl, the cheerleader, the nerd, the Ferris Bueller-esque charmer, and… the black girl who never brings up race). They have their conflicts, but they fundamentally get along famously with each other. The relationship with the principal is warm and friendly as well. I would watch hours and hours of this show in high school, and I’m pretty sure most of my friends did as well, but as an adult, I find it almost unwatchable — and that’s because it’s not “for” me.

I don’t know if there’s an equivalent now, but I find it hard to imagine that high schoolers themselves spend their days studying the cut-throat visions of “high school as reality show.” If they have a fantasy, surely it’s closer to the utopia of Saved by the Bell — where everyone is nice and they have some freedom of movement.

(These are all speculations on my part. My experience of high school may have been idiosyncratic, and I recoil in horror at the idea of reliving it again and again via Facebook. It’s been confirmed to me by reliable sources that I spent all of high school nursing an unearned sense of superiority, while in retrospect I had no idea how to navigate even the most basic challenges of social life or planning for my future. Perhaps if I hadn’t chosen the strategy of aloofness, I would identify more with the “dramatic” experience of high school — as it was, it seems that most of my “drama” was related to family and religion rather than school, which was always the easier part for me. Then again, my evangelical upbringing may play into this as well — I was so relieved that I didn’t have to dodge gunfire while being careful not to step on dirty needles as people openly had sex in the hallway, as the paranoid evangelical culture presents high school today, that perhaps the real struggles seemed more manageable.)

11 thoughts on “The dystopian vision of high school

  1. Buffy does sort of resemble Saved by the Bell in that it too features a tight nit group of friends representing different High School archetypes ( the nerd, the popular girl, & etc.). They mostly get along and the sort of social bullying that looms so large in the popular image of High School doesn’t figure much in the show. They also have pretty good relationships with the representative adults, at least those who aren’t demons.

  2. Saved By the Bell was after my time. And we can “blame John Hughes” if you like. And I know my experience is not representative, but in high school (and even slightly before high school) EVERYONE I knew loved The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. As I recall, we did not believe that they accurately reflected high school life for us. We graduated with close to 800 students–the school had roughly 3000 from grades 9 – 12. There was no single quarterback type nor prom queen everyone looked up to or had crushes on or hated. There were lots of different groups, many of which seemed dto think they were dominant but really were not for the simple fact that many of the other groups did not care about them at all. I graduated in 1992, just after Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and to a lesser extent where we Nine Inch Nails) had hit and made being different okay or perhaps even a bit cool.

    And yet we loved John Hughes’ movies even with the ridiculously simplistic representation of high school life. They were for us and, I think, they were for us because they represented how we felt even if they did not accurately represent the causes of those feelings. Even if we knew there were no jocks, nerds, princesses, basket cases, or burnouts, it still felt like there were those things.

    And no one I knew who was younger (two brothers and their friends for example) liked Saved by the Bell AT ALL. Again, not that that means anything.

  3. My grade 9 and grade 11 daughters HATE Degrassi. One of them acts, and when I told her hey, Degrassi has an open casting call, do you want to go? she replied, I’d rather DIE than be on that STUPID show! (remember the teenage hyperbole?). I asked why she hated it, and she said, it’s so FAKE and STUPID. As IF high school is like that!! Maybe they sense the heavy hand of Canadian public multiculturalism, which they get a lot of in school? (Some of my undergrads credit Degrassi, in part at least, for the sea change in attitudes to cultural difference that has happened in schools between my generation and theirs.) My kids and their friends don’t seem to operate on the terms you recall Adam (which I also remember, even if I’m older), and they’re pretty mainstream. They DO like shows like my So-called life, John Green novels, the Perks of being a wall-flower… It might be that they take reality TV as fiction, so prefer realism in their fiction? But who can fathom the mind of a teenager, once you’ve put the trauma well behind you!

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