No More Fast Times at Ridgemont High

John Hughes taught me how to be American. The king of the 1980s teen flick, Hughes made millions, and helped establish a genre, with sweet comedies of adolescent manners like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, set in and around the high schools of Chicago’s northern suburbs. The movie plots ran like Archie Andrews comics, updated–though not very much–for the MTV generation.

Like most of Hughes’ audience, of course, I didn’t live by Lake Michigan. Unlike most of them, I lived in Bangladesh, where my parents had been assigned by the foreign service–and where, with the help of an endless supply of pirated videotapes, I tried desperately to keep up with the American pop culture my folks’ career had so viciously denied me. I knew, sort of, that Archie’s Riverdale High was absurd. But Hughes’ suburbia I consumed uncritically. When your only friends are the equally bewildered offspring of Danish, Dutch, or Korean globetrotters, you take what certainty you can get.

And so thanks to Hughes and his colleagues, I knew exactly what to expect when I moved home at age 14. High school would be big and crucial; my standing in its hierarchy of jocks and brains and losers would determine my happiness. Like any true, red-blooded American kid, I knew I would care desperately about the football game, the dance afterwards, and the big, drunken party to follow. Hey–I’d watched the instructional video.

My parents, as it turned out, had other ideas. They sent me to a small private school and a life devoid of the events that provided the climactic moments of the high school movies that once served as my cultural umbilical cord. I’m sure I put it somewhat more impolitely at the time, but I felt, again, somehow disconnected from the common terrain of my country. And like a good 14-year old, all I wanted was to be as normal a part of that terrain as possible. Just as I’d felt that moving to South Asia wasn’t normal, I knew that not having cheerleaders and homecoming games wasn’t normal, either.

Today, I might not be so sure. Like everything from TV to fruit juice, schools in America have undergone a revolution in the ’90s, morphing from a world of few choices to a veritable rainbow of individual options. We have hundreds of satellite channels and almost as many variations–pulp-free, calcium-rich, mango-spritzed–of orange juice. And the education marketplace doesn’t seem to be far behind. Magnet schools lure the best and brightest (or, sometimes, the worst and most hardened) to one central location. Vouchers, the controversial program to allow public-school dollars to pay students’ private-school tuitions, have gotten the most attention. But the biggest practical impact may yet come from the charter school movement, which creates specially focused new public schools that are independent of the public school system’s bureaucracy and regulation.

Nationally, charter schools operate in 34 different states, according to the nonprofit Center for Educational Reform. Half a million students attend charters, a number that’s growing rapidly. Last May, President Clinton declared the first ever National Charter Schools Week. A second one is already scheduled for this coming spring, to be declared by President Bush.

In the District of Columbia, meanwhile, the movement is perhaps at its strongest. Ten percent of the city’s 70,000 public school students now attend charters such as the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom School, and the Techworld Public Charter School. With public oversight hampered by a convoluted school-governance system, it’s actually quite easy to get a charter–and the tax money that comes with it. Nearly everyone on either side of the debate agrees that D.C.’s charter population will grow even bigger in coming years.

Predictably, the charter experiment has spurred considerable speculation among education experts. Proponents say it’ll free teachers from bureaucratic red tape. Opponents say it’ll wreck teachers’ standard of living while channeling tax dollars to educational hucksters. What no one has talked about, though, is the movement’s cultural impact. From inner cities to suburban tract districts, the big general-interest high school has for decades been a common piece of the American educational landscape, and more importantly, of the adolescence of most Americans. For all the differences between Hughes’ Highland Park, Illinois and most other places, his movies appealed to wide audiences because they took place in an arena whose rituals and stock characters most viewers could relate to.

But that’s not an arena a theater audience could very well understand if, say, half of them had attended small schools dedicated to science, foreign languages, or even–this one already exists–“the hospitality industry.” Who’d make sense of the hulking football teams (at a school of just 300 kids, even regular-sized people could play), the lunch-table segregation by activity group (the band dorks would all be at the special music school anyway), and even the hallways so long that the teachers don’t notice when the greaser stuffs the nerd into a locker?

Not quite a cultural revolution, the rise of charters–if they become a major factor nationally–nonetheless posits something quite contrary to the rhetoric of community and tradition used by its major proponents: the erosion of another piece of Americans’ shared cultural space. That’s no reason to support or oppose charters, of course. After all, there’s no intrinsic cultural value to nerds getting stuffed in lockers just because it makes for familiar cinematic terrain. But it is something worth noting as the debate about school choice proceeds.

Before it housed a couple hundred high schoolers, Irasema Salcido’s school building was home to a catering business. The building next door–today also a school–used to be a laundry. It still has the sign to prove it. On the other side of Salcido’s building is a car lot, ringed with chainlink and barbed wire. They still sell used cars there.

A little over a year ago, Salcido moved her nascent Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy into the industrial block in Washington’s Cardozo neighborhood. Kids, of course, can make a space look old pretty fast. The walls are plastered with flyers announcing everything from the students of the month to an after-school college-bound program to an HIV-prevention effort. And that skateboard that some 11th graders are using for a physics experiment looks pretty certain to leave marks on the short corridor’s floor.

On the other hand, plenty about the space–even after you walk past the loading bay to the schoolhouse door, which is around back of the building–makes it clear that this is no ordinary school. Signs on doors remain makeshift. The lockers have been awkwardly jammed into the space that doubles as a cafeteria. If it looks like one of those laboratories hidden by the government in an old warehouses in “The X Files,” it’s no wonder.

“Right now we’re renting,” says Salcido. “If we can secure a lease for three years, that will let us raise money” to find or build an actual schoolhouse for the 240 students Salcido expects when her three-year-old institution reaches capacity.

Salcido is one of the best-regarded charter educators in her city’s often scandal-plagued charter system. Watching her walk the hallways, it’s easy to see why. Unable to speak without digressing into a pep talk, she speaks optimistically about routing her school’s almost entirely minority student body to college, to careers, the kinds of places the city’s ordinary schools, cheerleaders and marching bands notwithstanding, have proven unable to deliver. She knows the name and background of just about every student we pass in the school’s cramped confines. Given the choice between Chavez and an ordinary high school, it’s no surprise that these kids’ parents are eager to break with pretty much anything connected to the traditional public schools.

But for the high schoolers at Cesar Chavez, Salcido’s school also represents a departure for some more neutral aspects of the American educational experience. The school has no band, no theater, and no traditional sports program. It does have colors–red and black, the colors of its namesake’s United Farm Workers union–but no team name or mascot. It has no playground (“We take them to Malcolm X Park” nearby, says Salcido), let alone a gym. Salcido says the school has never had a dance.

In other words, it’s nothing you’d recognize if you learned about America from an Archie comic or a teen movie. In the John Hughes universe, in fact, the school might seem downright un-American. And that–considering that America’s schools regularly fail kids like the ones at Cesar Chavez–is just the way it’s intended to be.

Hollywood thrives on shared experience. Long after World War II had offered up seemingly every last possible movie script, Hollywood kept making movies about the war. The reason was simple. In the ’40s and ’50s, military service was something most theatergoers, or at least someone they were close to, had experienced. The end of the draft, then, marked a significant cultural shift independent of its military meaning.

Sometime after Star Wars hit theaters, movie studios realized that teenagers were a path to box-office gold. If the movie was good enough, they might watch it five times each. Hence the horror flicks and high school romances of the ’80s, and their more recent successors.

But shared experience–and the ways mass culture interprets it–is a little more complicated than making everyone cheer when the Nazi sub sinks for the 78th time, or when the football captain once again asks out the shy-but-pretty girl we’re all pulling for. Whatever the education experts say about its academic merits (or lack thereof), the pop culture American high school of jocks and nerds, of big proms and bigger parking lots, has met its share of cultural criticism, especially from the Left.

To the academic Left, high school is part of capitalism’s indoctrination machine. Its football teams, they say, glorify violent masculinity. Its prom queens lock into place retrograde gender roles. Its very size exists to prepare kids to be cogs in corporate America. And on and on. Outside the academy, the criticism tends to be more personal, though no more friendly. “High school was terrifying, and it was the casual cruelty of the popular kids–the jocks and the princesses–that made it hell,” wrote the columnist Dan Savage in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting. “Like most students, I lived in fear of the small slights and public humiliations used to reinforce the rigid high school caste system: Poor girls were sluts, soft boys were fags.”

Politically, though, the Left hasn’t quite joined in the fight to place kids in schools like Cesar Chavez and destroy the old-fashioned petri dishes of oppression. The reasons are understandable. Sticking it to the bureaucracy, in contemporary America, sounds to leftists like a secret plan to gut teacher salaries, unions, and other things liberals are supposed to support. In fact, the most vocal supporter of charter schools in Washington is Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who chairs one of the conservative House subcommittees that oversees the District. Istook delights in blasting the bureaucrats or teachers’-unions types who drag their feet on converting public schools into charters.

But a movement to stick it to tax-sucking school administrators can have a lot of surprising consequences. The kind of schools that charter proponents are building represent a break from all sorts of American norms. Could a family-values right-winger like Istook really be against such great American traditions as fielding an 80-member cheerleading squad or beating the piss out of the sissies behind the oversized gym? Not quite. “A lot of that has changed already, of course,” he says of the Hollywood view of adolescents and the schools that educate them, or at least provide them a backdrop for big-screen romances. “It’s not exactly American Graffiti or the malt shop anymore, anyway. It’s evolved from that experience,” he says.

True enough. In fact, it never was American Graffiti–and even if it had been, in a country where school for too many people is remembered as an education mill rather than a stimulating environment, there’s no reason to mourn the passing of a time when everyone went through oversized, broadly-focused schools. There was also no reason to mourn the passing of an era when there were just three TV networks to watch, or one color of car to drive. Or, say, when young men’s lives were interrupted by a draft. But when that era faded, the nation gained a little more freedom and lost a little piece of common ground in the process–the kind of thing that sells movies, and also the kind of thing that helps, in dribs and drabs, to make us a country.

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