“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” told me that principals will stop at nothing to destroy students. “Mean Girls” said popular girls exhibit no human emotions and break men’s hearts for sport. “American Pie” pointed out that guys will sell their soul to the devil for the promise of female interaction. Heading into my freshman year, with overworn stereotypes branded into my memory, I was conditioned to believe that every high school had impromptu food fights, a high concentration of letterman jackets and a dumb jock who only answers to “Buzz.”
Well, four food-fight-free years later, it’s hit me like a book of cliches to the face: tawdry teenage comedies got it wrong. With teen “dramas” I watched throughout my adolescence, as well as something called ABC Family Original Programming, the image of brawny quarterbacks, blonde cheerleaders and calculator-wielding nerds have been beaten into my brain. But that’s not what it’s like. Any student at East knows that high school isn’t the popularity-based kingdom movies make it out to be; people don’t judge an individual’s merit off of sports cars or cool leather jackets. They also don’t scoff if you think the french horn is rad.
Yes, I understand that films are a dramatizations of the real world and most of the actors cast to play teens look old enough to have a mid-life crisis. However, movies can leave an impression. When I started high school, I remember feeling scared that I would inadvertently tick off a senior or flash the principal a funny look. I felt like I needed to be “Buzz;” I wanted to do football and find a clique. But after realizing up-downs aren’t as much fun as they look in “Remember The Titans” and there was no speech profound enough I could use to win the begrudging respect of my teammates, I dropped the sport.
To my surprise, I didn’t get shoved into a locker.
When I changed my path from letterman-jacket-wearing jock to theatre/journalism nerd who occasionally sports spandex for a cross country meet, my football friends didn’t care all that much. I like to think they missed my honest efforts on the kickoff team or my ability to carry the water cooler from the bus to the field, but no one gave me crap. In fact, this year when I was in “Bye Bye Birdie” and wore enough face powder to look like Casper The Friendly Ghost, some of my old football friends were in the audience. They didn’t even throw tomatoes at me.
I never ran into that mean bully asking for lunch money. At East, I’ve felt generally welcome. When I was a junior, I stumbled into the Little Theater for the first time after years of limiting my abilities to the journalism room and the track. I still had crippling social anxiety back then — the kind that makes guys freeze up when talking to a pretty girl or what made Colin Firth stutter in “The King’s Speech” — but I tried it out anyway. After auditioning for a couple shows and getting a couple parts, I instantly felt welcomed. I never bumped into that bully.
Dating back to the time my parents were sporting puffy mini-skirts and perms to school, TV and movies have perpetuated a negative idea that high school is split into sectors. There’s the jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, goth chicks, super nerds, stuck-up snobs, social outcasts, calculator-watch-wearing-nerds, sensitive girls with a rough exterior and, of course, leather-jacket-wearing rebellious youth. At East, we’re more of a social melting pot. Football behemoths dabble in choir, Shakespeare-quoting-thespians are in the Homecoming Court and basketball players are on the honor roll.
I’m not saying that every person who walks through the halls of East is as accepting as Ghandi, or deserves a Nobel Prize for their efforts in abolishing old stereotypes, but I find Shawnee Mission Wonderful to be generally, well, wonderful. There’s a million and a half ways East is different from the movies — like when cheerleaders walk through the halls on game day it’s not set to Guns N’ Roses and students don’t relish ding-dong-ditching the principal — but in my mind there is just one. Students have an easier time embracing the differences in others.
I know my years of anecdotal proof does not necessarily mean the same is true for everybody. I know that some people have not been head-over-heels for high school. But at East, there is an undeniable trend of acceptance. Four years ago, we had a gay Homecoming king and it was a big deal to everybody except East students. There can be a male cheerleader without panic ensuing. A girl can wear sweat-pants without a flock of self-proclaimed fashion police running to the scene.
If only incoming freshman could know. It’s sad that so many have to go off of ideals hastily thrown at them in the form of half hour melodramas and straight-to-DVD trite-fests. If I got to redo my freshman year with the information I have now, I would do it differently. I would get more involved earlier, make an effort to go to school functions and not live my life by values from “Saved by the Bell” re-runs.
I wouldn’t blow 50 bucks on that letterman jacket, either.