The other day I was bringing my older daughter and some friends home from field hockey practice. On this final practice before their first meet – and their first day of school – the Freshmen were paired up with JV and Varsity buddies to talk about life, school, and field hockey. It was the first time these younger girls were getting an unvarnished look at this new adventure called high school.
“My buddy said that the thing that upset her the most was when she was an incoming Freshman was that high school was nothing like how they showed it on Degrassi High.” This was followed by nervous laughter, a small pause, and a quick change of subject.
I think even I was a little surprised.
I remember the trepidation I had going into high school and the feeling I had later on of wishing that I had more insight going in, but I don’t recall ever expecting it to be like something I saw on television. For that to be the case it would have had to look like a cross between Welcome Back Kotter and Room 222.
Thinking about my daughter and her friends, and the TV shows they were partial to, I began to mentally fugue on what sort of high school they imagined themselves approaching. Would they imagine it to be like the McKinley High School of Lima, Ohio in Glee, or the Sunnydale, California of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or somewhere in between? Would they discount the high school of Dillon, Texas in Friday Night Lights because of their New England locale, or would they be keyed in enough to recognize that the troubles and anxieties of those Texas teens are more common than they imagine? As public school girls I doubt they expect the high school world they see in the Gossip Girls TV series, have probably never encountered Veronica Mars high school, and think of Beverly Hills 90210 as a joke told by their parents about their high school TV viewing.
But what is it about the high school experience that at once seems so crucial to our grounding and entertainment, and yet has to be made so fictional that it doesn’t resemble anything close to the real American high school experience? And what do teens learn about a world that presents them with a fictional high school world that is nothing like reality?
Given that books and movies and television shows set and based around high schools are written by adults, the lasting lesson is this: adults lie.
I sometimes wonder if, given the opportunity, teens would develop entertainment centered around high school life. Beyond puerile revenge, would teens create shows with teachers and classes and pep rallies and football games as their focus? We know that to a toddler anything higher than four feet above the ground is like a world in the sky, but do teens really not see – or want to see – a world beyond a high school diploma?
At the risk of being a hypocrite, because my current work-in-progress is set in a high school in 1974, I’m beginning to wonder if writers don’t do teens a disservice by not looking beyond the walls of education. I know I’ve said this before, but back in the prehistoric years of my on teendom we didn’t have YA books and went looking for lessons about the world from adult fiction. Just as younger readers like to “read up” to characters older than themselves, we teens wanted to get a glimpse beyond the insular world of our own families into what the adult world held for us.
In that light, shouldn’t YA have characters and settings beyond the world of high school? No, seriously, I’m asking. Does anyone know whether teens would be interested in stories about twenty-somethings who spent they summer break from college working fisheries in Alaska, or getting lost and homesick (and not falling in love like they expected) while traveling abroad? If the fourth grader wants to read about the sixth or seventh grader, doesn’t the high school senior want to read about that first year of life out of college?
Why does high school become the stunting ground of fiction aimed at young adults?
These field hockey carpool girls just got their first taste of the reality of high school, that this exciting adventure before them is full of things they never could have imagined. For the next four years they’ll be getting similar shocks to their system about everything from personal responsibility to academic success. Their assigned reading will shift sharply away from the pleasurable reading they’ve enjoyed that has been marketed to them toward the classics, assigned reading meant to increase vocabulary and make them college literate. When they do take the time to read something outside the required list will it be anything more than an escapist vampire fantasies about abstinence?
I should think, at the very least, teens shouldn’t be as shocked and surprised that high school is nothing like what they see everywhere else in the media, but I always thought books were supposed to provide that alternative viewpoint.