I’ve found that the Chinese have a very concise was to describe the high school experience: “Prison.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times — indeed, anytime I ask a college student to tell me what high school was like for them, I’m guaranteed to hear this from someone. Those in a more verbose mood can paint a far more vivid picture, one of being treated as a child while also being subjected to pressures that would break an adult. It is a time when any right-thinking youth commits all his time to proving himself in the most recent iteration of an ancient trial. It is a single test, the heir to the imperial exams, one test that will fix your destiny for your remaining years.
And so you spend those years studying — and eating and sleeping if time permits, but mostly studying. Classes are followed by extra classes, then homework, then home lessons, a few hours of rest, and then the cycle repeats. If your family is relatively poor, you might mercifully receive a mere twelve-hour day; but if they have the money for it, your parents will buy more hours just so they can make you work more. There are test-taking summer camps, private tutors, and dubious services to make your child look like a genius. That’s all before the test, mind. The old imperial exam was known to drive its takers to screaming, clothes-rending madness; the updated version, being comparatively subtle, is more likely to drive its takers to a nice, quiet stroke.
It’s a phase of life that leaves little room for exploration. No time for ingesting mysterious substances and coming home with the police. No time for disappointing romantic interludes that have a good chance of wrecking someone’s future. No time for flirting with radical politics and becoming insufferable. No time for getting cold-cocked over something so petty it’s forgotten the next day. No time for making regrettable videos that resurface years later at the worst possible time.
I can guarantee you that no one ever tells them that “These are the best years of your life.” The Chinese aren’t as keen on lying to their offspring as Americans, it seems.
It’s 2016, a Saturday night, and I’m in a dive called the Replay Lounge waiting for a show to start. This has become a ritual of sorts — two, sometimes three weekends a month ever since moving to this charming hipster fief. As usual, I’m too early. A show in very casual Lawrence, Kansas that’s billed with a 10:00 starting time is probably going to fire up sometime after 11:00.
There’s a group of international students behind me enjoying a rare night out. I can one of them — a man from Saudi Arabia — talking about the things he’s observed about Americans since moving here. One line in particular jumps out at me: “Americans never leave high school.”
It’s a sentiment that’s always stuck with me. A perfect example of the outsider’s wisdom — simple, cutting, obvious in retrospect, yet the kind of thing that would never come to you under any other circumstances. I didn’t need to hear him clarify a word, as I understood at once what he was saying. The years that followed would only cement this notion for me.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time living overseas, interacting with locals as well as other expatriates from dozens of countries. The topics of conversation vary, but one constant is how little they talk about high school. That makes sense for the Chinese — twelve hours a day of studying leaves little time for unlikely stories about how many stitches they had or how many bottles of cheap vodka they killed. But it’s similarly true for the Irish, Russians, Germans, and Swedes. It’s not that they never talk about high school; it’s just that, unlike Americans, it isn’t a regular topic of conversation.
Lord, do we ever talk about our high school experiences a lot — but of course we do! After all, those are the Best Years Of Our Lives. I can still remember the first time someone said that to me. My first thought was: Jesus, I hope she’s wrong.
It’s the kind of thing we never notice about ourselves because we don’t have to. The American media culture is so dominant that we simply don’t have to learn about other countries like those other countries have to learn about us. They aren’t necessarily getting accurate information from that media (hence the number of people I’ve met who think we’re a bunch of perverts), but what that information lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity, through the sheer number of stories they see. And oh my, how many of those stories are about high school! You can sit in Adelaide or Brussels or Cape Town and learn all about American high schools without the indignity of having to step foot in one.
No one needs to know that those shows are nostalgia fantasy — least of all us, the intended audience being lied to by our screens.
I often wonder how many young people have been led astray by Saved by the Bell.
I can still remember the day when my babysitter introduced me to this seminal late 80s / early 90s high school sitcom. It was off the air by then and neither of us was really old enough to have viewed in it prime time, but that’s the miracle of reruns, and Saved by the Bell was a regular fixture in the basic cable landscape for a tragically long time. She was already captivated; I didn’t understand the appeal, not yet, but it would come.
Years ago, I did some back-of-the-envelope math on my television watching habits at the time. Saved by the Bell aired twice per day on weekdays immediately after school. Provided that I started watching it regularly in middle school, it’s plausible that I’d sat through a dozen complete runs of the series by the time I reached high school. By that summer before 9th grade, I likely could have performed a few episodes from memory.
Now, Saved by the Bell is a magnificently, even proudly stupid television show. It revels in stereotypes and farce to the point where it ceases to resemble reality, and even the slowest of children couldn’t be expected to conflate fiction and reality in this case. Was anyone in my generation expecting to acquire superpowers after being struck by lightning? Or that one of the students would hatch a plot to brainwash the school via subliminal messages? Or that, one day, oil would inexplicably start to gush out of the football field after one of the players went to receive a pass? I would hope that none of these were plausible scenarios to my classmates.
What we did learn this was the general experience of high school — the structure, the interactions, the unspoken rules. In television land, high school has never been about high school, but about adventures. It’s about dances and parties, about grand romantic gestures, about getting the better of all those silly adults. Many of us showed up on that first day anticipating our first prank war or get-rich-quick scheme because that’s how high school was presented to us — an endless parades of exciting vignettes.
It’s also about an endless parade of stereotypes. If I didn’t learn that from Saved by the Bell, I certainly did when I turned 13 and moved on to the hard stuff — John Hughes.
I wonder how many American youths have based their entire sense of self on The Breakfast Club. I can say for certain that I did. At some point in my life, I looked someone dead in the eye and said “The Breakfast Club speaks to me” with the sincerity of someone swearing an oath of vengeance. My own parents didn’t understand me, but it seems that John Hughes had a hotline into my soul.
Over the years, I have learned and acknowledged that none of the ridiculous stereotypes on display in The Breakfast Club resembled me in any meaningful way. However, I didn’t conclude this until after I had graduated. As a high school student, I still maintained that this silly movie was an accurate reflection of the high school experience even as my own eyes told me otherwise. And unlike Saved by the Bell, which exercised only a background influence over my understanding, I consciously accepted The Breakfast Club as holy writ.
This is the power and peril of fiction. As enlightened, educated, modern people, we all assume that stories can’t influence us like the primitives of some dark past. Strip away the flourishes of civilization, though, and we are all still but apes in pants. Tell one of those clothed apes a compelling story, repeat it a few times, and you can make the creature rationalize away his own experiences.
I learned this lesson well when I finally left the country.
Every few years, I witness a strange sort of ritual among the media elite. Out of nowhere, every pundit discovers a hither unseen passion for pedagogy and turns into an expert on education policy and our alleged shortcomings therein. Children are getting dumber, it seems, and we must take some steps to arrest their slide into the darkness of ignorance before the empire crumbles.
Inevitably, they compare those accursed American schools to institutions in other countries. In time at least a few of them will utter something that, in any other context, would shock the reader: We should be more like China. In this one area only, of course — it would be churlish for me to suggest that a group of people with a profoundly negative view of the American electorate and a fretful hostility towards an open internet might mean anything else.
For a long time, so-called education reformers were happy to uplift an elaborate illusion: The superior Chinese education system. Why, look at the test scores! None of us can explain what those scores actually mean, or how they are measured, or if they are measured accurately — in the US, let alone in China. But boy howdy, this number sure is higher than that number. What else do you want?
Let me make this plain: If your children were in a school that operated like the typical Chinese school, you would snatch the little dears out of that classroom before the bell rang at the end of day one.
You would pull them out because the hours are too long. Chinese high school never truly stops — there are pre-class classes, post-class classes, tutorials, test prep and extra lessons. Get through your homework quickly and you’ll have a good six hours to sleep before the whole process starts again. The worst busybody suburban cliches could learn a lesson from the typical Chinese parent.
You might pull them out because the classes are tedious. Lessons in China are taught by rote, as they have been since time immemorial. There is no interpretation, no participation, just a set of PowerPoint slides and a dry recitation of the material that the students are expected to write down and memorize exactly as it was presented to them.
On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t pull them out because they were missing that great high school experience. We don’t concern ourselves with such things in the moment — we’re present pragmatists and future romanticists. But make no mistake, these students are missing The Best Years Of Their Lives.
I have never met any Chinese person who has a good high school story. Press them long enough, and one of them might tell you about a trip she took with her parents. That’s as far as it ever goes, though. Having spoken to hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese students, I can only conclude that every one of them had the exact same day every day until they turned 18.
It’s not just the schools that cause this — as is so often the case, the schools are merely a part of the greater culture, one that ultimately stops with the parents. No one got into trouble in high school — their parents wouldn’t allow it. They often ask me if American girls are allowed to have boyfriends — no Chinese parent would tolerate such a distraction. No one was ever in a band, no one ever cut class to hang out with their friends, one ever sneaked away and got drunk, and if even if one of them had inhaled of the devil’s grass, they certainly wouldn’t publicly confess to such a taboo.
When people who pass through a Chinese high school look back at their experiences, they don’t see a series of standout moments. They see a smear, a blurry accretion of days distinguished only by the temperature of the air. No one discusses it at parties, and no one makes films about it. It is merely a time to be endured, nothing more.
Yet for a lot of Americans, high school is also a time to be endured, albeit for a completely different set of reasons.
When I was fifteen years old, a long editorial appeared in my high school newspaper informing that student body that, in fact, you are not allowed to beat someone up for being unpatriotic.
It wasn’t for nothing that this piece was published. Earlier in the month, three boys had cornered a staff writer for the paper who had drawn a cartoon that they felt was offensive to the United States. For the life of me, I can’t remember what that cartoon was, but that’s hardly relevant. Whatever it was had lit a fire inside a slice of the student body, and these three representatives of that outraged faction were demanding an explanation.
Fortunately for the artist, an administrator happened by and broke up the fracas, likely preventing a serious beating. The editorial was a needed reminder that physical violence was not acceptable.
This was part of that “post-9/11 unity” you hear so much about these days. The people writing encomiums to those halcyon days always omit the part where the “unity” was achieved by silencing dissenting voices — implicitly or explicitly, through threats or force or more subtle retaliation.
I was one of those silenced, and the incident with the cartoon artist drove the point home — my viewpoint was not tolerated, and I should be careful what I say. These days you’d call that “cancel culture” and I might get my own New York Times editorial to talk about how oppressed I am because people give me dirty looks sometimes. Of course, I was less worried about someone making nasty comments on Twitter than I was that someone might stomp my face in. Given that I had, in my younger years, been a victim of schoolyard violence for far pettier trespasses, it was plausible.
This was my high school experience. It wasn’t that experience in total, but it did define my life for a time.
As the body of fiction based on American high school life has grown, we’ve seen the rise of quasi-scholarly analysis by various and sundry media critics. Their conclusion? Our high school fiction focuses on the popular kids. Tell me something I don’t know. It’s true that I didn’t see a lot of young people in high school fiction who were anything like me — I don’t rate as an Anthony Michael Hall, but that’s as close as I got for a long time. But as I’ve watched the revisionist and deconstructionist high school media develop, I’ve concluded that a lack of outsider characters might not be the essential issue.
For my money, the high water mark for high school fiction came in 1999 with the debut of the famously canceled-before-its-time comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks. This show was a big deal for me back in the day precisely because it featured characters who were like me, and my appreciation has only grown. This is not simply one of the best depictions of high school outsider culture I’ve ever seen, but an amazing show in its own right. It is brilliantly written, masterfully acted and gorgeously shot.
It also has the exact same problem as every other TV show or movie ever made about high school in the United States.
Every piece of high school media — whether realistic or farcical, focused on the popular kids or the outsiders, high-quality or lowest common denominator — treats the high school experience as a splendid agony. Those four years are a scar that we can’t help but show off because the story behind it is so remarkable. It is always a story full of drama and intrigue, sexy and tragic, devoid of the trivial degradations and disappointments that really defined high school life for most of us.
And what’s the problem with that? Isn’t drama meant to be, well…dramatic? Certainly, and many of these shows and movies (even the bad ones) are very entertaining. If they were nothing more than a color-corrected nostalgia trip for people well into adulthood, this wouldn’t matter at all. But younger people watch these things as well, and this overly dramatic rendition tints their own perceptions when they reach high school. Our parents’ nostalgia becomes our reality until it’s time to pass it on.
This is how it is Americans never leave high school. We’re all living out the half-remembered fantasies of some other generation, and none of us can break out.
Lawrence, 2016, sometime in the orbit of midnight. The show is over and I’m walking back to my apartment. The main drag is crowded with college students who are all about fix or six drinks deep. As I leave the last of the businesses behind me, and the club music and loud voices fade out, I find a moment of peace. It’s a time to reflect on the evening’s experience, to obsess over minutiae and decide, at length, if I had a good time.
On this particular evening, I’m mostly occupied with thoughts of those foreign students, that Saudi man’s observation. It occurs to me that I can’t even guess what his high school experience was really like, or that of any of the others present. I’ve been in a Chinese high school, but there’s a world of difference between walking through the halls of a building and leaving a piece of your history within.
All of this gives me a sort of contrast for the first time. I flash back on my own high school memories, the weird tangle of fact, media and delusion that defines those years in my head. And I wonder how others in places far removed look back on that same stretch of life.
In a few years, I’ll have another chance to see this firsthand, to speak with people from different places about those years. To some, high school is a prison; to others, a forgettable liminal state; and to a few, the best years of their lives. As it turns out, everyone has different memories of those years, but Americans are alone in building their homes amid those memories.