That Horrible YA High School

We've all read it. The horrible high school. Our protagonist gets mercilessly bullied by students, teachers, and administrators. Probably the lunch lady, too. The gym teacher is perverted and hates unathletic kids. The principal is ineffective, sleeping with the secretary, and has veneers. Unpopular kids get beaten badly by popular football players and no teacher seems to notice. The entire school operates as a kind of torturous minefield with the design of eliminating the weakest students. 

I feel like I've read variations of this high school a thousand times and I'm here to say, definitively, it's a cliche. I know as well as anybody that high school can seriously suck. It's a special kind of hell for any kid who is different. But, the cliched high school we've all read countless times in YA novels doesn't depict high school students' struggles in an authentic way. 

William Zabka, the ultimate 80s movie bully, seen here torturing the Karate Kid
I completed my Masters in Teaching and student teaching last year, and since then my perception of what is authentic has changed completely. Now, inaccurate school situations in novels really, really bug me. 

I recently read the book Rotters by Daniel Kraus. Overall, I really enjoyed it for its being unafraid of tough subjects and its gnarly, unflinching descriptions of some really dark stuff. The only aspect of the book I didn't enjoy was the high school. The awfulness of that high school was so over-the-top, I sometimes found myself rolling my eyes. Joey, the protagonist, gets routinely, savagely bullied and beaten up in public by peers and teachers, and no one seems to care. At one point, the Biology teacher who's been arbitrarily torturing Joey all school year, becomes school principal, at which point he removes Joey from the free lunch program, even though Joey's living in poverty. Yes, it adds conflict. But is it accurate or believable? No. 

Inaccurate for different reasons are the Chasing Vermeer books. I enjoyed this series, but the classroom in the story is completely, almost hilariously inaccurate. Where the school in Rotters is inaccurately horrible, the school in these books is inaccurately candy-coated. In the second book, The Wright 3, it's the end of the school year when news breaks that a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is set for demolition. Ms. Hussey, the characters' sixth grade teacher, devotes the rest of the school year to the discussion of what constitutes art. There's no mention of curriculum, lessons, or tests. In a real classroom at the end of the year, Ms. Hussey would be freaking out about standardized testing, somehow getting through the final math unit, organizing that last field trip, and getting kids to turn in their work because it's their last chance! 

Right now, I'm reading an amazing book that really gets kids right--Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner. I'm not sure if the author has children or has worked in schools, but she's truly mastered the authentic details of childhood and school life. One image in particular really resonated with me. Lena struggles in school, is neglected and abused at home, and has no structure in her life. When Vaclav offers to help her with her homework, she pulls a worksheet from the bottom of her backpack. "The worksheet that Lena pulls out from her backpack is like a fancy fan at the bottom, because it has become smushed under all the books in Lena's bag."

Everything that's working against Lena is present in that accordioned piece of paper. As a teacher, I felt like I understood Lena better via that one authentic detail. It's details like this that separate a book I like from a book I love. Suffice it to say, authenticity is pretty important in my mind. 

So, how do you write about school life authentically? Here are a few tips. 

  • Don't let your own school experiences be your only research. This can be really tempting, but I urge you not to fall into this trap. Our perceptions of school as children are accurate to a point, but as children we aren't aware of the whole picture. As an author, you need to be aware of the whole picture. Before I started teaching, my only experiences dealing with children were from when I was a child, and many of my childhood prejudices and fears carried over. All of that has been consigned to memory again after working with kids as an adult, and now I have a much more complete view of childhood and school life.  
  • Read about childhood development. It may sound dumb, but the things they teach in psychology classes about the phases of childhood mental and emotional development really do have bearing in real life. When you learn the specific biological processes that are storming through the bodies of your characters, their reactions and beliefs will be much more authentic. 
  • Somehow observe some real children. I don't recommend going to a park and staring at young children while taking notes. The parents won't be amused. But there are other ways. Go visit your young relatives and observe how they talk, volunteer in a classroom (the teachers will love you!), become a Big Brother/Big Sister, mentor a child, or go into teaching! Getting to know just one kid can break apart all the preconceived notions you had about children (obviously if you're a parent, you've already got this one covered).  
  • Research what goes into teaching. Teachers don't arbitrarily pick what their students learn. The state and district give them tons and tons of guidelines about what the children must know (often you can find these online). If there's one thing books get wrong most often, it's curriculum. I read constantly, particularly in middle grade, scenes where the teacher says something like "OK kids, we're going to study jellyfish today!" Um, what? What state's curriculum features jellyfish? I call this the Magic School Bus effect. It would be cool if teachers had so much freedom, but most of the time, they're pretty much tied to the curriculum. 
  • Avoid stereotypes. The popular football player? The mean-for-no-reason math teacher? The lunch lady with a hairy mole who grimaces as she slops creamed corn on your tray? Not good enough. If you get to know any football players, math teachers, or lunch ladies in real life, you'll learn there are just about as many variations in personality and appearance as there are people on the planet. 
  • Teachers are characters, too. Some of the flattest, most one-dimentional characters I've read were teachers. In school stories, teachers are often hugely important to the plot, yet they're frequently proportionally underdeveloped. For me, this is a big hint that the writer hasn't done their homework. Teachers have motivations, beliefs, and internal conflicts just like anyone. Let's look at our mean math teacher from the previous bullet. He has to be mean in an authentic way, and a good way to do this is to understand his motivations--Why is he mean? Did his wife just get diagnosed with cancer? Is the administration breathing down his neck about test scores? Does he hate his job and want to be a concert pianist? You don't have to address everything going on in his life, but indicating you've got some perspective will do a lot to improve the authenticity of your story. 
  • Genre doesn't matter. Just because you're writing fantasy or dystopia or historical fiction, doesn't exempt you from understanding the age group you're writing about. Why is it that teenagers in realistic fiction act so drastically different to teenagers in fantasy novels?
  • Children are not adults. Sometimes we want to assign adult characteristics to children, especially teenagers, because we think by doing so we're "respecting them". You can have respect for your characters by understanding who they really are at that point in their life. Teenagers are just as complex, confused, hilarious, challenging, and full of ideas as adults, but not in the same way. Don't do your characters a disservice by not understanding what makes them really tick.
How important do you think authenticity is in novels? Have you read any books recently that accurately depict childhood and school life?