Why are we so obsessed with high school?
Our popular imagination has always revolved to some degree around magical high schools. Sunnydale High? William McKinley High School? East High? Hogwarts? None of these places exist, but they’re more real than the brick-and-mortar schools we attended.
Maybe it’s fitting that the announcement that “Glee” regulars Kurt and Rachel will graduate after the third season comes at the same time as the concluding chapter of Harry Potter hits theaters.
These magical high schools define us.
High school is one of those things that only happen once and then again every day for the rest of your life.
“I never had a typical high school experience” and “I had exactly the typical high school experience” are both equally false and true. The Typical Teenage Experience is as imaginary, yet as recognizable, as the basilisk or the unicorn.
The Nerd. The Jock. The Prep. The Dork. The Clown. The Drama Geek. The Fat Kid. They’re archetypes as prevalent as Jung’s sages and scarecrows, and 10 times more evocative.
Looking for Scylla and Charybdis? Try navigating the locker room.
It’s a new mythology. Maybe the gods are dead. But the gods and monsters of the gymnasium and hallways, the Wise Old Men who impart us essential information for our quests between third and fourth period — they’re more ubiquitous than ever.
These days, we seldom learn the same things. There is no standard curriculum. Learn our history? Most of us don’t. So the school itself becomes our common base of reference. Our anchor to each other is in a place that doesn’t quite exist.
Our ancestors hunted down spirit animals in lodges, surrounded by hot rocks. We have to dodge the tar pits of the cafeteria.
Perhaps that’s the allure of Potter. Hogwarts is the high school everyone dreamed of attending — not just the magic, but the scarves and points and colors and house spirit. Forget dodging through the cafeteria. Here, the kids most likely to filch your lunch money are carefully identified and color-coded.
Now it’s ending, again.
But we will never tire of having the Myth of High School told to us. The jocks. The preps. The geeks. We greet them as old friends. Everything is brightly colored and carefully labeled. There is something both familiar and peculiar about the place. In our magical High Schools, Prom swells to vast and luminous proportions. Football Games are gladiatorial contests. Wise Old Men? Dark Fathers? We have Compassionate Glee Club Sponsors and Snape.
Our modern Magic High Schools are based on the stubborn insistence that there is more to us than meets the eye. The beating heart subverts the stereotype. Archetypes tend to blur as they attain human form. A nerd is a jock is a — who can say? But even as our television shows, books and movies increasingly acknowledge this, the stereotypes remain, losing little of their power.
The high school demigods are nearly self-creating at this point. “High School Musical” had something of the character of a passion play, archetypes with blank faces moving through prescribed motions to a foregone conclusion. Nerd meets Jock! Forget Romeo and Juliet! They had no classes — how can we relate?
Ryan Murphy, creator of “Glee,” can merrily twist the high school stereotypes at his fictional McKinley High only because they are so powerfully familiar already. We have the tendency to pick one box or another — “I was a total nerd in high school!” “I was such a drama kid!” — the same way, if you put four women in a room during the mid-2000’s, they would inevitably assign themselves characters from “Sex and the City.” Nerd. Jock. Geek. Prep. Clown. Gryffindor. Slytherin. Cheerio. New Directionite.
They’re who we are — or wish we were.
The teens we watch on TV and in the movies are our contemporaries in ways that people we actually sat in the same classrooms can never hope to be. Harry and Ron. Rachel and Kurt. When they grow up a little something in us dies.
Graduation is where the archetypes lose their power.
Leave high school, and you can do and be what you please. The nerds are your bosses and coworkers. The jocks are those people you run into at the grocery carrying infants and vegetables. Suddenly the hole where your particular peg banged about for four years is irrelevant.
But once you pass out those doors, you can no longer stray back to the classrooms and phoenix training grounds and be so welcome as you were. They have replaced you. Another nerd sits right beneath the blackboard. Another jock rules the hallway. The forms endure. But you have changed.
Celtic legend tells of a voyager named Bran who was trapped out of time, journeying onboard a ship with his comrades, intact and ageless. When he returned to the shores of his homeland, everyone he knew was dead. One of his men stepped from the ship and crumpled into dust.
Thus it is with our magical high schools. The voyagers continue their journey – immortal and un-aging. We stand on the shore and watch them and grow old.
People are known to come back from the dead. But try visiting your old high school!