Wednesday, 28 October 2015

High School

Some months ago I read an article on the BBC called, "Top of the class: The high school on film". A few years ago that would have been the sort of article I'd have jumped at. Why? Well, a large part of my interest in education is because it's literally the only thing I've ever done, except for a few brief seasons of club cricket and a couple of years in the scouting movement. When I was in college, high school in media, high school in conversation etc. was something I was really into. Now that I am in uni I find myself continually wanting to talk about uni. The desire to see media depictions has lessened, though, so perhaps that wasn't as strong a few years ago either. Certainly, I never went out of my way to watch things like Mean Girls (I waited until it was on telly; it was a question of how long, you see) and I can't stand Napoleon Dynamite (that first hour or whatever is as enthralling as Moby Dick's first few hundred pages... i.e. not at all). But one of my more, I suppose, treasured memories is of watching Drillbit Taylor whilst mining gold, I believe for the first time, on Runescape. But enough about the weirdness of me. On with the post.

I am, in the main, not particular enthralled with US high schools in film and television, though these are the most common. In some sense this is because of their strange fixation with glasses = ugly (many people look much better with their specs). But mostly because it's nearly totally irrelevant. I can hear my readers cry out at this. "Surely Not!" they say. High School must be pretty consistent in Anglosphere nations. Well, based on NZ versus the USA, the answer is no. For one, it's longer here. NZ doesn't have middle schools and moving up to college is a big deal because it also means moving from class to class for the first time. Nothing in the US about high schools captures this really fundamental part of the experience in NZ (middle schools on the other hand? well hullo Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide). For another, uniforms are ubiquitous in NZ... the crowd decked out in mufti is bizarre. Also, our schools come in blocks and roaming from subject to subject involves being subjected to weather. The corridor that this article discusses pretty much doesn't exist! We eat and converse outside. Jocks don't exist and nor do cheerleaders... sports just don't matter that much. We have balls instead of proms and by balls I really mean school provided clubs for one night, no alcohol... in ball gowns and suits. Lockers, in my personal experience, are not something everyone has. For senior years, almost every waking moment is spent working towards some sort of assessment (this is a severe exaggeration). To be fair, this is usually absent because school is not the focus of the plots in these things (which, may be why I like The History Boys so much). So, yeah, there are some notable differences going on.

Okay, but what is NZ media like? Well, I can think of two examples. The first is the Killian Curse. I couldn't remember the name of that so I searched for it with: "NZ school horror dead principal steals souls television". To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced it is set in a secondary school either, because they never seem to change room. But the point is that it's far too fantastic to provide a guide for anything. Except, of course, the uniforms. Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby is, frankly, hilarious and it only works by running with popular ideas and taking them to extremes. Yet, somehow, it doesn't count because the central character is a) a teacher and b) the staffroom is arguably the more important location than the classroom. At any rate, its straight out satirical nature means it captures the feel of an NZ school pretty well. It has to otherwise it can't satirise what it does: the humour simply doesn't work without that sense of "This is obviously wrong but it's close enough". It also helps that it was filmed in an ex-school (one of a fair few around the country). Its central problem in the second series, out of interest, is very relevant for many Cantabrians with post-earthquake school amalgamations being a topic of interest. (I am aware of the existence of Bro' Town but having seen maybe a grand total of thirty minutes it is probably best I don't try to discuss it.)

Anyway, I think I'll compare and contrast the depictions that the article highlights with my experiences at my (former) college. Fits the wider pattern of this blog. Also, bear in mind that this post has a totally different purpose to the article. I will also not quote every paragraph, partially for this reason.
It’s been 60 years since James Dean taught a generation how to slouch stylishly in Rebel Without a Cause, but one sequence near the beginning of the film could have been shot yesterday. It’s the scene in which Dean’s angst-ridden 17-year-old hero, Jim Stark, arrives for his first day at Dawson High School in Los Angeles.There are palm trees shading the school’s sleek pastel facade. The stars and stripes are on the flagpole. Crowds of Jim’s fellow students are congregating, all of them perky and fashionably dressed, and most of them, like Dean, looking so grown-up that they should have left school a decade earlier. And there, posing on the steps leading up to the main entrance, is a sneering gang that sees Jim as an offensively uncool outsider.
What did my first day look like? Well, I'm pretty sure I turned up after most people so the front car park in front of the hall (much smaller than my primary's for a fun subversion of one's expectations) was chocka. I mean, with the cars, buses and the sheer number of people milling around there was not very much room to move. Some house leader or something found me, asked my name and wrote my house on my hand or something like that. That's what my memory recalls and, obviously, that's going to be seriously influenced by my chief feelings at the time... presumably confusion and uncertainty, not just the latter. You see, I have an irrational fear of being in the wrong place. At this stage I didn't have anywhere else to be but it will still have been there. But high school was also something of a fresh start for me because I was consistently seriously late at my primary, often turning up not only after the roll was finished but after the list of absences had been sent to the office. College was my chance to dodge this issue.

Luckily, I have two memories of this part of the first day because I was that house leader or something for several of 2013's year nines (I was a something). Due to this experience, I know it probably wasn't as crowded and chaotic as I recall, because it wasn't so bad when I was handing out the houses and home rooms. (Although, admittedly, I was to the side a bit.) Mind you, it had changed a little bit because I know we didn't find out what home room we were in until we were in the hall for our very first assembly (and also our powhiri, which is an official welcome), so maybe that experience doesn't work as a guide so well. The emotions and feel of this, to my memory, are recreated in some films... and I think Drillbit Taylor is one of them because it certainly covers Day #1. A lot of other films that I have seen start part way through the year or after the central character/s have been at high school for a bit (if not the one they're at now) or are totally new but for a reason other than age.
“High schools are full of disparate people who didn’t choose to be in the same building as each other,” says Catherine Bray, the documentary’s producer. “The only thing that unites them in is their age. That means that it’s a great place for antagonism between people with different interests and values, and a great place for mismatched romance. You can have a jock falling for a nerd, for instance, whereas if the characters were adults, they wouldn’t even meet each other, so none of those culture clashes would happen.
This is true. However, the existence of clearly defined roles in the wider school play, if you will, is not. John might think that Sarah's popular while Sarah thinks Antoinette is popular. That's very common. Furthermore, media depictions limit their cast. So instead of hundred of pupils composing a single cohort, there's at most dozens and probably only a few of them are characters rather than extras. One quite simply spends the rest of their time at their school coming across new people or people who are nearly unknown, despite having been there the entire time. The building, as I have mentioned, is usually a rather expansive collection of different blocks and you will find people generally inhabit a geographical area. Older year levels are more mobile... I used to speak of, as a year nine, herds of year thirteens. This is what happens when you walk down to the shops with your mates... by the end it was often quite hard to know where my friends were (we'd sometimes have to phone them if we were trying to do anything). But, yeah, this is close enough to a universal experience. College will always chuck people in together and there will be differences and some kind of division in the resultant pot.
In short, adolescent hormones are a potent catalyst for drama. But that doesn’t explain why these movies are such an American phenomenon: the Harry Potter series aside, non-American films set in secondary schools are few and far between. One reason for this is simply that high schools – with their Friday night [American, ed] football games and gowned-and-mortarboarded graduation ceremonies – are so central to US iconography. But, just as significantly, the layout of an archetypal American high school is a gift to film-makers. Every now and then, Hollywood will venture to a deprived inner-city sink school (Dangerous Minds) or an ivy-clad academy (Rushmore), but the campuses in the vast majority of teen movies are interchangeable: sunny, suburban, and gloriously cinematic.
I'm including this one just to say, I'm glad that the author pointed this out. It's something that I can really agree with and, aside from NZ's output just being tiny, this is one reason for issues that I noted earlier. Now, the next paragraph comes after a title: 'The Wild West'.
First of all, there is the front of the school, which is so broad that it could have been designed to fill a cinema screen. Stretched before it is a carpark where teenagers emerge from their convertibles, if they’re lucky, or from their parents’ station wagons, if they aren’t. There are lawns and terraces where cheerleaders practise routines and skateboarders practise stunts. In Grease 2, there is even room for a full-scale song-and-dance number, Back To School Again. What more could a director ask for?
Broadly true. Distinct absence of skateboarders. Also, drop offs are discouraged and the cars are, theoretically, all those of staff... pupils will park elsewhere. The school's front serves mostly as a zone to allow buses to pick up and drop off. Except when it gets clogged with parents whose first priority is getting their children to school before a nearly pointless administrative time period starts (home room). Naturally, the next paragraph does explain why this broadly true. Once you strip out the point of difference (i.e. geography) a school is a school and it's going to have similar needs. You'd expect that with a similar purpose you get similar spaces. Hence,
“You see the cars the characters are driving, you see who they’re meeting, you see whether they’re shunned or welcomed,” says Charlie Lyne, the director of Beyond Clueless. “These films are shot in real schools, so these spaces are all real. But, accidentally, they’re almost the perfect expositional first-act location for any movie. You can establish everything you need to know about the characters and their world, all in one opening shot.”
Naturally, not all of this happens. I've pointed that out already. And, again as you'd expect, in the real world if you want to know about the people and the world of the school you've really got to go deeper. And even if you do, you're not necessarily going to get the full picture. I mean, for me, I spent my time just mucking around and aside from a feud of sorts that lasted basically no time at all and was just really weird in general* any element of shunning did not exist. Now, my experience is obviously not that of everyone and I am sure that some people were bullied and the like, but for the most part I think people were able to maintain pretty insular friendship groups and this level of specialisation largely skirted any impression of shunning. Indeed, I spent a lot of my time flitting between two distinct and then ultimately cannibalistic social groups (a shame really). Perhaps you can think of many American films as just focussing on one particular group, thus explaining their limited casts?
Next comes a shot of the school’s busy corridors. It’s a shot which, sure enough, is there in Rebel Without a Cause, and it hasn’t altered much since. Again and again, it has the trophy display cases, the hand-painted posters, and, most importantly, the rows of metal lockers – the ideal places to stash treasured photographs or under-sized geeks. For students being bullied, such as George McFly in Back to the Future, the corridor is a gauntlet to be run. For the in-crowd, such as The Plastics in Mean Girls, the corridor is a catwalk. Strut along it in a designer outfit, swishing your hair in slow motion, and you rule the school.
Look, I know we're talking about films and these have tropes and the general consensus is that you need to point out what is truth in television because, in general, tropes are not. Real life isn't a story. But what I am really trying to draw your attention to here is that non-existence of even a rough analogy of the corridor. If you've got a school which consists of several blocks and several thousand people, where there are chokepoints, there are chokepoints. People are, simply, too busy getting where they want to be to really bother with this sort of thing. But, when they are, there are many different routes unless you're moving within a block (and, even then, it's often six of one and half a dozen of the other). So, yeah, you might get the odd person shoved into a garden but this is quite different outside: who is there to notice? Who is there to understand that it is (not) playful?

I guess, though, your experience out in the wilds of the various pathways does depend on whether or not you're being bullied. In hindsight, that there are multiple paths doesn't necessarily mean anything at all... unless the bullies start in the same place as you and leave earlier. And with not noticing not requiring an implicit approval of what is going on, in the same way that this seems to be the case in US films, I think this could mean it is worse.
Other key high-school locations are similarly useful and similarly unchanging, in film after film after film. There are the toilets, which have much the same function as shadowy back alleys in gangster movies: they’re the spot where deals are done, drugs are taken, and beatings are administered away from the authorities’ prying eyes (see The Craft). There are the classrooms, with their mile-wide greenboards, where literature teachers helpfully spell out the film’s themes (see 10 Things I Hate About You). There are the gym halls, which can be transformed into prom-night ballrooms (see The DUFF). There are the impossibly well-maintained playing fields, where swots have their awkward parlays with athletes (see Easy A). And, crucially, there are the cafeterias, where the people who are milling around outnumber the people who are actually eating (see Fast Times at Ridgemont High).
My school had an interesting attitude to toilets. In a school of around 2000 pupils, there was one definitely main block of toilets with several others being frequently locked, closed down while I was there, effectively open only during lessons or just really small (one or two toilets). Now, admittedly there were six to eight toilets in this toilet block so going to the loo didn't usually involve a waiting time. That is, for blokes. The thing with the girls toilets was that there was almost always a line extending out the door that one would have to walk past, if coming from one direction, to get to the gents'. I have no idea why this arises and the only think I can say it appears in is the aforementioned Ned (if Gormsby wasn't set in a boys' school I am sure it would've commented). Both of these toilet blocks consisted of several cubicles all lined up in a single line (no urinals) with a camera looking along the line so that any person entering a cubicle could be seen by the camera, but not what was going on in the cubicle. (The Bike Shed, incidentally, was an open air cage.) This was probably required because if you consider the toilet block that was closed down...

Greenboards turn out to be blackboards which are sea water coloured. The preponderance of blackboards in these representations has never ceased to amuse because both my schools, and every other school classroom I have seen (historical recreations aside) have had whiteboards. Whiteboards are awesome... I have one myself at home, which is sometimes useful for revision purposes. Where a board exists at uni (i.e. not OGGB FPAA or 098) it is invariably white as well (those two lecture theatres are huge and it is doubtful people at the back could see anything). The point is, as a learning medium whiteboards are just better because you can write more fluidly, without sound and, because you generally remove something within an hour, it is much easier to wipe off too. Chalk feels weird, sounds bad and you can't, in a pinch, project on to a blackboard and write on the projection (I do not see the point of interactive whiteboards).

My school did not have a cafeteria. I think this probably true of most schools. In practice, you'd need to be pretty industrial to have around 2000 pupils (and there are much bigger schools in NZ) be mostly served lunch from one place in 40 minutes (yes, I am aware that Ned had two different lunch periods... if that is common in colleges too then this is another point of difference). What did exist, though, was a canteen. This was plagued with enormous lines and I am not sure I ever actually bought anything from it in five years. I do know I waited in the queue a few times whilst talking to friends but I cannot, as such, recall any moment when I bought something myself. I may have, of course. Most people brought lunch from home. This is quicker and easier to eat, which means you can actually spend time doing what you want to (e.g. playing cards or soccer, talking to all your friends). In year thirteen we also often walked to the dairy... which I would sometimes get a pie from myself... or even to the fish and chips shop. This is another reason why I maintain one's actual experience of high school will be far more decentralised than the impression one picks up from depictions like these.
In Mean Girls, the school’s cafeteria is compared to a water hole in an African savannah: it’s where the prey and the predators are side by side. But it has even more in common with the canteen in a prison drama. In both genres, newcomers are taught how dangerous it can be to sit at the wrong clique’s table. And in both genres, plans are hatched and fights are started. “You could cut directly between Natasha Lyonne’s canteen scenes in American Pie, and her canteen scenes in Orange Is The New Black,” says Charlie Lyne, “and you wouldn’t see the join. It’s a sign of how insular schools are in these films. They’re like prisons in that there is almost no reality outside those walls. You rarely get to see the parents or any other adults apart from the teachers. And there’s no escape!”
I think this is the bit where it is most clear that, ultimately, these films are works of fiction. They have plots which are, at times, completely ridiculous or absolute unreality. They tend to, as part of these plots, work with exaggerations. But, at the same time, nearly all these films and shows have several similarities and the question we are left with is this: do these commonalities exist because of shared views of what the high school experience is or because they've become genre conventions?

Regardless of the actual answer to that question (an answer I do not know and, given that I am not American, am very poorly placed to answer**), these films have a big role in shaping peoples' expectations of what school will be like. This is pretty natural, after all, these are part of the cultural consciousnesses of places like New Zealand which are not American and which do things differently. This is one reason why you've got to treat criticisms of people like Iggy Azalea (with respect to cultural appropriation) with a grain of salt: if you think that rap is purely part of (black?) American culture you're not just naive, you're offensive... the export of the genre has meant that it is very much part and parcel of the lives of a great many more people (mind you, I am given to understand that Azalea goes further than just rapping: I don't know, I don't listen to rap because it's awful).

However, if you were to try and answer that question you'd need to track down the US films with somewhat more academic plot lines. Now, the only one of those that I am actually aware of is The Perfect Score, which is mostly just a perfectly silly heist film. However, the thing they are trying to rectify is not a light wallet/empty bank account but rather poor academic performance getting in the way of what they want to do. And, as far as I remember, this is a film that largely avoids the clique stuff. Sure, you've got the basketballer and the stoner stereotypes, two pretty average dudes (ignoring the whole Chosen One shtick, think Ron and Harry and you get an inkling of their relative natures) and then the two girls are different quirks on privilege... one is gothy and the other is "goody two shoes". All of them have very different family dynamics though (which is where the Ron/Harry thing doesn't apply). So, what does this film's representation of school look like? Well, maybe it gets wrapped up in the semi-political points the film makes but, I think, the stereotypes are as far into the whole clique scene that basically the above spends all their times on. I guess this would suggest, that it's a more or less genre convention as this film with a different core theme (i.e. not social interaction, bullying etc. etc.) looks very different. Still, one film.
The link between high-school movies and prison dramas has always been there, but at the moment it seems to be stronger than ever. Mean Girls, in particular, has been so influential that the prevailing school story now revolves around a naive tyro who has to learn to fit in, to fight back, and to get out in one piece, just as they would if they were serving a 10-year jail sentence. But whatever the challenges of high-school life in the movies, the schools themselves are always airy, clean and colourful, hence the regular Hollywood fantasy of returning there as an adult, either via subterfuge (Never Been Kissed, 21 Jump Street) or by magic (Peggy Sue Got Married, 17 Again). But maybe these films say less about the audience than they do about the film-makers. However old they are, they just can’t bear to leave school.
Hang on, didn't I just raise some of these points and by placing them where I did make it appear as though I reached them by thought alone? Probably, yeah.

I think, in some sense, the existence of these representations in the way they are means that we have some sort of duty, here in NZ, to try and actually develop something that presents an alternative view. Representations, in general, reflect society but if you think that something is one way, generally you're going to see it through that lens. Thus, it's a feedback loop. Yet, there are things like Ned, which while being set in a middle school (which NZ doesn't have, intermediates are different), look enough like college that you can get a more reasonable depiction of high school... Ned does make good advice, from time to time, and the fictional things are supremely obvious. Question is, maybe only people like me actually appreciate Ned in this light.

In case you're wondering why I posted this some months after I read the article? It took me that long to be in the right space to finish the damn thing. (This is not to imply that I've been working on it for that long, every few months I'd return to it, this is the first time I've got anywhere with it.)

*To be honest, this feud, of which I do not understand the origins, course or end, probably helped us create a more effective devised piece in drama that year. Either way, it just reinforced my view that I am a consummate professional.

**As I pointed out, pretty much at the start, there are differences in how we do things. For instance, The Perfect Score's plot makes next to no sense in NZ because there is no equivalent of the SAT. University Entrance, as I have explained, is determined simply from one's normal results. The big points that film's main character wants people to consider are also irrelevant for the same reason. Also, as I set out in the very first post (my mission statement?) for this blog, This is Not America.

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