Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cultural Stereotypes of High School and College in the US

Are high school and college in the US like the movies? I was asked that question more times than I can count the last two summers in Sweden and Denmark. Strangely enough, I never remembered being asked that question when I was actually living there. It might have simply been that while living there I was an actual adult with an actual job and an actual pay check. When visiting the last two summers I was a student hanging out with a bunch of other students, many of whom were much younger than me. My liver can attest to the age gap.

But that question. That question about movies and pop culture mirroring reality. It’s one I never know how to answer. Partially because it is a Hollywood depiction of something that tends to be a very individual experience for people. It’s a glorification of something that doesn’t necessarily exist in the form that is depicted on film. It is a cultural stereotype though that is transported across the Atlantic onto the screens of millions of Europeans. And it’s a cultural phenomenon that seems to leave a mark on those very Europeans.

So is high school like the movies? Is college like the movies? Yes. And no. You kind of make it what you want. I suppose that is the beauty of a system that has universities with only a thousand or so students, to universities like the one I attended in Oregon with about 20,000 students, to the one I attend now with about 40,000 students. And that’s just the universities themselves. Once there you can find your niche, whether it is with a student organization or just a group of like-minded people. Of course, for some people, it can still be a miserable situation that leaves them feeling more lonely than ever. Thankfully, I never felt that way, although as a teacher now, it is something I have helped students deal with more frequently than I care to admit.

The same can be said about high school. From the big to the small, from the good to the bad. It’s all there. Football teams and proms. Drugs and alcohol. Sex and pregnancy. Straight A’s and flunked exams. The jocks and the nerds. The bullies and the bullied. For better or worse. It’s all there.

It’s not like the movies for everyone though. Or maybe parts and parts aren’t. . I never once felt like high school was meant to be a movie life. Or that high school was meant to be the best time of my life. But I fit some of the stereotypes. And some I didn’t. I was a co-captain of the football and basketball teams in high school. I never went to prom. I went to parties. I never drank. I got straight A’s. I got accused of cheating. I graduated and I left town. It was time.

College was the same. I still have never done a keg stand. Although I have played a whole lot of beer pong. And taught a whole lot of Europeans how to play beer pong. I’m a cultural ambassador really. I never joined a fraternity. I never went streaking. I never snuck into the football stadium. That stuff happened. And I know plenty of people who did at least one of those things above, if not all of them. But not me. I had fun, met friends, got my degree, and left. It was fun. And it was stressful. And it was worth it. But it wasn’t like the movies. For me.

So yes. Or no. But this is the problem with some of that cultural exchange. The high school movies and college movies that get sent abroad glorify one aspect of high school and college. Mostly the sex, drugs, and alcohol aspect with the occasional hint of sports. Or the nerdy girl who, once she gets contacts, suddenly is the most beautiful girl in school. Just because the movies say it’s so, doesn’t make it so. It’d be like assuming that, just because every popular book and movie coming out of Sweden these days seems to glorify crime, Sweden is a criminal utopia filled with rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. And we all know that isn’t true, right? Right?  Good.

It’s not as easy as watching a movie and extrapolating. It never is when it comes to stereotypes. So go abroad. Be a high school exchange student. Or a college exchange student. Come visit. Explore. Just stop watching those crappy movies.

Welcome to Sweden. And America. And cultural stereotypes.

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