The American High School of yore

As all south-Asian kids from the 90’s, we grew up watching limited, watered-down and often very delayed hollywood movies and TV-shows. As a school kid myself, the American schools depicted in the movies and MTV videos seemed so fascinating to me. The Indian school system is aligned with the British system (thanks, East India Company and the Empire) and we are more familiar with the schooling system described in Harry Potter – uniforms, school houses, inter-house competitions, 2 sets of public exams to be taken when you are 15 and 17 respectively among other similarities. American schools with their prom nights, casual “colorful” clothes, locker system, cafeteria social dynamics and yellow school buses were very interesting to see from the outside. So many movies highlight the importance of interaction in these school buses, the pecking order established in the cafeteria (Mean Girls, wow), the gym-classes and the importance to sports. None of this was normal to us – regimented school timetable, intense focus on academics, large classes with abysmal teacher student ratios, lack of any gym, lockers or air-conditioning and few schools had cafeterias at all. The partying, alcohol consumption (gasp!), dancing with members of the opposite-sex, serious relationships and the general debauchery depicted by the protagonists and antagonists (bullys, heartbroken-exes, rowdy drunk boys and girls) were general themes of any movie revolving around schools/high-schools or colleges. Academics was never shown to be important. In defense of movie-making, academics are a boring thing to most audiences.

My experience in a graduate school in the USA was vastly different. Being well-respected for its academics, all the students in my program were top-notch. All my peers were exceptional students all through and their high-school experience was similar to mine – lots of studying, very strict schedules, almost no partying. So many of them had skipped prom-night and were more familiar with AP classes, piano recitals, science fairs, top-notch internships (jealous) and general academic prowess. I knew I was in a crowd that was academically oriented – duh, it was a graduate engineering program after all, but somehow I had to re-imagine the American high-school in my head. I got an intimate view of the requirements for Ivy-league admits, the caliber of my classmates and I was seriously impressed. I discarded the image of the high-school cultivated by MTV and Hollywood. That was until this past week.

The recent happenings of a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation and the saga that has opened the door to the past is riveting to me. I am not writing about what I genuinely think about him or what he did or if he is even deserving of this position he is being considered for – that is a separate issue in itself, but I am genuinely fascinated about the lifestyle of this elite-prep school crowd who are now showing a glimpse of what their high-school life was and of 80’s America. To me, the concept of ‘Beach Week’ is as alien as being allowed to drink in high-school at an unsupervised party. Even the basic idea that one needed calendars to plan their day is new, I had absolutely no trouble knowing what my week would look like without any written assistance. The idea that seniors would go to beaches, can come home stumbling drunk, guzzle beers and flout their sexual exploits in a school yearbook (gasp!) is a brand new concept. Even the idea of a yearbook is strange – we never had one. We had some slam-books that I remember filling, but I have conveniently lost all of them. I know school rivalry, gossip, weird rumors and speculated romances ( that involved passing some pieces of paper and looking more than usual at someone) but have never seen such intense socializing in school. I do know that if anyone in my school had ever had a beer – that would have made headlines and the tag would have followed the person for the rest of his life.

What genuinely surprises me is how the lives of these unruly teens have turned out. They have all done well – some exceptionally well and they have all generally sobered down in life. All this behavior is even being considered “normal teenage behavior”. I was brought up with the notion that academic prowess was the main factor in determining your success in life and that seeking top grades came at the price of everything else. In a sense it did, to really excel in high-school and gain admission into a college of repute, one hardly found time to pursue other interests. But clearly, it was different for the relatively wealthy in the America of the 80s. Makes me think that despite all their shortcomings, the older, stricter Asian cultures might have an edge over the American way of upbringing and education. It is no wonder that the culture of schooling has changed significantly (much to the chagrin of the some Americans) with intense competition and pressure, now that Asians form a significant portion of the American diaspora.

For now, I am enjoying reading the various high-school accounts – not for the felonies these teenagers committed or the reprehensible stuff, but for the glimpse of an era it offers. But it is now crystal clear – the 80s/90s high school of Hollywood/MTV/sitcoms was very real and perhaps, a terrible place to be.