Jocks, Nerds and Rebels (tm)
July 18, 2012 1:07 PM   Subscribe

To what extent do American Highschools resemble the stereotypical American Highschool seen in just about every movie and TV show ever, withever present competition for social status, rigidly defined cliques, omnipresent bullying, etc... etc?
posted by Artw to Society & Culture (84 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Most movies and TV shows feature predominately suburban high schools (ranch-style, sprawling, parking lots) that don't really resemble urban high schools (multiple floors, densely packed, relatively small amount of external "campus." Urban high schools also tend to have a bigger student body -- my graduating class was roughly 1,000, although that's somewhere at the upper limit -- so while there are still cliques, there's considerably less social climbing because no one person or group can be picked out as the objectively "best" group of people to hang out with.

I was in high school when it was airing, and Boston Public was a surprisingly accurate look at what certain aspects of an urban high school (that aren't usually covered in tv shows) is like.
posted by griphus at 1:15 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Several of John Hughes' movies were shot in and around New Trier High School, north of Chicago. Apparently, the milieu of Mean Girls was also based in part on the culture of New Trier.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:16 PM on July 18, 2012

Judging by the movies, you'd think that every girl in every American high school ever spends all her social time jockeying for popularity. My experience was that the popularity jockeying was limited to certain cliques who cared about that sort of thing. At my high school there were large social groups who weren't outcasts, who weren't bullied regularly or at all, who just went about their lives, did whatever extracurricular things they did, and didn't think twice about popularity. Movies don't acknowledge this middle ground.

There are lots of other things about high school movies that feel 'wrong' in my eyes, but the emphasis on popularity is what jumps out at me every time.

Note also that the typical movie high school of the type you're describing is large, suburban, and probably public. (Boarding school movies are a whole separate genre with their own stereotypes.) My high school was all of those things and still managed not to resemble a movie. Magnet schools, tiny hippie private schools, more urban schools, etc are all different scenes entirely.
posted by ActionPopulated at 1:19 PM on July 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Also, neither I, nor anyone I knew growing up, has ever had "detention." Suspension, both in-school and home was a thing for serious offenses (fighting, sexual harassment, drugs) but there was no concept of being forced to stay after school for bad behavior.
posted by griphus at 1:19 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to high school in the eighties and Pretty in Pink seemed really familiar, but I agree a lot with ActionPopulated, that there were a lot of subgroups who sort of didn't really care as long as they weren't tormented or otherwise hassled. We did, however, have detention and lots of it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:22 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think the best archetype of a typical high school was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course I went to High School in the 1970s so that warps my view.

I taught in a high school for a couple of years 2001-2003. In the high school I taught at I didn't see the stratification that you see in typical High School movies and TV shows. I was in an inner city school, with different races, immigrants and a gulch between those there for the Medical and Robotics magnet programs and the kids from the very poor neighborhood that surrounded the school. I don't think it helped that the school was a "Colored School" during segregation.

What I found really interesting, and what I think would warrant an anthropological study was how interwoven a lot of the kids were at my school. Many of them had some kind of kinship, either half-sibling, step-sibling, cousin, aunt, or uncle. Many more were "Godsisters" or "Godbrothers" or claimed a person as a "Playmama". (I was often asked to be someone's Playmama. I'm still not 100% sure of what that means.) Because of all of these family relationships we didn't see too much bullying. Although fights would break out, it was mostly hot temper issues, not bullying.

As for that whole popularity thing, never saw it. There were the kids involved in sports, drama, band, step (a dance crew), etc. Activities defined each student.

Although overcrowded, poor and full of kids who were not performing anywhere near grade-level, I think my school was pretty representative of a typical inner-city/urban school.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:23 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the answer to this will vary greatly depending upon community demographics. My own high school (in the early 90's) wasn't much at all like this. There were jocks, but they weren't necessarily dumb, and the popular kids were often smart. I was a band geek, but we weren't really picked on by anyone. But then, I also went to an incredibly diverse high school, both ethnically and socioeconomically. Rich kids did tend to be popular, and there was an awful lot of luxury brand worship, but neither did poor kids get any kind of guff for that, at least in my circles. In my experience both as a high school student and high school teacher, the self-segregation of students by race and ethnicity was FAR more prevalent than any kind of social identity (although this of course, is a generalization and there were/are all kinds of folks who crossed multiple boundaries, some with ease and some with pain). I ended up teaching in an urban school that was very similar to my own more suburban high school, and found similar social structures in place.
posted by smirkette at 1:24 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to an urban-ish public high school, and it was large enough for there to be a variety of different "popular" cliques. If you didn't care about being popular with the jock crowd or the choir crowd, you could maybe be popular with the hippie crowd, the yearbook crowd, etc.

I don't recall there being detention in my school, and there was open campus beginning second semester freshman year if your grades were...B or above, I think.

The U.S. is so vast - geographically, socially, economically - that the pop culture references to high school will almost always have little pieces that ring true to most people, but overall don't resemble reality in any meaningful sense.
posted by rtha at 1:26 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I attended a Catholic parochial high school from eighth through tenth grades. It was much like the typical TV/movie high school experience, with the addition of uniforms, mass, and compulsory religion classes. The one main difference at our school was that it was a co-ed Catholic school, which you almost never see in the American media.

For eleventh and twelfth grades I attended a public residential magnet school on a college campus four hours from home. While it had the stereotypical suburban-style campus and facilities (with the addition of dorms, of course), it was different in almost every way from the standard American high school experience. To the point that I often have trouble explaining it to others and just call it "Hogwarts for Nerds". I have a feeling that this type of high school experience is exceedingly rare for Americans, and even the next most common similar thing (prep boarding school) is very rare here.
posted by Sara C. at 1:28 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think one aspect of (my suburban) high school experience that's not usually depicted very well is how much cross-over there was between groups. Cheerleaders might be on student council, but some may also be in AP classes (the smart kids). Football players might be in band or (more likely) choir. I mostly hung out with the poor kids, but I was also in AP so I was also in the Smart Kid grop. Some of my poor friends were in the Band Group. Some other of my poor friends were also stoners, but most weren't.

Basically it was more like Venn diagrams than separate entities.

As for that whole popularity thing, never saw it. There were the kids involved in sports, drama, band, step (a dance crew), etc. Activities defined each student.

Yeah, exactly. The most cinematically popular girl in my class was a cheerleader and on student council, but she wasn't involved in music or AP classes so she wasn't on my radar at all. I didn't want to be her friend and she didn't care about me, either.
posted by muddgirl at 1:28 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Late 80s suburban Midwest - pretty similar to Pretty in Pink.

Also group/clique similarities to the group breakdown in Ferris Bueller...the thing the secretary says about how all the different groups like Ferris. Can't remember the quote but something about jocks, dweebs, freaks all like Ferris.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 1:32 PM on July 18, 2012

Also, as far as bullying goes in large urban high schools, it's a lot harder to do. When you have a huge student body, even the most dorky, awkward and pick-on-able kids have at least a few friends who will take their back by the time they are sophomores (almost all the bullying I encountered was during freshman year.) A bully might corner a shrimpy kid in a stairwell between classes or something, but said shrimpy kid will come back with five of his friends, one of whom is six feet tall and two hundred pounds &c &c. Almost every fight I witnessed was kids having specific beef with other kids.

The worst of the traditional bullying was usually over by October when the upperclassmen got all the freshman-hazing out of their system.
posted by griphus at 1:34 PM on July 18, 2012

I would say that the common depiction isn't particularly realistic, but it is verisimiltudinous.
posted by Zed at 1:34 PM on July 18, 2012

My high school experience was a lot like 10 Things I Hate About You.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:35 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and my school had a large second-generation Laotian population who were sort-of integrated and sort-of-separate, socially. You don't really see a lot of modern immigrant stories in American high school flicks.
posted by muddgirl at 1:35 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Detention was given in the nineties in my suburban midwestern high school - it was a middle step before suspension. Saturday detention as in the movies was, I think, totally fictive.)

(Sara C, was this the Hogwarts for Nerds in the Midwest? I always wanted to go to Hogwarts for Nerds - virtually every single other autonomously nerdy person from my high school had departed for Hogwarts by the time I was 14 and this pretty much depleted the friend/dating pool. It was astonishing when I met other nerdy types later on who had been to high schools where everyone with high test scores didn't split as soon as they could, and thus there were whole little social groups of geeks.)
posted by Frowner at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2012

(Oh, the issue was not a grades/tests thing - it was parental objection.)
posted by Frowner at 1:37 PM on July 18, 2012

Nthing the complexity between different cliques and subcultures. There were lines that tended to go together (goths tended to be in the marching band, cheerleaders tended to be on the student council, etc.), but you couldn't really separate out This Group from That Tribe in a discrete way.

Also, yes, of course at any school of size, there would have been hundreds of kids who were neither popular nor pariahs, who had certain interests or activities but weren't identified by them, and who didn't fit in any of the stereotypical High School Tribes. My assumption here is that these people aren't all that dramatic, and thus tend not to be the subject of movies about high school. That said, the main problem in Mean Girls was that I kept thinking, "why does she have to be stuck between these two particular cliques? Surely there are some nice girls who have a math study group and watch Gilmore Girls and drink Diet Dr. Pepper who she could be hanging out with instead...?"
posted by Sara C. at 1:37 PM on July 18, 2012

Several affluent high schools in northern Illinois were also the settings for notorious hazing incidents, Glenbrook in particular. If anything, these were worse than what you see in the movies.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:37 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

John Hughes actually went to Glenbrook North, one community over from New Trier, and he filmed at several high schools on the North Shore, both extant and defunct.

"Urban high schools also tend to have a bigger student body -- my graduating class was roughly 1,000, although that's somewhere at the upper limit "

I'm not sure this is a generalization you can make -- Lane Tech, in Chicago, has an enrollment of around 4,000; as does Stevenson, in the Chicago suburbs. New Trier also enrolls about 4,000. (And I'm in an urban district, downstate, with a high school that enrolls just 600. Our largest high school is just 1400. I went to high school in the north suburbs, so in that John Hughes milieu.)

In a wealthy suburban high school, as featured in John Hughes movies or Mean Girls, it's pretty rare anymore for students not to have two college-educated parents, so, yeah, even the jocks and the cheerleaders or whatever stereotypically dumb group you'd like to pick out are pushing hard for top-tier colleges. Half the lacrosse team was in my AP history class. The cheerleaders were almost all honors students. Partly because of heavy extracurricular involvement (for college applications!), there does tend to be a fair amount of crossover at a school like that. At my school people had their niches (or cliques, if you like); I mostly hung out with the band and orchestra kids, myself. But my BFF was a cheerleader who was in all my honors classes with me, and I knew a lot of the theater kids pretty well (from pit orchestra and things like that), and a lot of the theater kids were also in student government ... anyway, I wouldn't have particularly wanted to go to a football team party, but I don't think people would have been mean to me had I gone, and they certainly would have at least known who I was (I graduated in a class of 400, in a school of 1600 or so). I was decent friends with the super-dreamy quarterback because we'd known each other since we were 3 and we always said hi in the halls and often chatted though I was not remotely in the world of "popular" like he was. The school's "Queen Bee" was perfectly pleasant to me (though I know within her popular clique there was a lot more jockeying for position and being mean to each other).

I really thought junior high was the time for horrible cliques and deliberate meanness. High school was large enough that you could find your peeps and not have to suffer via close contact with mean people, and parents really started pushing you hard on college so everyone was "involved" in multiple activities. It wasn't all sunshine and roses (yeah, that Glenbrook hazing incident was something), but the horrible-people-being-horrible, Lord-of-the-Flies years was really junior high.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:40 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

My Catholic high school had Saturday detention. It wasn't nearly as interesting as The Breakfast Club.
posted by Sara C. at 1:41 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I really thought junior high was the time for horrible cliques and deliberate meanness.

This was my experience as well. Lots of both physical, verbal, and social bullying in junior high.
posted by muddgirl at 1:42 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

ever present competition for social status

Among some people, the rest of us couldn't give a fuck.

rigidly defined cliques

Yes, but many people were in more than one (e.g. you could be both a popular kid and a theatre person) and it was somewhat fluid. And a few kids, not many, were basically well-liked or at least accepted by everyone and sort of drifted between cliques. And another few were so friendless that they weren't in any group at all - or more often a group of two or three, which wasn't really a clique.

omnipresent bullying

For a few people. I mean, some were always bullied and some were always bullying. For the majority, there was frequent-to-occasional bullying.

Detention was totally a thing, but less after school and more during school. (You'd have to sit in a little room with a teacher and read the dictionary or something.)

Suburban, small-ish (~300 kids/grade) school in the early 90s.

But I also want to accurate are American crime movies? Or rom-coms? Or family dramas? How accurate are French movies of those genres, or British ones? I'd say all are directly or indirectly inspired by someone's experience, and need to be accessible to an audience, so unless they're science fiction or really absurdist, etc, they're all somewhat accurate, but also quite heightened. All those US HS movies/shows are recognizable, but dramatized. Because in real life most of high school (and being a cop, or dating, or talking to your family) is not interesting enough to write a script about it.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:44 PM on July 18, 2012

I was a neither popular nor unpopular band geek and athelete. We didn't really have cliques although Honors kids and Regular Ed kids tended to not share classes other than say, gym or the class where we played on the internet (some business thing?). We had no Saturday detention, no slam books. I went to an inner-city, urban-high school with a predominantly black student population, so it's not like I watch these movies with high hopes anyway aside from Boston Public, perhaps, but it wasn't very close.
posted by sm1tten at 1:48 PM on July 18, 2012

I really thought junior high was the time for horrible cliques and deliberate meanness.

Thirded. My high school in Denver was too big for just one group of popular people, and much more like Eyebrows McGee describes.

In my twenties I met someone who declared that her high school experience was *just like* Beverly Hills 90210 and I could not fathom such a thing.
posted by ambrosia at 1:49 PM on July 18, 2012

I attended New Trier and have to disagree. The school was too large and had too many people (at least in the 90s) to conform to any typical sense. It might be different now, but I had a lot of friends in a lot of groups and in the late 90s, kids were amazingly mature.
posted by discopolo at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2012

I spent K-12 in inner-city arts magnet schools, so mine was almost definitely not the typical high school experience. There was some bullying, but it wasn't the kind you see in Mean Girls -- I got pushed around/thrown to the ground a lot in elementary and middle school, but the catty, social-type bullying was pretty much nonexistent.

There weren't really cliques, but people got stereotyped by their artistic majors. So the dancers were the ditzy socialites, the artists and the technical theater kids were the grungy druggies, the writers were the weirdos, the actors were crazy and vivacious, the instrumental musicians were the nerds, etc. Within instrumental music, there was a further breakdown of clique by instrument. Flute players were the sluts, brass players were the jocks, bassists and violists were the quiet, weird ones, and so on.

What griphus said about urban schools held true for me. I spent 4th-12th grade in a five-story building with a footprint of less than a city block. My graduating class was 90.

There was competition, but it was what you would expect in an environment where you had to audition to get roles/seats/solos.

Perhaps the best thing about my high school, and the thing I miss most (and also probably the most obvious way it was different from the high schools you see on TV) was what you heard when you walked through the hallways. People would cut class to practice in the ground-floor stairwells, and the sound would waft up and echo against the marble staircases. The jazzers took the southeast stairwells, the string players, the northeast. Sometimes a cappella groups would congregate in a certain third-floor corridor and sing. I remember sitting on the stairs and listening to my stand partner practicing the Dvorak cello concerto and thinking, "Hey, I'm really glad I go to school here."
posted by coppermoss at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Re bullying -- I was heavily bullied at my first school, the Catholic one. There was a lot of it going on, typically directed at a very small subset of students. Said students were usually nerds or freaks, but not every nerd or freak was bullied. I can't really explain why some students were bullying targets and others weren't.

In my experience it wasn't Mean Girls style bullying where it was the kids at the edge of the popular clique being subjected to it and the whole thing revolving around You're Popular/No You're Not. It was more like the bullying in Heathers, where the popular girls torment someone who is an explicit outsider.

Also, AFAIK (having never been in the guys' locker room), bullying usually wasn't physical but more psychological.

(Haha, weird, I thought the "detention in a special room during the day" thing was a media creation. It's interesting how we all assume our school's form of punishment was standard and anything else must have been fictional.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2012

Mod note: Folks, please stay on topic. You can MeMail the OP if you have other relevant non-answers to talk to him about.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:52 PM on July 18, 2012

Our suburban highschool was only 5 years old and huge; 900 some people in my class. It sort of acted like a churn, with different jr. highs feeding into it along with new kids moving in and others out. Lots of the kids didn't care about popularity, and left to our own devices, wouldn't have spent much time worrying about it. Whatever clique you came from in jr. high wasn't relevant much anymore.

But. There was sports, especially football. You could dweeb along doing your band and art and math all you wanted, but it was mandatory that you go to pep rallies (held at 7 am for god's sake) and "school SPIRIT!" was shoved down your throat fairly constantly. This led to a defacto elevation of sports-playing kids, by the adults mind you, because no one was holding mandatory 7am pep rallies for the math squad or the computer club.

So you had this weird situation where there was a well-known and lauded group of athletes and their hangers-on, but where a lot of kids knew that this was a setup, not any kind of natural phenomena, and therefore all BS. But it was BS you could not entirely escape; if you were a musician, you played for the teams in some capacity, if you were in theater you had to allow cast members to go to football practice or band practice, if you were in art you got recruited to make banners, if you were in yearbook or newspaper you wrote about spirit and sports all the time.

Maybe the science and math kids got drafted less, unless the AV club was also in charge of showing game films or something. Mostly they got burned because nobody gave a shit about them but instead talked constantly about our mostly losing football team.
posted by emjaybee at 1:54 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I heard Glenbrook schools (can't remember if North or South) was the typical, dumb, bitchy place. They had a hazing episode, and one of the ringleaders is actually a lawyer now.

New Trier had its share of crazies (Benjamin Smith) but the majority of the kids had this weirdly adult social etiquette in my day, which I attribute to having so many people in the whole school. Most were not assholes. The assholes got shipped off to the alternative campus until they learned how to act normal.
posted by discopolo at 1:56 PM on July 18, 2012

The rural high schools I knew were nothing like those in fiction. Except for seniors with drivers licenses and cars, the jocks tended to be town kids, but those of us who worked farms were far stronger as demonstrated during gym classes. We didn't play sports because we lived too far from school to make practice sessions.
posted by Ardiril at 2:00 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to a tiny suburban high school --- graduating class of maybe 115? Something like that. And I'll nth that there's a lot more fluidity, in real life, to social groupings. This was probably exacerbated by the fact that it was such a small school and most of the kids had known each other since kindergarten. But what I saw were mostly loose groups of friends, many of whom would often participate in the same activities. But there'd be inevitable mixing because of small class sizes --- "Popular" kids in the AP class, band kids on the field hockey team or student council, etc.

There's also some tracking at most American schools --- e.g., even at our small school there'd be english 101 and "advanced" English, sometimes at three levels -- biology, advanced bio and AP bio (which stands for "advanced placement" but refers to a A-level type test you take at the end of the school year and which nominally allows you to earn college credit in high school. In practice a lot of universities won't allow AP credits to sub for their own intro courses but taking AP courses is an important social signal for admissions.) because of tracking even in a larger school you might see some of the same faces a lot.
posted by Diablevert at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2012

At my small town high school, we definitely strove to be popular and analyzed cliques (and their standings) every day. I was in a group who thought about all these things.
posted by sandmanwv at 2:03 PM on July 18, 2012

To what extent do American Highschools resemble the stereotypical American Highschool seen in just about every movie and TV show ever, withever present competition for social status, rigidly defined cliques, omnipresent bullying, etc... etc?

I went to a coastal Southern California high school which was exactly like that depicted in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, etc.

Yes, there were cliques and divisions and they were strong. The jocks, the stoners, the surfers, the mods, the preps, the metalheads, the nerds. Of course, there was some crossover since this was real-life and not a cartoon. But, at least in my case, the depiction you're thinking about is spot-on.
Everyone knew who he most 'popular' kids were, even if they tried to ignore it.

Bullying was most active in junior high school (7th-8th grade, approx ages 12-13, basically puberty) and there were kids who were beat up mercilessly for being different.
posted by vacapinta at 2:05 PM on July 18, 2012

On reflection, I want to add:

It's not like my high school was 100% bully-free. Kids were mean to each other, often. Kids were sometimes bullied. But it was rarely/never "entire football team picks on the nerd" or "cheerleading squad convinces some dweeb they want to be her friend, and then make fun of her". It was more often "two seniors pick on some freshman they dislike," or "A subset of group doesn't like this other girl, so they gossip about her behind her back until she gets pissed off, fights, and leaves."
posted by muddgirl at 2:06 PM on July 18, 2012

Largish, wealthy, suburban Boston high school, early 90s, and I agree with the folks who say that the "American High School" of TV/film is sort of like taking a grayscale photo and rendering it in strict black and white. Any subtle distinctions and shadings are ironed out in service of the dramatic goals of the story.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:08 PM on July 18, 2012

Nthing several others that the clique-y, bullying high school trope played out much more in my tiny town's junior high (actually a K-8 at the time) of 75-100 students per grade than in my high school, which was a multi-town bohemoth (1000 kids per grade). Day 1 of high school, I promptly forgot everyone I had known since Kindergarden and didn't think of them again until Facebook came along.
posted by jabes at 2:11 PM on July 18, 2012

I think your description is one sort of thing that goes on. And then there are other schools that have some elements of that, and then there are some schools that are totally different.

I went to a very small suburban high school where everyone had known each other since kindergarten.

My high school was maybe 40% the "cool" group, 40% the "uncool" group, and the rest were just kind of random individuals and smaller friend circles.

The weird thing about being in the "uncool" group is that we weren't actually any less popular than the "cool" group. There were lots of us and we had plenty of friends. I would say also most of the girls in the "uncool" group were prettier than the girls in the "cool" group even though our guys were pretty dorky.

The reason that we were "uncool" is because we were really earnest, and kind of goody-goody, cared a lot about academics, and socially a bit younger for our ages than the "cool" ones - we started dating later, drinking a lot later, doing drugs later if at all. We dressed younger - maybe we were still wearing denim overall shorts and scrunchies while the cooler girls were wearing sexier stuff. We had way stricter parents, way earlier curfews.

We totally got bullied, but I don't remember seeing any violently physical bullying. It was mainly "mean girl" type of bullying (though almost exclusively done by the boys). Just really nasty comments, mocking us, throwing things at us, knocking things off our desks, etc.

Most of us in the school were athletic and played sports whether you were "cool" or not. And it didn't usually follow the the "cool" people were the ones who were better at sports. If you were on a sports team then you typically became better friends with the people on the team even if they normally would have been mean to you otherwise.

In the last year or two of high school we came together a lot more since we had grown up a bit and the "cool" guys started wanting to date some of us.
posted by cairdeas at 2:14 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, I have this theory I like to call "High school is the World of Jane Austen." I think movies and TV shows like to set things in high schools because they can create artificial constraints on characters' behavior and force characters to continue interacting and to compete for limited goods (social status, boyfriends, etc.) from within a limited pool. It's tricky to modernize Jane Austen because people aren't trapped in a limited social world with very limited life choices -- today Lizzie Bennet and Darcy could get married with no real social stigma, but Lizzie would have gone off to Princeton on a fencing scholarship anyway and majored in anthropology and interned at a snarky feminist magazine based in NYC. But! If you stick the characters in an American high school, they have a limited pool of other humans to interact with and a limited set of life choices available and they must try to achieve status and success within that constrained milieu, as Austen's characters did. Which is why "Clueless" is such a successful update of "Emma."

Anyway, if you're creating The World of Jane Austen for your fictional TV show or movie, you probably want to play up the cliques, to limit social mobility choices for your character, and the bullying, to create some real danger in the world, and you want to play down parental or other competent adult involvement, because if your characters can appeal to someone outside the World to rescue them from the awfulness of the World, your plot will fall apart. (See: the recent revival of 90210, which I watch with great glee, but I constantly wonder, "Why are there no adults even a little bit involved with these adolescents??? This is a common adolescent problem that would be solved in thirty seconds by a single competent parent or teacher NOTICING IT'S GOING ON.") You also want the adults to serve mostly as a stringent source of governing power that can abuse the students or help the students, seemingly at random, and can be rebelled against and sometimes defeated, but is rarely there to assist.

If you think about updates of Austen and Shakespeare, so so many of them are set in high schools -- 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew), Clueless (Emma), She's the Man (Twelfth Night), O (Othello), West Side Story (Romeo & Juliet) -- because if you can't limit the social mobility of the characters, the stories don't work.

I have more examples if I think about it, but I think I have to go watch Clueless now.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:20 PM on July 18, 2012 [216 favorites]

I'd say that there was a lot of stratification in my high school by class and race, and that this contoured most of the other interactions. My school was overwhelmingly white, with a small number of Latin@ students coming in when I was a junior. But there was a para-racial stratification around ethnicity - the Italian kids were treated in a racist/racialized manner (everyone "knew" that the Italian kids were slutty, trashy, listened to stupid music, fought a lot - and that this was, like, an ethnic thing. The bad kids were the Italian kids, with a leavening of non-Italian working class kids.) The Latin@ kids were also treated badly, but almost more as part of a "we have this pre-existing prejudice against the Italians, so we will treat you as a subset of Italians" way...I am given to understand that this changed as more Latin@ students came in, so that now it's just regular old white racism against Mexicans, etc.)

I remember two kinds of bullying (I was one of the homo sacer kids - anyone could pick on me, I had no friends, I had no recourse). There was bullying by the sociopathic among the rich kids - bullying just for fun, just to see me twitch, usually conducted in front of an audience. Then there was bullying by the working class kids, which was mostly about taking out their sufferings on me because although I was middle class I was fat and socially vulnerable.

As I said above, there wasn't much of a nerd clique, because everyone who had the test scores (and parental permission) got the hell out of Dodge once they hit high school go to our (sigh) free, state-run boarding school for geeks. (Even now I wonder how different my life would have been if I could have gone there, where I would have had friends and intellectual peers - quite aside from being lonely, it isn't very good for you to be the smartest one in the room when you're not even trying - breeds all kinds of ego and fear of failure.)

My school was in the same general area as New Trier but not as posh. All these anecdotes lead me to believe that Illinois is pretty screwed up.
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went to a school that had a sort of rough version of the movie profile: midwestern, medium-large (2k pop), very white, some very wealthy kids.

Not much of those movies is accurate. The biggest B.S. is the popularity and social status culture, and the whole trope of OMG THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PARTY. That culture didn't exist, and if it had, the outcasts would not long to be a part of it. There were many smaller cliques but they were not arranged around a central point. There was no band of the most popular girls and guys who ruled the school. There was lots of stratification by attractiveness but it was within groups not so much across groups. Prom was not a gigantic deal. All the stuff like that was retarded at least as far as my school went.

It was more like each kid was in 1d4 groups and had status in each of them separately. There were parts of the school where the groups tended to hold court. Also in my school they were more strongly stratified by year. In the movies you can't really tell what year people are, but in the high school you were keenly fucking aware. My little group (North Ramp represent!) didn't welcome some younger kids who were, objectively, cut from the same kind of cloth, so they started hanging at the top side of the ramp (they loved Sassy ironically). Things were fluid; our groups started to merge (separated by the designated smoking zone kids, and that was an entirely other subkingdom). Age and geography were important factors you don't see in the movies.

So it was way more sub-stratified than in the movies, but on the other hand there was lot more cross identification... Movies are full of kind of single-group exemplars, but in my experience these people were not socially powerful and kind of looked down upon. It was also maybe too complex to really muster one group against another. There were plenty of assholes, and like, generally people agreed that moped riders were to be mocked, but there wasn't really bullying like in, say, Heathers.

Also I don't think any high school movie has captured the feeling of when you venture into some new group to discover an entirely new little social world you never knew existed. No movie could resist stratifying that by attractiveness/weirdness, instead of the reality where it's like "hey these people seem all right, and holy-shit they really are doing Science Club things every weekend, and hm it seems like they sort of orbit around that one teacher whom I always wondered what his deal was"
posted by fleacircus at 2:29 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went to a small private high school in an urban area in the late 90s, but we were pretty much a public school with uniforms in terms of demographic.

There were groups of friends, but there weren't hard cliques. On any given day, I might've hung out with the goth kids, the stoner and hippie kids, the musician kids, or whoever based on my mood (did I want to play Magic? Practice guitar? Argue about politics? Play flag football?). But the guys playing sports would still wave me down for flag football or basketball or whatever. My morning group was something like 2 cheerleaders, 3 goth kids, 2 nerdy girls, and 3-4 stoners, and whoever else showed up. It was usually "Whoever wound up hanging out at the bench where we always congregated in the morning."

But if I sat down at lunch with, I dunno, the football team, I wouldn't be shunned/mocked/made fun of/beaten up/whatever. In one of my classes, I actually sat with a good chunk of my year's football players and we cut up and had fun. Or my AP History class was a baseball player, a basketball player, me, and 2 girls on the dance team, and we'd still sneak out to lunch together when the teacher didn't show and hang out like it was normal. I didn't see a lot of the racial tensions, either, though I knew schools like that.

And the whole popularity thing never rang true with me. I knew a pretty good cross-section of my class and nobody cared if they were popular. Going to a party was more "Hey, we can get drunk!" and not "Oh god I got invited to The Popular Kid's party!"

A couple of the sports teams had problems with hazing and there was some alpha male schoolyard bullshit, but not any bullying that I experienced.

There were a couple kids that were shunned and disliked, but they'd either done something to earn their reputation (hung out under the stairs trying to look up girls' skirts, trying to grope girls in the hallway, got caught masturbating in the bathroom and finished up, finally got expelled) or they were assholes.

We had detention. I never got one because I was a bullshit artist even then, but it seemed pretty boring.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:01 PM on July 18, 2012

I've never seen a portrayal of prep school that is anything like my own boarding school experience.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:10 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to a private high school in Houston in the early-mid 80s (freshman and senior year; the intervening two years I spent abroad). My high school experience in Texas, and the one Saturday morning detention I did, were nothing like Pretty in Pink. However, my school was very small, with a graduating class of 115, so there wasn't a lot of room for people to cut others dead for being in the wrong clique.

According to my classmates, Rushmore is pretty accurate in how it depicts things; I haven't seen it. I didn't know Wes Anderson other than in passing but he was a year or two behind me in school.
posted by immlass at 3:45 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to a small private school in NYC and graduated in the class in 1990. It was nothing like any films I've ever seen.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:15 PM on July 18, 2012

Saturday detention as in the movies was, I think, totally fictive.

I had Saturday detention. Only a half day and SUPER BORING. No pot smoking in the library; it was actually held in the lunchroom.

To me movie high schools might more closely resemble junior high. High school might have similar aspects but like someone above said, the whole, vast middle ground is ignored.

Junior high was probably much more true to the movie stereotypes (and much worse than high school). Given how influential kids are at that age I've always kind of half wondered if the movies are mirroring reality or the other way around. I know a lot of my opinions at that age on school, teenagers and teenage life were heavily influenced by how they were portrayed in the movies (example, Pretty in Pink and other movies making me think that prom was really, really important, was going to be magical and amazing and that I would never forgive myself if I didn't go. In reality when I got to high school, I didn't really care about prom but went anyway my junior year and it was totally boring and forgetful).
posted by triggerfinger at 4:20 PM on July 18, 2012

I went to an affluent high school of about 2500 students in an extremely affluent small city in CA.

Our "cool kids" were all top of their class, student body president types. The most competition was over whose GPA was highest, much less so about clothing or anything like that but then again most of the student body was at least upper middle class so that wasn't really a problem anyway.

The cool kids were in multiple AP classes and held study groups and participated in multiple after school activities, for some perspective I graduated with a 4.1 GPA and I wasn't in the top 10% of my graduating class. There was also quite a bit of competition to see who could graduate with the largest number of community service hours (60 hours were required to graduate).

I have no doubt that there was bullying that happened but mostly it just seemed like general bitchiness and talking behind people's backs, nothing too horrible but maybe I just wasn't in those groups.

We did have detention and saturday school (although I probably only know that because the room was in the same building as the band room, where I spent most of my time). We had study hall too but most people got signed out of that by their parents and took a free period (only available for upperclassmen)

I definitely remember junior high as being much more heinous than high school as well. I think a big part of that was actually giving high school kids groups to bond with. Pretty much everyone was involved in something so pretty much everyone had a built in group of friends.

I'll admit it though I definitely remember saying bitchy things about the "weird" kids at times, though never to their faces, and I was actually friends with a few of them through different groups.

High school is a weird weird place.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:55 PM on July 18, 2012

I think one aspect of the Movie High School Is Like Junior High is the fact that often these movies are marketed to junior high aged kids, or kids at the younger end of high school. Because those are the people who go see movies.

They're too young to even remotely pass for drinking age and too young to have an older friend or a friend with a 21 year old sibling to get easy access to beer (I mean, even if you're a sixth grader with a way older sibling, only the most clueless fuckwad is going to go out and acquire liquor for a bunch of tweens). They don't have drivers' licenses, and are for the most part at the mercy of rules, curfews, and intense parental scrutiny. They often have allowances or side income from casual work, but typically don't have any real expenses.

So you put out a bunch of fantastical movies about how awesome it is to be in high school, but featuring the same sorts of conflicts that are a part of their lives right now in junior high. The captive audience of 12-14 year olds who are pretty much only allowed to hang out at the local cineplex will pay to see it, and you make your money back.

Conversely, the only high school movie that gets a lot of this stuff right is Dazed and Confused, which is an indie film and not a teenybopper Ra Ra High School flick.
posted by Sara C. at 5:20 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

My school punishment system hierarchy went something like:
Saturday school
In-school suspension
Out-of-school suspension

My guidance counselor was negligible in my life, unlike those super-involved movie/TV ones. Sports were way more prized than academics, but academic kids got away with more (skipping, violating dress codes, etc).
posted by vegartanipla at 6:26 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Movies like 'Stand & Deliver' or "Freedom Writers" or even "To Sir with Love" do a better job capturing the conflicts students face in urban high schools TODAY than any John Hughes/Freaks & Geeks movie that focussed on social stratification.

Students where I teach range from ones getting full Ivy League scholarships to ones that are in class with tracking bracelets on their ankle.

My personal experiences in HS 30 years ago aren't very relevant now.
posted by TDIpod at 7:54 PM on July 18, 2012

Several other folks have touched on this above, but the biggest disconnect I see between media portrayals of high school and lived experience, whether my own or that of the students I work with, who are just past that time, has to do mostly, I think, with the commercial nature of mainstream film/tv in this country. That is, the high-school world of commercial media emphasizes a very "horizontal" set of social relations, mostly peer to peer, to the near exclusion in many cases of much attention to "vertical" relationships, such as those between teens and adults or teens and younger kids. Often, this bias seems really glaring, as in "where are all the adults?" or "gee, any good parent could have resolved that character's problem with a good ten-minute conversation," etc., as others have noted.

But even in its less obvious forms, this horizontal emphasis in media hs story lines means little attention to the ways that actual high-school kids get large parts of their emerging identities from people other than their direct peers. Sure, it's fun to be popular among peers, by whatever standard of judgment/performance you choose to define that, and we'd all agree that getting bullied sucks, but many actual hs students have other social support to draw upon as well, although you'd never figure that from the way characters behave on the screen, which the comparison above between the lack of social mobility in Jane Austin novels and typical media portrayals of high school really nails.

Anyway, to the extent there's an explanation, beyond the force of established genre expectations (what high school's "supposed" to look like when we watch film/tv), the horizontal bias fits well with the obsession for narrow demographic slices of viewership that advertisers prefer. (Some years ago critic George Trow made a similar argument in his piece "In the Context of No Context," at least so far as I understand him.)

So, yeah, there are some resemblances between what shows up in the media about American high-schools and actual lived experience, IMO, but for some predictable reasons not enough to make the depictions all that accurate.
posted by 5Q7 at 9:01 PM on July 18, 2012

I went to high school in the western suburbs of Chicago and graduated in 1991. Muddgirl's description of the groups being more like Venn diagrams rather than rigidly defined cliques describes my experience too.

One of the big differences between traditional media portrayals of high school and the way it was in my school had to do with race. The community where I grew up is extremely racially and ethnically diverse, and that carried over into the school. In movies/TV shows, the cliques tend to be pretty racially segregated, and if an interracial couple is featured, it's a Very Big Deal. It wasn't like that in my school at all. In fact, interracial dating was very common - nobody gave it a second thought.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:40 PM on July 18, 2012

I went to a small suburban high school, and my experience was nothing like any movie I've ever seen whatsoever, nor did I notice any of that kind of thing really going on. There was some meanness, of course, children being monsters and all, but it wasn't very organized.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:34 PM on July 18, 2012

Small suburban high school here. I think I managed to dodge a lot of the "typical" high-school stuff in my school because an unusually large percentage of my school was in the drama club and music department and we music geeks were thus big enough to be our own weird clique. If we'd been smaller in number we'd probably have gotten some shit, but since there were so damn many of us the other kids just kind of blinked at us a few times and left us alone. (And then throw in the fact that there were some of us in the music department who were really academically ambitious, and were spendng our study halls writing scripts for anti-nuke movies rather than trying to goof off, and the teachers probably loved that they had kids who were looking for more work and let us get away with all kinds of shit.)

Which probably also high school experience was thus more like Glee than anything else.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: BTW I am finding this super fascinating. Have held back on Best Answers so far as I may have to carpet bomb the thread with them.
posted by Artw at 10:42 AM on July 19, 2012

My school district was almost uniformly white kids with college educated parents, but geographically covered a pretty wide swath of incomes. I was on the less wealthy end of things. Throughout high school I thought my school was nothing like the movies - no cliques! People are nice to each other! - but months after graduation I went to a party at a friends house in the $$$-est subdivision and it was something straight out of 10 Things I Hate About You/Can't Hardly Wait. According to some friends, these drug- and booze-fueled parties were a weekendly occurrence and folks just thought I never came because wasn't a partier. I was kind of head-in-the-clouds. These two girls bullied me pretty heavily junior year and I only just realized what they were doing like a year ago. Shrug!

But also, there were some girls that, as part of their senior quote in the yearbook, added "*BC*," which stood for Bitch Clique. Even I didn't miss that.
posted by troika at 11:15 AM on July 19, 2012

I went to the same high school as Greg Nog, though I graduated a few years after. I was somewhere in the middle of the social hierarchy - I was part of the orchestra, one of the "smart kids," and I had a really close group of friends who went to the same middle school (years 6, 7, and 8) as me. Most of us were in the music department, but the social group overlapped heavily with track and cross country (the nerdier sports, I guess), student government, and the school newspaper. I can definitely put people into bins of nerd, stoner, skinhead, popular kid, jock ... but most people fit in 7 or 8 bins. The groups were pretty easy to separate out - the preps, who tended to be tan, and wear lots of Abercrombie and Fitch and play football, probably occupied the stereotypical "mean girl" territory. But really, I had limited social interaction with them.

What defined my friends more than popularity, as defined by high school movies, was the classes we were taking. This is something that I don't think comes across in a lot of high school movies. In my high school (and lots of others, I think), you can take classes at different difficulty levels. 1 was remedial, 2 was above that, but probably not for college-bound students, 3 was challenging, college-bound coursework, and 4 was honors and AP level classes. There were maybe 30-50 students in my level 4 classes, all four years of high school, and most of them were my closest friends, kind of by default.

The only other major difference I always see between my high school and movie high school is the prevalence of drugs, alcohol, and giant parties! I mean, I think there were parties like that (our entire basketball team, and most of the cheerleaders, got suspended one year after the cops busted a party), but only a small segment of the population went to them. My friends and I were totally straight edge, unintentionally. Everyone went kind of crazy with the drinking and the drugging in college, though, and lots of people picked up cigarette, pot, and alcohol habits really seriously. I remember being totally shocked my first summer home after freshman year of college.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:16 AM on July 19, 2012

It occurs to me, reading this fascinating thread, that Artw should maybe take certain aspects of these answers with a grain of salt because the AskMe answering pool is....self-selecting, in certain ways? I mean, you've got a thread full of self-admitted former band and theater geeks, nerds, goths and emos. Very few slackers, burnouts, punks, jocks and preps, to put it in the patois of the genre. (Except for literal prep-school kids). The kind of bitchery and rivalry that is/was/may be the norm among the high school social elite we're not really in a position to speak to. (Sorry, MeFi. You know I love you.) I'm just saying that in a number of these 1000-kid-per-grade high schools there may well have been people worrying about being invited to the popular parties, it just wasn't the peeps here, who were off practicing clarinet or playing hackysack or whatnot.
posted by Diablevert at 12:09 PM on July 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

But I was a slacker/burnout, if we're looking solely at who I hung out with. I just happened to also be smart and in the AP program, and in the orchestra. Some of my other burnout friends also played in the band. One of my 'classic burnout' friends (yes, his best grade was in the automotive trades elective, why do you ask?) was dating the gorgeous foreign exchange student from Belgium. My experience just doesn't align with stereotypes.

And you know, I WAS bummed out about the fact that I was never invited to the yearly Holiday Party, except the Holiday Party was hosted by Upper-Middle-Class parents who wanted a dry alternative to what kids get up to when left to their own devices. Again, not at all like the ragers depicted in movies.
posted by muddgirl at 12:26 PM on July 19, 2012

AND if I had just suited up, gotten over my intense social anxiety, and asked to come to the Holiday Party, I would have gotten an invitation.
posted by muddgirl at 12:30 PM on July 19, 2012

Mean Girls didn't get everything right, but the lunchroom scene identifying the various cliques was pretty much spot-on.

Those band kids had an almost ridiculous amount of sex.
posted by schmod at 1:04 PM on July 19, 2012

There's also a lot of hindsight-20-20 "oh, nobody really cared about being popular/going to parties/making the cheerleading squad," because it all seems so far away and unlikely from an adult perspective.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that all high schools had the pervasive Cult Of Popularity thing going on, or that all student were swept up in status and their place in the pecking order. But I'd guess that it's probably more prevalent than the grown adults in this thread are making it out to be.

Also, for cross-cultural purposes, it shocks me that British schools have "prefects" and other roles where some kids actually have specific powers and privileges that other kids don't have. In the states, all the status stuff is de facto rather than enshrined in school policy. Then again, maybe I read too many books that take place in English boarding schools in the 50's, and that doesn't really exist.
posted by Sara C. at 1:29 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those band kids had an almost ridiculous amount of sex.

If you think about it - there's usually a lot of band/drama club crossover (at least there was in my school), and the school plays often call for kids to be macking on each other, or running around in states of undress.

Take any group of people with that heightened a state of hormones and make them make out while half-naked and I'm not SURPRISED they start getting it on.

And yet, I didn't have a boyfriend until I got to college. Go figure.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:36 PM on July 19, 2012

Also, re drinking, sex, and drugs? Lots of talk, very little action.

In my experience of the kids I knew. There were always wild rumors of So And So Going Down On Such And Such Behind The Whatever, but somehow it was always a kid the speakers didn't personally know that well. You never heard anecdotes about "I was having sex in the bed of my boyfriend's truck..." or whatever. It was always someone else, and that someone else was always tangentially related to your group.

Similarly, there was much gnashing of teeth over Getting Alcohol, or Being Drunk, or Somebody Definitely Had A Joint, and yet my experience of adult life implies that folks were a lot less exposed to it than they pretended to be.

On the other hand, I'm sure there really were some kids for whom high school was a stoned wasted shagfest, but I don't think I knew any of them.
posted by Sara C. at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2012

Now that I've been thinking about it, my high school experience resembled that of a TV show in that shit happened there than was nigh unbelievable:

1) I meant shit, literally. A couple kids were smearing it on the walls of the men's bathrooms and also putting it in bathroom trash cans and lighting it on fire, and the English teachers were brought into the bathrooms by the principal to try and identify the shit handwriting. They could not. This also resulted in a couple of months where we had to have a teacher escort to the restrooms and only one person could go at a time.

2) We had two bomb threats. In a small, rural high school.

3) During or after the first bomb threat, the police searched all the cars on school property and since it was a small, rural high school, they found about 10% had guns (mostly rifles/shotguns for hunting) in their cars. The 10% all got in some minor sort of trouble and about 20% of the students stopped parking on school property thereafter.

4) A student took a $10 bet to see if he could masturbate to completion in the middle of a classroom before the notably unaware teacher caught on. He won the bet, and the teacher never did catch on despite, near the end, the awareness/responses of the rest of the class. He was suspended later after the gossip reached too many ears. Then every other class in her classroom afterwards had to sit boy-girl (not sure how that was supposed to have stopped anything) with hands visible and on top of the tables at all times.

5) One teacher had a breakdown mid-semester and had me teach the class (I was a senior in the mixed grades elective class) for a couple weeks while she left and did whatever until the principal found out and replaced me with a substitute until they could hire someone new.

6) The principal blackmailed me senior year by withholding my transcript from the college I wanted to go to until I agreed to go to a state competition to represent my school. I could've made a fuss, but it was easier to just agree.

7) The area had enough problems with racism that we had to have read to us in the morning bulletin every day for several months that "it isn't okay to say racial slurs and it isn't okay upon hearing racial slurs to beat the racism out of your peers."

8) At least one teacher socialized inappropriately with students outside of school hours. Not abuse-y inappropriateness, but like, "I'll bring the beer and we'll all watch the game" inappropriate.

There was also definitely a fairly large subset of the student population who drank. And a smaller but not at all insignificant subset who drank and did drugs and had sex.
posted by vegartanipla at 2:01 PM on July 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Being from NZ, I had assumed that US Highschools in TV/Movie-land were heavily, heavily fictionalised, and that it was all trying to be symbolic of warfare and classism and segregation, but wasn't really like that.

(I've been realising to my horror, that a lot of things that I thought were TV-land tropes, are actually just... real things in places in the US. Red cups for parties. Donuts everywhere (and cops + donuts thing).

Then I met this lovely Australian-American, who grew up in Australia (pretty similar to NZ), and moved to California, US partly through high school.
Utterly, utterly horrific.
She was a bit butch, the social pressure, bullying, and social division was awful. And well, she apparently locked herself in the toilets every lunchtime and cried.
It was extremely distressing to hear her talk about it.

I don't have a good handle on it, but it seems categories - jocks & cheerleaders, and geeks, and freaks, etc. And there are discussions about whether people were in multiple groups.
But, if I and my friends in NZ had been asked to classify ourselves, it would have been interesting, and we would have debated it, but we wouldn't have just known.
NZ is just as, if not more 'sporty' than the US, but the sporty stereotype here seems quite different to that of Jocks. Compare the romantic stereotype of Jocks/Football players & Cheerleaders, with our stereotype of Rugby players and Netball players (who go on to have absurdly sporty children).
posted by Elysum at 3:26 PM on July 19, 2012

I learned about British "school stories" from Harry Potter fandom - to Americans, Harry Potter can seem fresh and genre-breaking, but really it's just a different set of stereotypes and standard plots.
posted by muddgirl at 4:10 PM on July 19, 2012

Meant to link to "school stories," although the wikipedia page is a bit thin on genre conventions.
posted by muddgirl at 4:11 PM on July 19, 2012

muddgirl, if you haven't read Tom Brown's School Days, it's probably the epitome of (British public) school stories. It's on gutenberg.
posted by rtha at 4:15 PM on July 19, 2012

My school was more like Footloose or Hoosiers, or maybe My So-Called Life, than a John Hughes film -- too rural, poor and small for much cliquishness outside of junior high/middle school. Even so, the football players did all wear their jerseys to school on Fridays before games, and the band kids (who varied dramatically, academically speaking) took advantage of the band room as a safe space to hang out. The school was too small for groups like theater kids or goths to maintain their own circles. There were about 50 kids in my class, and it was a Central School, meaning kindergarten through 12th grade in one sprawling building surrounded by grape farms, so most of us knew each other since early childhood. The biggest difference I noticed between my school and movie/TV high schools is that we almost never went outside, for lunch or gym class or anything else. The elementary school kids were only allowed outside for recess in the winter if they had brought snowsuits. The neighboring larger schools with more economic variety seemed to be more movie-like to me at the time.
posted by obloquy at 6:11 PM on July 19, 2012

One important way the reality of US high schools is not like TV shows and movies: students have much less opportunity for lengthy private interactions. 90% of a student's time at school is spent in class, sitting in rows of desks all facing forwards, watched by the teacher. Between classes there's maybe 5 minutes to rush to your locker, switch books, use the bathroom, and make your way to another part of the school building. Yet even watching realistic shows like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life, you'll see very few in-class scenes.

Script-writers who want to tell dramatic stories set in high schools have to create these artificial spaces where the "Jane Austen"-type events can take place. That's how you get this convention of The Bathroom as a meeting place. Veronica Mars meets her clients there, Angela Chase has an emotional heart-to-heart with the girl who's been tormenting her, etc. etc. In reality, the bathrooms in high schools are pretty grotty and there's no privacy. And anyone who tried to hold a real conversation with someone in the hallways between classes would quickly find themselves late and in trouble. Television high school dramas downplay the degree of omnipresent authoritarian control and wildly overstate the autonomy of students during the schoolday.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:59 PM on July 19, 2012

One nice touch in Mean Girls was the grim bathroom where the main character hides to eat her lunch every day.

My understanding is that some schools give some high school students a certain amount of leeway in the daily class schedule. It's something we had at my Hogwarts For Nerds boarding school (which had a more university like daily routine, so probably VERY different from the typical high school experience), but I've heard friends who went to more typical schools talk about having a Free Period, or Study Hall, or the like. Even my borderline fascist Catholic school gave seniors the option of taking six courses rather than seven and leaving school an hour early each day. I don't know how common it actually is, though.

There was still very little actual privacy, though. Even if there was time to visit with friends during the school day, and even if there were small refuges around campus, you had to share that space with hundreds of other students who were also vying for a tiny slice of humanity during the school day.
posted by Sara C. at 9:09 PM on July 19, 2012

Excellent question and fantastic answers. High fives all around!
posted by the cydonian at 9:22 PM on July 19, 2012

A guy actually wrote a book about the hockey team at my sports-obsessed suburban high school (Blades of Glory). I read it last year and didn't recognize a thing about my high school experience until he referenced the apathetic misfits who hung out in the cafeteria during the mandatory pep fests. (I guess that was me!) It did remind me how awful it was to take classes taught by the sports coaches; they wouldn't bother to even learn your name if you weren't an athlete.
posted by Maarika at 10:21 AM on July 20, 2012

I went to a big private school (K-12) from fourth grade onward, graduating in 1993. In middle school (fifth through eighth grades) there was Friday afternoon detention. In the upper school (ninth through twelfth) there was Saturday morning detention. But you didn't get sent to detention unless you racked up a significant amount of demerits first, for things like dress code violations or skipping class and the like. I think the most time you could spend in detention was five hours. Beyond detention, there was in-school suspension for a day, at-home suspension for a day, and expulsion.

I can't remember if this happened in middle school, but I do remember in high school that the head of discipline would post a list of who got demerits/detentions and why. Probably the intent was shaming, but it mostly resulted in high-fives.
posted by emelenjr at 11:49 AM on July 20, 2012

All the characters from Sixteen Candles (and some from Pretty in Pink but unfortunately not James Spader) went to my high school, only Sam and Farmer Ted never, ever, ever, ever won the Golden Boy/Girl.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:14 PM on July 21, 2012

Also, for cross-cultural purposes, it shocks me that British schools have "prefects" and other roles where some kids actually have specific powers and privileges that other kids don't have.

I was a prefect at school and the only difference was that we got a different tie to the younger kids and were expected to spend lunch breaks 'patrolling' areas instead of actually eating lunch or chatting. We don't have hall monitors or anything like that over here, but I think it would be a similar idea.
posted by mippy at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2012

I graduated in 2005 and a lot of current media about the high school experience seems stuck in an earlier time. In both my high school and college experiences, cheerleaders were considered silly, and the pretty girls who once might have cheered were all athletes, singers, etc. There was salacious gossip about gay people but no outright bullying. The most universally well-liked guy in my class was a short, bespectacled Asian pianist/chemistry whiz/libertarian/comedian who did really earnest things like organize an Elliott Smith memorial assembly. The recent remake of 21 Jump Street is a realistic and interesting portrayal of how many of today's high schools have evolved from the jocks-rule ethos depicted in most other films.
posted by acidic at 11:09 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never seen a portrayal of prep school that is anything like my own boarding school experience.

Me neither. Boarding school movies always seem weirdly stereotyped and fetishy.
posted by endless_forms at 1:12 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

In both my high school and college experiences, cheerleaders were considered silly, and the pretty girls who once might have cheered were all athletes, singers, etc.

That totally reminds me. In my high school, the cheerleaders weren't particularly popular or attractive, and weren't revered. The whole idea was kind of a joke. One of my friend's mothers had been a cheerleader in the heyday of cheerleading, and forced her to join the squad. Later, she actually pulled her out of school and moved her to another school "because cheerleaders weren't respected" in ours. That was seriously her reason.

Also, the football team was not composed of the popular and hot guys. Maybe there were one or two, but most of the popular and hot guys were on the soccer team.
posted by cairdeas at 1:29 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

A little late to the party here, but what the hey. Fun thread.

I went to a massive (4,000 students) suburban high school in the NYC area. The "campus," however, wasn't especially large, and it was multi-level.

The school was so massive that a lot of the students didn't know a lot of the other students. Usually, roughly the same groups of kids had classes together; within those groups, there was a very, very loose social pecking order, it's not as though the "cool" kids shunned or bullied the "uncool" kids, and there wasn't much envy or anything. The school was so huge that you would basically find your niche, and were mostly left alone. There were a couple of kids that seemed to be real outcasts in that they had no friends, but I never saw them experience any harassment. People would sometimes badmouth them behind their backs, though.

I experienced some very light verbal bullying early in my freshman year - at the hands of other freshman, as the seniors didn't generally know who the freshmen were. By junior year, I was friendly with most of the people who did that, except this one kid who intermittently tried to keep it going. I regarded his attempts as kind of pathetic, as he had no more social capital than I did.

Nobody gave a crap about the football team. They wore their jerseys on Fridays, but no one who wasn't on the team cared. School sports, at the high school or college level, are not a big part of the culture in the NYC area, and I'm always sort of perplexed by them. My school had no pep rallies, or, if it did, no one went. I think we may have won some kind of football championship when I was there. I don't even know.

We had no lockers. For a long time, I thought lockers only existed in movies about high school.

I had fun at prom, but it wasn't this magical night, nor did I expect it to be. I danced with my girlfriend, hung out with my friends, took swigs of vodka from a flask in a friend's suit-pocket.

As others have said, the popularity contest, bullying and general social brutality are much more present in junior high. I wasn't bullied much in junior high, but I was quiet and awkward and I remember wishing I could be like the cool kids and hang out at the mall or or the multiplex and talk to girls.
posted by breakin' the law at 5:31 PM on July 26, 2012

I went to Albuquerque High, a relatively urban high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (We have a lot more space here than in some cities, because of sprawl, so I'm not talking the no-grounds type of urban school. We had a couple of fields and about 8 million parking spaces.) It looked a lot like the movie schools, but it wasn't socially much like one at all.

The demographics made the school pretty unusual in the first place. The school is over 75% hispanic/latino/chicano-identified. (I'm white, so take this anecdote from that perspective.) Where everyone came from is mixed; the district contains both a lot of people who work at the University, some of the poorest parts of town, and some of the military base. The classes end up pretty racially segregated-- it's not that there weren't Hispanic kids in the Honors classes, but there were a disproportional amount of white kids in them. (I think the amount of Vietnamese kids in the Honors classes also tended to be a bit disproportionate, but that was a relatively small group so the sample's skewed.) I recall there also being a black clique, but that population was pretty small; I don't think all of the black/african-american students were in it. The racial segregation tended to be exacerbated by the fact that people went to different middle and elementary schools and often had friends from then; since there were several middle schools feeding into one high school and they were all from different parts of the city (which is somewhat more diverse than most places but is still pretty racially divided).

There was not really any most popular kid at the school, or a popular group of any sort. There were a lot of cliques, mostly around activities and sports. Our sports teams were (with the exception of basketball, if I recall correctly) mostly pretty bad, so we didn't have as much of the honoring jocks thing as some schools seem to. There were popular kids within cliques, and conflicts between groups in cliques. There was a pretty heavy division when I was there between the Thespians who were regular drama kids, who skewed liberal, and the ones who came from the show choir, who for some reason tended to be... Baptists, I think? Some kind of much more fundamentalist-minded branch of Christianity (not Catholic). So it was almost like we had the big interplay between dramatic stuff that you get at other high schools, but on a smaller scale within those groups.

AHS also had a pretty heavy dropout rate (which you don't usually see) and teen pregnancy rate. We had a preschool at the school (I think you could take classes that had you work there).

I think there might've been detention, but I didn't know kids that had it. It wasn't a usual thing. Mostly kids got suspended. No one ever got sent to the principal's office. We had a TON of school administrators and secretaries. There was also a relatively high police presence (Albuquerque Public Schools has its own mini police force, I think, or at least they have their own cars now). Bomb threats happened a couple of times. The biggest disciplinary thing that happened was when there was a walkout in protest of the Iraq War and all the participants got suspended for a day. (Suspended kids weren't supposed to be on campus, and the play that we were teching that night for another school went sort of batshit because most of the drama department was involved. We had to do it on a skeleton crew with half-trained people that day. Fun times.)

Winter Ball was held at the school itself, but Prom and Homecoming were both held off-campus, usually in hotels or the museum or something like that. No school gym dances.

High school rivalries were also pretty different than what we saw in movies. I am not sure if we had different rivals in different sports, but we never seemed to care a lot about the sports based ones. We did, however, reserve a deep and abiding hatred for La Cueva, since they were sort of rich and conservative. (I've heard stories of Cueva and some other school-- I forget what one-- having a tradition of, at games, throwing bread products at each other-- Cueva threw tortillas and had white bread thrown at him. I'm not sure if this is true.) Our "official" rival was, I believe, Highland High, but they were demographically similar to us and seemed to have similar bullshit to deal with, and so I think we always sort of liked them.

There was no "bad kid" clique that I knew of. There were people with that persona, but so many kids dropped out that it would take a pretty pathetic "bad kid" to actually be going to school.

Ubiquity of band meant that there were lots of kids who knew how to play nonstandard rock instruments so the default band HS kids started was a ska band.
posted by NoraReed at 12:55 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if we had different rivals in different sports, but we never seemed to care a lot about the sports based ones. We did, however, reserve a deep and abiding hatred for La Cueva, since they were sort of rich and conservative.

My totally non-athletic nerdy magnet school had the same sort of vibe. Our Most Hated Rivals were Baton Rouge Magnet, not for any real reason, but because they constituted the biggest threat to our domination of math competitions.



We had a school math society called Mu Alpha Theta. Yes, as a matter of fact, we were total dweebs.
posted by Sara C. at 2:32 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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