By Rita Cheery
The pandemic has forever changed the high school experience, and it’s still not like “High School Musical.”
Her alarm rings for the third time. Marylyn Jafari reaches around trying to find her phone, desperate to stop the relentless alarm bell. She looks at the time; it’s 8:10 a.m. Jafari has two minutes before school starts. She reaches underneath her bed and retrieves her laptop, ready to start her school day.
Jafari joins her Zoom meeting, immediately turning off her camera and muting her microphone. She curls up in her blankets and lays down next to her laptop. After her teacher takes attendance, Jafari shuts her eyes and slowly drifts back to sleep, with her teacher’s voice droning on beside her.
“That’s what online school is like,” Jafari says. “It doesn’t feel real. I could be doing anything and my teacher would never know.” She laughs as she recounts how her pandemic-era experience with online learning bears no resemblance to the lives of high schoolers portrayed in popular media.
For many high school students, Jafari’s experience is the reality of online learning. Letting a teacher’s lesson play on as if it were a podcast you put on to fill an empty silence has become standard practice, a far less exciting reality for someone who’s grown up watching “High School Musical.”.
As a young girl, Jafari spent many evenings watching the “High School Musical” movies with her older sister Rosemary, dancing and singing along in their living room, a tradition still upheld by the two young women.
“I used to think high school would be like ‘High School Musical,’” Jafari says.
“You know, a really tight community that go through these life-changing events together. But nothing really happens, and everybody just keeps to themselves.”
Jafari’s sister, who is in her fourth year of university, says it wouldn’t be so different in person. “I just don’t believe that,” Jafari says.
High school is often the focus of popular media. Many movies, television shows and books portray high school as being glamorously dramatic; with all the epic love stories and impromptu dance numbers, who wouldn’t expect something grand? But the reality for most people is that it’s actually quite boring, and the ongoing pandemic has only exacerbated that.
HBO’s latest hit series “Euphoria” is a perfect example of a glamourized depiction of high school. The show features excessive amounts of drug abuse, sex and various criminal activities. Ironically enough, the show is rated too mature for the audience it’s meant to portray.
As a university student, Taryn Infante says the show is nothing like reality.
“Euphoria” follows the story of Rue, a 16-year-old drug addict, and various other people in her social circle as they experience trauma, relationships and abuse.
“I think those characters exist, but they’re exaggerated to the extreme for entertainment.” Infante says she knew people who were similar to the characters on “Euphoria,” but the circumstances and environment the show portrayed were completely unlike her experience.
Infante graduated from St. Roch Catholic Secondary School in Brampton in 2018 and now studies psychology at the University of Guelph-Humber. She seems unable to relate to any of the characters. After some thought and a defeated laugh, she confesses that even the most muted character was too far removed from who she was in high school.
“I can’t even say I relate to Lexi because I never had so many dramatic things happening around me. And even if I did, I would never air everyone’s dirty laundry out to dry in front of the whole school.”
Lexi, Rue’s best friend, is arguably the most well-adjusted character in the show, mature and reserved.
In the second season, Lexi develops a crush on Rue’s drug dealer and friend, Fez, who later encourages her to go through with putting on a school play about the people in her social circle. The play, as Infante puts it, airs their dirty laundry while depicting Lexi as an under-appreciated saint.
Infante says she had friends who used a lot of drugs, but nothing to the extent of the show’s main character, Rue. “I also never had my crush nearly kill someone before my eyes,” alluding to Fez beating someone up minutes after exchanging numbers with Lexi.
For Infante, high school was a let down. “Nothing ever really happens. Nobody really pays attention to you because they’re all worried about themselves.”
What made high school enjoyable for her was being with her friends. “I think you lose that connection when things are online. I don’t know what I would do if I were in high school right now,” Infante says.
Her fears are Isabel Navarrete’s reality.
Navarrete, who is now in Grade 11, says Grade 10 was especially hard.
“I was looking forward to walking home with my friends, going to clubs after school, or even going out and having fun like teenagers should in their early years.”
Instead she spent all her time at home, isolated from her teachers and classmates with little to no in-person interaction with them.
Ramina Tamou, who graduated in 2014, from St. Edmund Campion in Brampton, also expected high school to be as fun as “High School Musical.” But in reality, it was like elementary school, just in a bigger building.
“From what I saw on TV, I thought there would be a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted, but it was honestly like a prison. You couldn’t do anything.”
Tamou says she remembers being excited to stand in the hallway and talk with her friends between classes, because that’s what she had seen on TV. But she barely had enough time to grab her books from her locker and hurry to class, let alone chat with her friends.
“My school was three floors. There was no way I had time to stand around and catch up with my friends. When that bell rings, it’s go time.”
She laughs at the idea of high school being anything like “Euphoria.” Tamou specifically references the idea of a 12-year-old orphan selling drugs to high schoolers. “Could you imagine if people actually brought little kids to parties? And those kids were selling drugs?”
Not everyone finds high school to be tumultuous. Abby Roberts, another Grade 11 student, says the workload is not as daunting as she anticipated and high school life has been rather uneventful.
“Everything I saw on TV was greatly exaggerated or completely untrue,” Roberts says. “I’ve never had that dramatic moment where I tie up my hair and work really hard. I haven’t even stayed up late to finish my work yet.”
High school may not mirror “High School Musical” or “Euphoria,” but youth is fleeting and everyone has at least one moment from those formative years that they’ll remember forever. For Infante, it was hiding out in the media room to escape mass; for Tamou, it was being voted prom ambassador; and for Jafari, it may be those mornings she muted her Zoom class to get an extra hour of sleep.