Recently I watched the highly successful Disney production, High School Musical. I felt kinda left out, and in my futile efforts to slow down the aging process, I’m making attempts to peek in on the younger generation.
In short, it was predictable, superfluous, and somewhat shallow. But for children growing up in 2006 (when the original was released), this might be just what the doctor ordered. It’s clean (for the most part) and the message (in places) can help children to discover their individuality.
As I watched, my thoughts gravitated towards my nephew (who is approaching his 2nd birthday – wow how time flies.) In this age of innocence lasting only as long as children can’t find the power button to the remote or before they can reach the keys and type ‘g-o-o-g-l-e<Shift><Enter>’, you do everything you can to try to hold on to their youth. Corny as it may sound, we want them playing tag and wearing pajamas. We want them to wake up Saturday mornings and watch cartoons and eat cereal. I began to think, perhaps this is the high school that I’d want him to attend some day.
But then, I began to look a little deeper at the movie.
Now, please understand that I enjoyed the film. I laughed a bit. Often I had to turn away because the story was getting so sappy that it was on corny-overload. But it wasn’t at all a bad film. As I watched a bit closer, I noticed that the one area that the film deliberately chose to exclude were the other kids. Yes, being a Disney production, you can find faces of all different nationalities (and even physical structures. Well, somewhat. They had one overweight girl who liked hip-hop. Go figure.) But the other kids that I’m referring to are the ones that you avoid in the hallway. The ones that your parents and even some friends tell you to watch out for. The ones whose eyes have seen so much at such a young age that their eyes glaze over at the audacity of an adult telling them about ‘the real world’.
If you look at High School Musical in contrast to what children experience today in all but the most pricey private schools, you realize that the truth is very different. Watching High School Musical for a child who lives in Cabrini-Green or Baisley Projects (um, excuse me…Baisley Houses) must be quite a depressing experience. ‘Wow…look at their clothes. Look at that science lab… Check out that drama class – it has a real mini-stage inside. And Tariek isn’t around to ask them what colors they are reppin’. Man, no wonder they look so happy.’
OK – so we know High School Musical is a bit of a utopia and I’m not faulting it for being so. Most of us watch movies to escape the horror that we experience in our own lives – even if only for an hour and fifty minutes. But something else occurred to me about the movie outside of the way that it contrasts real life for many children.
If you haven’t seen Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, please make an effort to do so. Despite what you think about his political views (and I agree with him on many issues), this is a thought-inducing film. It’s been criticized by conservatives for it’s lack of accuracy in some places, but the key to the film lies in the title. Spoilers AHEAD We learn in the film that the children (and yes, they may have been ridiculously thoughtless and perhaps misguided, but they were indeed children) spent the morning before the shooting at a bowling alley. We also hear from two girls who shared class with two of the boys – bowling class. We learn from these girls that the boys weren’t that good and more importantly, that they didn’t seem to enjoy the class. One girl described the time that she played against them as the boys just ‘chucking the ball down the lane’. She said that they kept to themselves and didn’t really interact with the class much.
Now wait a minute. This doesn’t quite make sense. Why would these boys go to a bowling alley – whether the played or not. I thought they weren’t any good at bowling? Perhaps it was just a local place to hang out. It’s also logical to assume that this might not have been the first time they’ve been there. Maybe they went down to the lanes to try to figure out a way to improve their bowling game a bit. To compete with the other children. To find a way to fit in.
The image of those boys bowling the morning of the events is as resident in my mind as the horrific footage showing them terrorizing other students and teachers. I’ve presented in front of CIOs of major pharmaceutical organizations. Hell, I’ll go ahead and say it – the largest one at the time. I’ve spoken in front of 200 seven-figure earning sales reps about technology. I’ve shared dinner with the former Deputy Mayor of New York City. But, in retrospect, those moments pale in comparison to the pressure I felt as a child in that mini-society – that social experiment they call “high school”.
High school a mind-bending experience. You see so many young people and feel a connection with so few. I was one of the fortunate ones. I was pretty well known. Not exactly popular, but I was known by the majority of the seniors. My school was fairly uplifting in that there weren’t too many children that were completely ostracized. But there were some. Some kids have things going on that I’ll never understand. I had my own issues to deal with at home that my friends never quite understood. But these probably pale in comparison to the conflict that existed in some of my friend’s homes.
So what does this have to do with High School Musical? If you watch the film with the eyes of a child, you’ll see just what Disney wants you to see – children laughing and playing and singing and not smoking weed or having sex in the closet. But if you watch with a slightly keener eye, you’ll see something interesting. The entire production is pretty consistent. All of the kids look like they come from a good family with sufficient income. But there are kids in the background that are out of focus. The first time viewing you might not see them. But they’re there. They’re in the hallway. They’re outside walking behind the principal cast. You won’t see them saying any lines, because they don’t have anything to contribute to the spirited Disney production. They actually look a lot more like you and me than the High School Musical kids. Strangely they don’t find themselves amidst any of the drama associated with finding out why Troy signed up for the musical tryouts and who this new girl Gabriella is. After all – they’ve been here for years before Gabriella and nobody is talking about whether or not they’re going to participate in the school play. They feel like outsiders. There’s this whole world going on and even among a subset of 500 kids, they don’t have a place.
I suppose these out-of-focus kids have gravitated to be with other out-of-focus kids. As a group, they begin to get some attention. But not the kind that the Disney kids get. They stand out because they all wear black and they don’t have Coach bags or new Abercrombie and Fitch gear for the spring. They get labeled as ‘griefers’. And after two years of this, they just kinda roll with it.
And lets say, maybe, they are forced to fulfill a requirement to graduate. They need to have five credits of gym class. They get teased as their unshapely bodies dress in darkly lit, unsupervised locker areas. As bad as it may be to just exist in the school, it’s that much worse to demonstrate your lack of physical coordination with only twenty-five feet and orange cones creating an invisible wall separating your area from that of the females who are watching as now all doubt that you can’t hit a baseball has been completely removed.
Despite the fact that you and the ‘griefers’ want to fit in, you just don’t see a way. The teachers really don’t seem to care. It becomes painfully clear that their presence is only to insure that on the 15th and the 30th, the correct denomination of funds are deposited into their Capital One account.
Perhaps by now you’ve had enough. You’ve watched for two years as the privileged kids pranced around and all but shoved their financial advantages in your face. And despite your efforts to go with your fellow ‘griefers’ to the batting range to get better every now and again, it just isn’t for you. Perhaps, as Malcolm Gladwell describes, you’ve reached ‘the Tipping Point’. So after trying one last time to hit that fastball in the batting cage, you and the griefers are going to see to it that the other kids feel just a bit of the pain that you’ve felt.
Yes, I’m streching it. And while completely dramatized, when you visit a high school lunchroom and see how many kids are ostracized in social situations, it’s no wonder that we don’t have more instances like the one in Columbine. I sat in sociology class as a college freshman and heard about studies showing that the child who isn’t picked up when they are crying is more likely to suffer harmful effects to their health, or even death. Or that if you feed two mice poison, but stroke one mouse lovingly, it converts the poison into nutrition and doesn’t die. So what about our children? Not the ones that are doing cartwheels and making jump shots while standing on their mark, eyes firmly on the director with the boom mic held over their heads. What about the other kids? The ones who are in the background. Out of focus. The ones that the ‘High School Musical’ kids don’t even realize go to the school until one of them is standing over them with a Glock 9-millimeter with laser sighting.
Am I saying that this is the fault of the popular kids? Certainly not. After all, none of these kids has it all together. Popular as they may appear, everyone’s just trying to make it through. But something must be done to involve these “other” children. Not by embarrassing them into participating in physical activities with kids who are well above their athletic level. I don’t even know if I posses the right answer to the dilemma. Perhaps having small, focused discussions with random children in groups of five where they share about how they are handling school and whether they find difficulty in getting along with other children? Perhaps having regular peer counselor one-on-ones or assigning them in groups according to their Myers-Briggs personality type?
My solutions may sound like silly wastes of time to some. But it’s an attempt to reach out before we’re watching another Michael Moore movie wondering how this could have happened.
Perhaps it’s high time that we started paying attention to the ‘out-of-focus’ kids.