Without any older siblings to show me the way, my high school experience often felt like guiding a kayak through a monsoon. Only, the kayak had raging hormones and was working at a grocery store for below minimum wage.
Instead, I turned to Hollywood to teach me the way to succeed in high school.
Now that school has started or is about to start for many, this may be a good opportunity to look back at what Hollywood taught me about the high school experience … and make sure it doesn’t steer you down the same hopeless path.
Rule No. 10: The High School Reunion is a traumatic referendum on whether you have succeeded or failed in life.
The Culprit: “Peggy Sue Got Married”
The Message: You may think graduation is your ticket to freedom from the oppressive cauldron of pain that is adolescence, but if you don’t succeed in the real world, you will have to return and face judgment at reunions for the rest of your life.
The Reality: When I went to my 10-year reunion, a decade’s worth of marriages, pregnancies and other factors made it almost impossible to recognize who was supposed to be judging me. Which was good, because I was unemployed, single and living with my parents at the time.
Rule No. 9: The dumb jock is just another hyper-sensitive soul who wants to be loved.
The Culprits: “Lucas,” ”Can’t Hardly Wait”
The Message: He may be a super-athlete who has spent the last 10 years giving sophomores violent mega-wedgies, but deep down he’s just fighting the demons of his own expectations.
The Reality: This one may be true, but you probably won’t find out until at least the 10-year reunion. Speaking of which…
Rule No. 8: Head cheerleaders and other unattainable high school goddesses are suckers for sincere nerds.
The Culprits: “The Karate Kid,” “Can’t Buy Me Love”
The Message: She may be rich, she may be dating the quarterback and she may look like she’s 25, but if she would just take a moment and see the real you, she would be yours.
The Reality: The reality is that I still don’t want to admit this one isn’t true.
Rule No. 7: Every shy wallflower is really a knockout in hiding.
The Culprits: “She’s All That,” “Mean Girls,” “Johnny Lingo,” Pretty much every John Hughes film
The Message: She may look like she’s auditioning for school librarian, but with a little self-confidence, she could make the cover of Cosmo.
The Reality: I appreciate the message that everyone’s beautiful on the inside. But you have to laugh when filmmakers try to disguise an obvious beauty in glasses and pass her off as an outcast.
Rule No. 6: The high school prom is the culminating event of your adolescence.
The Culprits: “Footloose,” “Twilight”
The Message: You will only have one prom, so you’d better make it count, even if you have to fight off rednecks, town councils and fundamentalist preachers to make it happen. Punch-dancing in a vacant mill also helps.
The Reality: Actually you can have three Proms, but luckily for my driving record and the innocent citizens of Centerville, I only went to one.
Rule No. 5: Cosmic intervention will help you with your schoolwork if you are destined for greatness.
The Culprits: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Harry Potter 1-6
The Message: Some people are destined for greatness, even if they need a time-traveling standup comic from the 1970s to fly in on a cosmic telephone booth to help them pass their high school history class.
The Reality: Most people attain greatness because they put in the work to pass their classes.
Rule No. 4: Real bands will play at your high school dances.
The Culprits: “Back to the Future,” “Better Off Dead”
The Message: High school dances are joyous events with live music where everyone knows how to get down.
The Reality: Maybe that was just during the ’50s and the ’80s. At my high school dances, DJs played Ace of Base and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” while most of us stood around the gym and tried to look cool.
Rule No. 3: You can always tell the bad guys by their evil-sounding names.
The Culprit: “Better Off Dead”
The Message: OK, maybe this isn’t a widespread phenomenon. I just love that the bad guy in “Better Off Dead” is actually named after a mass-murdering Communist dictator.
The Reality: If you actually do run into someone in the halls named Stalin, he’s probably not captain of the ski team.
Rule No. 2: The second fastest way to popularity is through an abnormally suspect athletic achievement.
The Culprits: “The Karate Kid,” “Better Off Dead”
The Message: Sure, maybe you’re getting beat up on a regular basis by a group of lifetime karate students who ride around town on dirt bikes wearing red leather jackets. But as David Wong of Cracked.com has astutely noted, according to Mr. Miyagi, you’re only a training montage away from winning the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
The Reality: The expression “beat them at their own game” should be taken as more metaphoric than literal in this case. Because the beating Daniel-san would have received in a real-life All-Valley Tournament would definitely be literal.
Rule No. 1: The fastest way to popularity is through the emergency room.
The Culprits: “Lucas,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
The Message: Even if you are a scrawny know-it-all that no one likes, if you man up and try out for the football team, only to get critically injured when seven guys twice your size crush your spine, you will be rewarded with popularity, a letter jacket and — if you’re really lucky — a tear-jerking scene where your peers give you a slow-clap ovation in the school hallway.
The Reality: Catastrophic injuries do get you attention. The downside is that you have to have a catastrophic injury. Unless you’re Ferris Bueller. Then you can just fake it and go to Cubs games.
So there you go: 10 rules to completely ignore if you want to enjoy your high school experience. But you know the sad thing about all this? I still love all these movies. And you probably will, too.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches english composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.