Growing up, the tropes I saw on television and movies in reference to the high school experience was not always true to real life. Schools shown in popular media, whether they are a fictional school or a real one, seem way cooler and more interesting, especially the times I’ve gotten invested in the lives of the characters who attend the school.
For some people, revisiting high school memories may be a painful reminder of things they don’t want to drudge up again. For others, their high school memories may have been a time in their lives where they had a lot of fun and laughs. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I progressively got more of a “meh” attitude towards school in general by junior high school, and the last time I truly remember being excited about going to school and being there to learn was in grammar school. It’s certainly easier to look back on high school because I’ve been done with that part of my world for a long time. Names of other students and teachers I used to be able to recall at lightning speed have long since faded from the sphere of my mind. All of that is irrelevant now, and the bits left over that I do remember from high school are what I’m choosing to focus on for this post.
The list I have given is a comparison of tropes I identified or could not identify with are based on my own personal school experience in the U.S. which may differ from what other people experienced in their own schools depending on where they went to school and in which country. I’m not familiar with what high school is referred to as outside the U.S., but in my experience, I also know it as “secondary school”.
*The school bell system – In a lot of U.S. television series/movies, the school bell always has a shrill, clear ring to it. In reality, my school didn’t even use an actual bell as the sound for when classes ended. Instead what was used was some sort of “bleep” sound. It was not exactly the kind of “bleep” noise you would hear if someone said a curse word on tv and it was bleeped out, though I would say it was a lower pitch and less painful sounding for people’s ears. The actual bell in school used during practice emergency fire drills sounded more like a gong. Additionally, my school had a first bell to signal the end of class and also a late bell which, you guessed it, was for signaling if someone was late to class. I never liked my school bell because it always gave me a sense of panic over collecting my books as fast as possible in order to hurry to the next class. This was especially difficult during semesters where the next class was in an entirely different building or several floors up so I almost always showed up in a nervous sweat from overexerting myself. Yeah, not exactly the kind of hot mess people want to see on their tv screens, haha. In some U.S. tv shows, students hang out in the hallways or walk at a leisurely pace even as the bell rings. That sort of thing was normal in my high school only if students had a free period after another class that just ended so they probably would not be in a rush, however, students were definitely expected to not loiter the halls during their free periods. This rule was sometimes broken by the security guards patrolling the halls, particularly if they knew certain students and would not reprimand them. 😒
*Lockers to store everything in – While my high school did have lockers on each floor, the rumor I heard during one year is that lockers were banned after a student left a knife in a locker and it was confiscated. I have a weird nostalgia every time I see a character on a tv show saunter to their assigned locker, which may be decorated with stickers or accessories of their choosing, and then turn the dial to input in the 3 number combination before the locker is swung open. How nice would it have been to have a place to plop in my textbooks and be able to come back later to grab them for another class instead of having to chug around so many books in my bag all day long? Ugh, my aching shoulders. 😐 As for lockers in gym class, students were allowed to use them as long as we had our own locks, but there was no real system of people being assigned locker numbers for which lockers they could use. I used a number lock for probably only the first year in high school until I forgot to remove it after the end of the year, and it was removed forcibly and likely confiscated by school personnel because no one knew whose it was. After that, I didn’t bother with using a lock and just resorted to shoving my stuff into the nearest empty locker every time I changed for gym class. Other people did the same as me and there didn’t seem to be a problem with getting your things stolen, as unbelievable as it sounds. Also, there is a hilarity to shows where a scene takes place at the student’s locker but it’s like right next to the student’s next class, or the locker happens to be situated near the locker of the person they are crushing on.
*Crazy for sports – Every high school I’ve seen on tv and/or in a movie seems to have the students be in the spirit of going to after school games/game night and cheering on their favorite players. My reality is sports have never interested me much. Also, my high school might have been considered peculiar by U.S. standards because it didn’t have any competitive varsity sports teams during and also prior to the years I attended. The apparent reason for this goes back to one of the school’s principles, which was to have less emphasis on competition and winning/losing and more emphasis on encouraging achievement. I recently looked up the school website and surprisingly, they began a competitive sports program in 2011. I also learned that the school mascot is apparently a dragon, lol.
*Stereotype labels – I saw high school as a pretty confusing time where I didn’t know who the heck I was (hell, in some aspects in present day, I still don’t know who I am). Getting labeled as “the quiet kid” (no explanation needed for why I was called that) or “the reader” (as I was nicknamed by some of the staff members in the school library because I had a penchant for spending all my free periods at the library with my nose in a book) made me feel two things: A) “Okay, I guess that’s who I’m supposed to be??”, and B) “Does the label really fit me, though??” It was hard not to be influenced by what I saw on tv too, to the point I was confused about who I was supposed to be but also perceiving others fit certain labels based on how they dressed or what cliques they hung out with.
*Hot for the teacher – Umm… yeah, this is awkward. On tv, there’s always one plotline or another where a student starts crushing on a teacher or that, crazily, it even gets reciprocated. Personally, I just never thought of my teachers that way. The only wtf moment I had at 16-ish was having a erm… very vivid sex dream about my male P.E. teacher, which came totally out of left field because I was not even remotely attracted to him! I blame my teenage hormones for sending me weird signals. 😶 I went to P.E. class the morning after completely mortified and hoping my face was not beet red. It wasn’t until I aged to adulthood that I could look back and actually think about how weird and uncomfortable if I did start crushing on a teacher. TV in general seems to fetishize the teacher and student thing in shows catered to a teen demographic, which is pretty disturbing.
*Being in the same class as (almost) everyone you are friends with – I suppose this trope is likely to happen in real life if the school is very small or there are classes where only certain people are allowed to sign up. I did have some of the same classes as people I was acquainted with. In one year, I was required to be in a math class where I saw the same people for two semesters because everyone in it, including me, was behind in the curriculum. If by chance I did become friendly with another student, the good vibes ended once the semester finished because we no longer had the same class anymore. Plus I never did well at striking up friendships or maintaining them. It was awkward, like, Do I ask this person for their phone number or email? or even What if I initiate things by asking if the person wants to hang out during lunch or outside of school and the person doesn’t want to?? Meanwhile, in tv land, the protagonists are always likeable people or manage to make a friend on their first day in their freshman year because it’s part of the plot to get stuff happening in the episode.
*Everyone knows everyone in the school – I once watched a series where all the students in the high school had everyone’s cell numbers and whenever something happened, everyone would get mass texted. I definitely did not have this experience because cell phones were kinda nonexistent in my life at the time. My high school was very overcrowded and people commuted from all over different parts of the city to attend class. Yes, I did get familiarized with the faces of people I would regularly see in the hallways during the bell rush, even if I didn’t know their names. Not sure if that counts as “knowing people” though. It was in this way I could tell if someone was a transfer student by not recognizing their face. I also have to laugh about how on shows, a transfer student is sometimes made into a big deal to the point the whole student body knows about it or is curious about the person and acting as if the person is a rare specimen they have never encountered before. Or if a student does transfer to a new school and completely lost during their first day, they are assigned a student who is responsible for showing them around. Another common trope I’ve seen is even if the student doesn’t have anyone guiding them on the first day, there is always another student who happens to offer help and falls into step with the person (and I mean that literally as the camera gives a long, continuous shot of the transfer student walking down the crowded hallway). The reality is, who would be that nice to offer help? I probably would not have because, selfishly, I had my own sh*t to deal with at school every day and could not be bothered with other people’s problems. If I did give help, I don’t think I would have become automatic friends with the person over the course of the tv series, which is what typically happens on shows, lol, when people meet in this way. My experience in high school was being approached by a transfer student from England who asked me if she was at the right classroom. I said yes and then promptly went back to staring at the wall waiting for the classroom to empty so I could go in. She then elaborated that she didn’t want to embarrass herself by being in the wrong place. Did I respond? No, because I didn’t know what to say. See, if I was the protagonist of a tv show, no one would watch it because I would so not be the sympathetic character people want to root for. XD
*Sitting alone at lunch equals outcast/loner – A person can be made to be seen as “weird” or “creepy” if they have no one to sit with or if no one will sit with them. The tv standard seems to be for people to assume something is wrong with the person on a social level for them to be eating alone. I don’t get this at all. There are a multitude of reasons for going solo, like maybe the student is short on time and needs to eat quickly because they have to be somewhere else for the rest of the period. Or a person wants to enjoy a little time to themselves without it being noisy.
What tropes were you familiar with in high school/secondary school?