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Writing About High Schoolers

Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it's particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  Since I was proctoring for two hours, which involves walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you're interested, here's some raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

-   14 carried cell phones (they couldn't have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn't bring a cell phone--clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
-   3 wore hats
-   1 wore a school sweatshirt
-   1 wore a university sweatshirt
-   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
-   9 sweatshirts total--none of them were dressed in a style we normally call "preppy"
-   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
-   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
-   2 unnatural hair colors
-   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
-   1 male with an earring
-   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
-   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It's been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an "I" poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

-   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
-   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
-   6 sports
-   10 fashion
-   7 music
-   1 overtly religious
-   5 travel
-   6 hunting
-   3 environmental
-   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, "Every killer lives next door to someone"

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don't have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here's something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I'm arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
Fascinating and informative, thank you.
Apr. 25th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jim. Age is no excuse for flat characters.
Apr. 25th, 2007 05:53 pm (UTC)
Dunno if it makes things less disturbing, but I believe "Every killer lives next door to someone" was the tagline for a recent movie (Disturbia).
Apr. 25th, 2007 08:50 pm (UTC)
You administer the ACT to every kid? Is that common? I thought those were scheduled separately from school days, like the SAT.

A book with great eighth-grade characters: Project X, by Jim Shepard. Yes, they're planning a Columbine-style assault, but the characters aren't stereotypes.

I wonder if you've found what I've found, Jim: To do a school-age character, picture a kid you actually know. It really gives the spoken voice a particularity it might not otherwise have.
Apr. 25th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
In our district (maybe the state), the ACT has become a part of the evaluation of the school. Where you used to have to pay for the ACT and go to a separate testing center on the weekend, it is now administered by the school to all juniors, whether they are college bound or not.

The SAT is still separate.

We have high stakes testing here. If the kids are not proficient in all areas of CSAP (the state test developed to fulfill the requirements of No Child Left Behind), or they are not at a certain level on the ACT, they cannot earn a diploma in the traditional way. Regardless of their grades, those two test determine whether they graduate or not, so if they do poorly they have to demonstrate competence through another method, like a portfolio of work.

It's a big deal.

Since I spend the majority of my waking hours working with teenagers, creating a school-age character is easier for me. I have a lot of examples to draw on.
Apr. 25th, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
Since I teach at an independent school, we don't have state tests of any kinds. We do use a thing called the ERB as an entrance exam/scholarship test, and we also administer it to grades 5-10 each year for purposes probably more related to PR than to evaluation. (We don't teach to the test; it does help identify kids who are out of whack in one particular area, though no better than a teacher might.) Since I don't teach high school, I also don't deal with APs, so no "outside" tests loom in my life.

Our state, New York, has the Regents exams for the public schools (and Catholic ones use it too, I think), but kids can get Regents diplomas or non-regents diplomas.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 26th, 2007 11:58 am (UTC)
Hi, Devon. Thanks for pointing out that about younger children.
Apr. 26th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
Both this post and your comment are beautiful and dead-on. Thank you.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )