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.)