May 22 will be the ten-year anniversary of my high school graduation. Ten years. That does and doesn’t seem wild to me. But it’s been ten good years overall, largely by virtue of not having spent them in high school. This year also marks another anniversary: 50 years since the making of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary High School, a film that shows a day in the student life at an average American high school in the 60s. And, it turns out, in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, etc. It’s been 50 years, and one need watch only five minutes of the film to see that not a single thing has changed about the drudgery and punitive boredom of being a high schooler.
I did not enjoy the first three years of high school. My senior year, spent at a different school, was much better, but still nothing I’d return to if given the option. There’s just too much bullshit involved in high school. It comes at you from the students, from the teachers (with whom I have more empathy now than I did at the time), from the administrators, from the curriculum. There is an abundance of bullshit in high school, and the experience has stayed with me. And judging from the scope of high-school-based entertainment, I’d say it’s stayed with a lot of people.
There’s a relevance and relatability to the high school experience that goes beyond the fact that we all endured it. The fact is we’re still enduring it – bullies, cliques, draconian rules, boring work… none of this goes away entirely when you don the cap and gown. What does go away, hopefully, is the debilitating effect these forces have on our sense of self and self-worth. Even so, and even by comparison to other strict and structured environments, there’s something about the regimented nature of high school that remains uniquely suffocating. And the abiding popularity of stories about high school drama and trauma, almost all of which are written by people well into their thirties at least, points to the lasting power of our adolescent experiences.
In 1969, Pauline Kael wrote a short essay on High School. Kael is one of my favorite film critics. Her opinions, while I often like them, aren’t even the primary reason I read her reviews. She’s just a genuine pleasure. Her passion for and deep understanding of the art and importance of filmmaking comes through in everything she wrote, and her insight shines through with particular power in her review of High School.
“How did we live through it? How did we keep any spirit?” asks Kael. Good questions. Wiseman’s High School shows several encounters between students and teachers that brought so much flooding back to me as I watched. A girl is hassled by an unnecessarily large gang of teachers about the length of the dress she wore to the prom in a conversation that seems to last ages and be more about humiliating her than making any actual point. A boy tries to explain himself to a teacher only to be constantly interrupted and told that taking a punishment he does not deserve will “establish that [he] can be a man.” Smug, sanctimonious (and relentlessly misogynistic) lectures are given to the students, in sex-segregated groups, about their sexual activity and the effects it’s bound to have on them. (The smirky speech a male gynecologist gives to a room full of boys is particularly grotesque.)
What Wiseman captures in a single day at this school is the condition of total defeat the students are kept in. What’s made clear over and over is that regardless of what the students are asked, there is no right answer. The goal posts will be moved. Logic and reality bend to the teachers’ insistence on keeping the power structure in place and never admitting fault. “That’s not your knee,” a teacher tells the girl being scolded for her prom dress. The girl, trying to indicate the length of the dress she wore, is pointing directly to her knee. A boy calls the teacher lecturing him “sir,” and is chastised for his lack of “sincereness,” his respectfulness deemed sarcasm. An endless string of catch-22s occupies the halls of this school, and every school like it.
Kael empathizes with the students, and remarks on the way the documentary does the same merely by capturing their experiences. While there’s no real narrative structure to the film, its unobtrusive direction makes what you see all the more real and effective. “We often want more information about the people and their predicaments than he gives,” Kael writes about Wiseman’s style, “but this is perhaps less a criticism of Wiseman’s method than it is a testimonial to his success in making us care about his subjects.” This is true; you do care about those students. And the empathy High School taps into is the axis on which every film about and set in high school turns. This documentary is an important artifact in understanding how and why the high school experience makes such an indelible mark on us and remains such a prominent feature of entertainment media.
Both movies and television have long found a market in stories about high school. The big screen has given us films like Rebel Without a Cause, Carrie, The Breakfast Club, Heathers, and Mean Girls, just to name a few. The small screen has produced the likes of Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Daria, The Wonder Years, and Boy Meets World, and that’s keeping it to the most recent couple of decades. Both the troubles within the student body and the problems inflicted on the students by the administrators have been foundational to the success these works have found with their audiences.
Rebel Without a Cause shows us teens battling family dysfunction at home and social dysfunction at school. Carrie, an adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel and one of the most famous high school movies, creates literal horror out of the experiences of a shy, bullied girl with an abusive, religious zealot of a mother. The Breakfast Club deals masterfully with the social anxieties among the students, familial problems, and the irritation of being constantly under the thumb of a principle who cares about nothing but the power he wields over the teenagers at “his” school. Heathers turns the borderline-sociopathic tendencies of high school students (and the cluelessness of even well-meaning teachers and parents) into a dark comedy, and for all its over-the-topness, it manages to be pretty culturally relevant. And Tina Fey’s comedy Mean Girls, of course, examines the Kill Or Be Killed™ nature of achieving social status in high school, especially among girls, and what toxicity can arise out of the efforts to climb the social ladder.
Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Daria, The Wonder Years, Boy Meets World, and many other television manifestations of high school life all deal in many of the same tropes. Bullies and otherwise irritating classmates; teacher and parent figures who are either outwardly malicious or benignly unhelpful; tedious work and problems that every student knows painfully well will be of absolutely no use after high school is over. Buffy is particularly pointed about the miseries of high school, making Sunnydale High the location of the literal Mouth of Hell. The vote is in – high school sucks.
The roles of teachers in these representations are particularly interesting. High School posits most of the teachers, with a couple of exceptions, as key factors in the oppressive structure of high school, and many movies and shows follow suit. Principle Morton in Carrie, when she’s in his office after a particularly traumatic encounter with the girls in the locker room, won’t stop calling main character Carrie White “Cassie.” Vernon in Breakfast Club tries to goad Bender into punching him, well aware of the power imbalance (but perhaps unaware of the physical one in Bender’s favor). In High School, a student putting his own things into his own locker is gruffly asked “What are you doing here?” by a teacher prowling the halls. You yearn for him to give the snide answer such a snide question deserves, but you know as well as the teacher who accosted him that there is no winning for this young man. No winning for the students on the phones, either, as they are scolded for not responding to inquiries about hall passes quickly enough – the delay, of course, being that they are on the phone.
There are also, however, a few teachers and parents who do try to make an impact. Whether they are successful or not, there are still those who put forth the effort to teach and guide, rather than control, their students. The gym teacher in Carrie, Miss Collins, is the title character’s only real friend or advocate. The janitor, Carl, is an older voice on the side of the students in The Breakfast Club. In High School, one teacher tries earnestly to get the students engaged in poetry (“The Dangling Conversation” by Simon and Garfunkel – it was the 60s, after all). And a counselor of some sort attempts to advise a girl and her parents how to handle their conflicting views of what she should do after graduation.
These altruistic attempts in the documentary and the narrative films overwhelmingly fall flat, best intentions aside, due to what Kael describes as the students’ “hostility and cynicism and apathy” that results from their being “beaten down” by “an obsolete system of authority that broke down long ago.” Too much bad overshadowing the good; the good is rendered ineffective. This was my experience for a lot of high school. Whatever problems I had with students – of which there were few, and those were probably self-inflicted – the problems and confrontations I still remember arose much more from what Kael calls the “bland authoritarianism” of the institution, “the constant defensiveness, that sense of always being in danger of breaking some pointless, petty rule.” The students are never asked questions in a way that isn’t confrontational or accusatory. They are constantly accused of “disrespect” by people who have a very fluid definition of the word, and who never see fit to express any of the respect they feel these students are withholding.
High School is an insightful examination of what the institution it explores has come to represent: petty authority, Orwellian logic, and archaic methodologies that make blind obedience top priority, even while making it virtually impossible to achieve. It is these untenable conditions that stay on the minds of all who pass through those halls and manifest in so many of the creative endeavors of graduates. High schools impose rules and punishments on their students in the name of “building character” and preparing them for the “real world.” These are lies, for the record. As Kael herself points out, “When since that time has one ever needed a pass to make a phone call?”
The truth is – and this is something to be grateful for – that most of the indignities high school students endure would not be and are not tolerated outside of those school buildings. Elements of that kind of nonsense exist everywhere, certainly, but not to that degree. Not with so little recourse to address it. The truth is the “real world” is a phrase devoid of meaning when uttered by high school authoritarians, and the actual Real World™ doesn’t have much patience for their bullshit. “Mediocrity and defeat sit in the offices and classrooms, and in those oppressive monitored halls,” writes Kael. “The teachers are masters here; they’re in a superior position for the only time in their lives, probably.” Truth on top of truth. And that is why they make such excellent villains in the lives of teenagers and in the world of cinema. There are few things on this earth more loathsome than a “Because I Can” complex. The Breakfast Club‘s Vernon, Buffy‘s Principle Snyder, even Harry Potter‘s Dolores Umbridge – these characters manifest so regularly on screen because we have all known them in life. They are unforgettable, and they are eminently hateable. I expect these characters to continue cropping up, because their real-life inspirations are a species that refuses to die out. The good news, though, is that the villains usually lose. The students – eventually – get to leave.
So, here’s to surviving high school. Here’s to escaping high school. Here’s to those of you who enjoyed high school – I don’t know how you managed it, but more power to you. And… here’s to high school, if for no other reason than it’s given us an abundance of good films about bad times. Congratulations, graduates. Chin up, desperate-to-be-graduates. It’s bullshit, but it ends. Enjoy your summers, and watch some movies.