There’s something about high school movies (and TV shows, and books) that captivates the American imagination. Even when I was in high school, I would stay up late into the night, taking out my frustration at not being allowed out after midnight by watching my illegally-downloaded copies of The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I longed to become the Stoner or the Popular Girl or even the Goth, one of the characters who had awkward, furtive early sexual experiences or who appeared to roam a small Midwestern town unsupervised. Or, at least, I could have been one of the characters who had a car. Like so many other high school misfits, I knew where I really did fit in the stereotyped class strata: I was the Nerd, plain and simple, and I knew that, according to my favorite movies, such a status relegated me to a lifetime of loneliness and misery. The movies gave me hints for how to change, and for a time I did, trying on a few of the other labels. I watched Freaks and Geeks, and I identified ridiculously closely with the protagonist of that show, who copes with her misfitedness by joining a group of kids who don’t try especially hard in school, but who are exciting because of it, and who are silly and into music and put up with a little social awkwardness. That story, in fact, became not dissimilar from my own high school experience. And while you can’t ever shed a label like “Nerd” once you’re given it, and when it’s been yours for over a decade, I certainly tried pretty damn hard.
But when I got to college, as this blog no doubt indicates, I embraced “Nerd” for all it was worth; I embodied it and owned it. Unlike in the movies, I decided, Nerds do have productive and fulfilling lives, and it’s okay to be better at school than social relationships. It’s not a curse, at any rate, the way it is on celluloid. So now I deal with high school media a little differently: when I rented Clueless from iTunes to watch on a plane last week, or made my way through Skins on Hulu last school year, I spent every second of the movie or the episode with fingers crossed, hoping that the characters would suddenly decide not to adhere to their stereotypes: that the romantic subplot would not work out happily ever after, that the gay character or the black character would provide more than just comic relief, that the naturally pretty characters would not be made over into stylized, painted caricatures, ’80s hairdos and all.
Of course, it never does work out that way, and that’s the beauty of high school movies and part of why, I think, they’re so engrossing to those of us who have, quite definitely, moved on—physically, anyway. As I myself try to psychologically process the weird world that high school was, and to understand why things worked out the way I did, I do find myself looking to the movies and their truisms. If I had changed the way I look, I could have had a more lasting romantic relationship. If I hadn’t tried hard in school, I would have had more fun. If I had been more prone to making bad jokes, or indeed if I had conformed better to gender roles, I would have had more friends.
I obviously don’t really wish those things, and I obviously know the difference between cinema fiction and reality—where it is possible for a Nerd to lead a fulfilling life. But high school is this imaginary halcyon time, when we were all supposed to be happy, and yet—I am increasingly beginning to suspect—none of us were.We were all tortured by our own individual adolescent dramas and traumas—and whatever stereotype we ascribed to ourselves, we never embodied it as fully as characters on-screen do. We all look to them for the elusive promise of what could have been, what happiness and self-confidence we could have accorded ourselves. But high school being what it is, and the surreality of film being what it is, it will never come. We might as well get on with being who we are, and with taking solace from the knowledge that life really does get better when you have your diploma in hand.