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Is public school really like they portray it in the movies?

Due to the fact I never went to public school I have a warped perspective of what its really like. Like most folks who went to yeshiva high school, our visions of what its like to attend public school are based on the movies we see which always seem a little over the top.

Based on movies such as American Pie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ten Things I Hate About You, I think that public high school looks like a scary world if you arent cool. Cool is relative, but I wouldnt be too cool since I suck at team sports- are the jocks really that cool? Are they really such assholes? Do the nerds all sit together at the cafeteria? Are the lunch rooms really like that with everyone picking their table based on social status? Are there really that many hot nerds? What about the parties, are they really that cool?

It seems that I am completely clueless. My only experience with public school was one summer when I failed math and had to go to summer school. I went to Murry Burgtram school which you can see when you exit the Brooklyn Bridge onto the FDR, its a red brick building and it was scary my first few times. The bathrooms had no stalls, they searched you when you came in and I was the only white kid- besides for a smattering of white looking Latinos- it was an interesting and frightening experience- but nothing like the movies save for Dangerous Minds or something of the sort.

I know I have tons of readers who went to public school can you tell me if anything from the movies is real?

{ 56 comments… add one }
  • Yochanan November 22, 2008, 9:58 PM

    Kind of, but the douchebags that picked on me weren’t jocks.

  • Another Anonymous November 22, 2008, 10:08 PM

    I attended a public school for two years – junior high, not really a good time for anyone – and can handsdown tell you that private school for the first six years and then the last four was phenomenally more frightening than public school. I’d say public school is The Breakfast Club plus more pot, Boy Meets World minus the locker-stuffings and leather-jacketed clad bullies, Saved By the Bell minus the between-class downtime but plus competent teachers, and Dazed and Confused plus adult supervision. (I’m getting comped by Blockbuster for this comment, by the way.)

    All in all, public school kids are a lot nicer than they are portrayed on TV/in the movies, but I wouldn’t hang around the lunchroom with a “Free Hugs” t-shirt.

  • heterim are for hippies November 22, 2008, 10:20 PM

    The movies portray them about as accurately as they portray yeshivos.

  • Frum Satire November 22, 2008, 10:34 PM

    Another anon- dazed and confused is one of the greatest high school movies ever.

  • shevers November 22, 2008, 10:59 PM

    Not at all. But then again, I went to one of the best public high schools in my city. All of the suburban kids I meet at my college always ask me if its true that the inner city public schools are just filled with fighting and drugs.

    Actually no, not all of them.

    The parties are pretty lame.

    There were definite groups that sat together in the lunch room, but they were more separated by race/subculture.

    At least at my school, popularity wasn’t everything. Most people knew everyone else, even the “nerds”, the “gothy” kids etc.

    We were under a lot more lock down than movie kids. You can’t just wander the hallways…

    I guess the nerds all stick together, but at my school, the nerds were the popular kids if that even makes sense. Like the cool kids were on chess team…

  • Batya November 22, 2008, 11:00 PM

    mean, nasty, cliquey
    Of course, I was in public school from k-12, decades ago. Religion was only an issue late high school, and it was an issue, even though most kids were Jewish. I had a teacher who ranted out much greater gn was before the Jews came.
    Andy Kaufman, Lotke-Taxi, was in my class of hundreds, so were Jon (Risky Business) and Barbara Avnet, but I didn’t know them as well.

  • ss November 22, 2008, 11:09 PM

    I went to public school the whole way through, and i think it really depends on where you go. I was in an area that was mostly a “lower socioeconomic status” . It was like the movies in some ways, with the jocks / nerds/ etc. subdivisions. Mostly we lived to party but I wouldnt describe the parties as cool. They were mostly for the purpose of getting as wasted as possible, and maybe hooking up.

  • Shevi November 22, 2008, 11:11 PM

    My public high school experience was relatively uneventful. We had our share of problems like any other school (fights, etc) but nothing too noteworthy. In my frum existence, when someone ask me if “all” public girls are sluts, I bite my tongue to prevent asking the same question about Bais Yakov girls.

  • Frum Satire November 22, 2008, 11:34 PM

    Sluts is relative- for some folks if a girl mix dances shes a hoe. Frummies are whack.

  • shevers November 23, 2008, 12:10 AM

    I think at my school, even the girls who had babies in 7th grade weren’t really considered sluts. If you slept with half the high school or something, then you approached such a status…

  • Tamara November 23, 2008, 12:34 AM

    I think this question is for me.

    I attended a public high school in the suburbs. I was unique in that I had a very diverse group of friends, depending on the year. I was also politically active and much more aware of what was going on in the world. But, let’s see what I can ramble.

    High school was mostly white but with mandatory bussing in L.A. in the early 90’s, I had lots of interactions with folks from South Central Los Angeles. Shaka Khan’s daughter and Rick James’ son went to my high school, neither of whom are white. I had an art teacher who was likely high; always reggae music going. I had another teacher who was all about equality and caring for kids. One English teacher tried to ream me for writing an essay on equal rights for Homosexuals.

    At lunch? the groups were more ethnic based than style based. However, it just so happens that football was mixed, basketball was mostly African American. Our cheerleaders had one of every group but Pep Squad was all black. I was in drill team, very diverse. I was also in orchestra, more white. I was on swim team one year, all white. And my senior year pretty much had all African American friends. It was definitely diverse; but then again, I’m the one who started the Human Rights Club.

    NOW…I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Hollywood. My school is predominately Latino and then we have Thai, Philipino, Armenian, and a mix of everyone else including Lebanese, Korean, you name it!

    The kids again tend to stick with their “own” except for kids who are in sports which seem, at my school, very diverse. The biggest issue is fighting between ethnicities. I don’t see these issues as loudly in my classroom. My classroom is neat, tidy, orderly, colorful. I have a collection of snowglobes and knick knacks. Walls are filled with positive posters and student work. My desks have no tagging or carving (but we are a brand new school). There is no chaos in the halls, graffitti pretty much is in the bathrooms and is immediately removed.

    All in all, schools are NOT what the media portrays. FS, if ever in L.A., perhaps you can come visit for a day. We’ll say you’re a writer or something 🙂

  • tesyaa November 23, 2008, 12:36 AM

    Definitely no fun if you’re not cool, I agree with that. But school ended at 2:40 p.m. so plenty of time to do whatever you want. It’s not like being in prison which is what yeshiva sounds like to me.

  • Batya November 23, 2008, 1:00 AM

    tesyaa, true, we had time for a life “after school” every day. Once when chastising my son for skipping classes, he said:
    “imma, with all the things you claimed to do when in high school, you must have skipped more classes than me.”
    “No, I did them all after school.”
    “I don’t have an after school.”

  • Moshe November 23, 2008, 1:40 AM

    I was in 6th grade in PS177 in Brooklyn in 1990. Not really any fights. Normal people, normal teachers. Good food and free food in the summer. From what I remember, absolutely nothing to do with what’s shown in movies.

  • Jack November 23, 2008, 1:59 AM

    As a grad of public school and a member of a fraternity I can say that it was exactly like you see in the movies.

    As a matter of fact Ferris Bueller and Jeff Spicoli were both modeled kids from my school.

  • SF2K1 November 23, 2008, 4:03 AM

    Like everything, the media exaggerates things drastically. I went to public school all my life. Middle school was the worst time because I was not the cool kid (more like the odd one out). I had my friends, and everything was a drama piece. I was “in love” (TM) with a random girl and nothing ever came of it, fought with one dude, generally hated school and life. High school was no where near as bad being that people didn’t tease the crap out of me, and I had a decent ability to hang with most people during school hours anyhow. I don’t think my HS was clickish particularly, other schools in my area sounded worse. I love college, honestly (because state college is public school at this point). I really feel like I actually have friends that aren’t just my friends because we share the same classes. I’m in AEPi (the Jew-ish fratenity) and it’s great because I can connect with Jews from all backgrounds, where I was more “The Jew” in HS. I wish I could have gone to the Jewish school because I would have at least felt like I belonged.

    In conclusion, movies are just movies. Real life isn’t a story, stories are just based on life. No one’s life is ruined for going to public school, but trust me, you’re a better and more knowledgeable person for going to Jewish schools.

  • Rabbi's Wife November 23, 2008, 5:16 AM

    I went to a public school in rural SW Washington (between Portland and Seattle) and my school was scarily similar to Napoleon Dynamite. There were definite cliques, and they had their own tables/areas of the school. But I agree with other posters that we didn’t have nearly as much between-class time as they seem to in movies and TV. Well, I had a couple of TA classes and independent study classes but then it was only me or a select few who were free to roam, although I did go bowling during one of my TA periods with the other Chem TA, who happened to be my best friend. In fact, we ran around a lot during that time, but never did anything horrid, just went for food or to the local park or something.
    Parties were much lamer than you see in movies, ours usually involved a keg in the woods , plastic cups, general stupidity, and a bonfire.

  • daintysplendor November 23, 2008, 6:38 AM

    I went to college and lived on campus, and partying was exactly like in the movies, and I also used to hang out with frat boys a lot – again, the movies are very close to the reality

  • abandoning eden November 23, 2008, 7:42 AM

    “are the jocks really that cool? Are they really such assholes? Do the nerds all sit together at the cafeteria? Are the lunch rooms really like that with everyone picking their table based on social status? Are there really that many hot nerds? What about the parties, are they really that cool?”

    We didn’t have ‘jocks’ per se, but my all girls yeshiva high school had all the nerds and misfits sitting at the same table at lunch, the nerds weren’t all that hot, but there was definitely that cafeteria hierarchy. But since the school was so small, it was a two tier hierarchy- cool kids, and misfits. So me (bad kid who had sex/smoked cigarettes/listened to nirvana) was hanging with the nerds, the fat kids, etc, since all the misfits hung out together (at the same cafeteria table).

    I went to a bunch of parties at public school kids houses, and many of them WERE that fun.

  • Sara November 23, 2008, 10:25 AM

    In 6th grade, my “frum” parents send me to public school for a month as a punishment (yes, my parents have issues)…it wasn’t so bad..

  • Moshe November 23, 2008, 10:29 AM

    Don’t you need to register and fill out paperwork and stuff?

  • Aaron November 23, 2008, 10:40 AM

    I went to public school my whole life, and I felt it was pretty much like the movies, just the movies slightly exaggerated it. Yep, everyone sat in their clicks in the cafeteria, but there were cool kids who didnt play sports. I agree with sf2k1, middle school is terrible if you are not cool, but in HS, most people are happy having their own groups of friends. Yea, the parties weren’t so great, but I wasn’t a big party guy in HS. In college there were some parties like that.
    bottom line: for all of you who went to Jewish school, you didnt miss anything.

  • Anonymous November 23, 2008, 10:57 AM

    well the movies’ portrayals of inner city public schools seem pretty accurate with this article, but with a different kind of twist. watch the video.

  • shevers November 23, 2008, 10:57 AM

    I think middle school is horrible across the board. I went to a 6-12. Just walking in to the middle school hallways you could smell the hormones, energy and unhappiness. Its just a hard time for kids. Its a major transition period.

  • Anonymous November 23, 2008, 10:59 AM
  • m00kie November 23, 2008, 1:12 PM

    clics went mainly according to nationality. paryting in college was basically what you see in movies.
    the main difference between real life and movies is the happy endings .. somehow that didnt work out quite as well in real life.

  • Frum Satire November 23, 2008, 1:22 PM

    Wow- thanks for the info- Jeff Spicoli is the man by the way. But I forgot to ask something- I always see in the movies and on TV that when someone asks someone else out they have spoken to before=- How on earth do they get their number or address- or do they already know because since they have a crush they also know everything about the person.

  • Phil November 23, 2008, 2:41 PM

    I was lucky enough to go to yeshiva from 1st grade. Closest I came to public school was college, although I was in a “continuing education” segment, where many of the other students were adults, so no kids stuff there.

    My wife on the other hand went through public scholl in Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. Her and her sister were outnumbered by big black bully girls that constantly picked on them for having a foreign accent. Many of these kids were pregnant, crackheads and alcoholics too, between the ages of 12 – 14. Thank G-D she found her way to a Jewish school in California at the age of 15.

  • SF2K1 November 23, 2008, 3:58 PM

    Every school, that I’ve been in at least save college, generally gives everyone a little booklet at the beginning of the year with the addresses and contact info (i.e. phone numbers, more recently email and/or cell numbers) for people.

    Even without that, you may have gotten their number from them or one of their friends.

  • public school grad November 23, 2008, 4:20 PM

    Oh please, public school is nothing like it’s portrayed in the movies. I went to public school in New Jersey, in a decent middle class suburb. The black kids and latinos mostly hung out in their separate groups, but there weren’t any sort of rivalries. The ‘popular’ kids were an exceedingly large group of students (mostly white and Asian) who were generally nice, were in the honors track and one track below. The girls mostly played soccer, field hockey, and/or lacrosse (not cheerleaders interestingly enough) and the guys did mostly the same – soccer and lacrosse, but also swimming, fencing, and cross country. They were in honor society, the spring musical, and
    People picked lunch tables based on who their friends were, but nobody showed that great an interest in any social hierarchies.
    From what I’ve heard they had decent parties (I wasn’t interested and never got invited anyway). And prom was fun and not some stupid social battle or popularity contest.
    I can’t speak for all public schools, but mine was good and I don’t think that public school deserves a bad rap.

  • Yochanan November 23, 2008, 4:22 PM

    Anyone remember that part in Scary Movie (the first one) where they’re joking about how high school students in movies are portrayed by 25 year-olds and are, ahem, more developed than in real life?

  • Former Teacher November 23, 2008, 6:56 PM

    I know a guy who works as an undercover cop in a series of underperforming public high schools in New York. His job is to catch gang leaders wanted for murder, etc., who hang out in public high schools, courtesy of stolen IDs. (Replacement cards are cheap.)

    His job is the best! These kids know how to slip the drugs and weapons into the school building, despite the presence of metal detectors.
    i.e.: Meet me at the side emergency exit at 10:00 a.m. (The security is only by the main entrances.)

    These kids also attack teachers, but the liberal media chooses to ignore this. (I have friends who have found satisfactory careers elsewhere after their traumatic experiences.)

    To see a public school in a movie without fights breaking out on a daily basis does not accurately represent public schools in EAST NEW YORK, CANARSIE, BROWNSVILLE, ETC.

  • RED!!!! November 23, 2008, 7:50 PM

    WENT FOR 7TH AND 8TH! and there were cliques , but no sports- where do you have the space in this city? there were competent teachers, roughly 5 minutes between every class, and the parties were similar to the movies, but the movies always leave out the how-the-hell-do-i-get-that-stain-off-the-rug part. if you were a misfit (me) yeah, the cool kids picked on you, but – very important- we totally fought back. and yeah, there were a few fights, but nothing too severe- i was the only kid in my school who ever went to the hospital, and that happened because of an accident, no one was trying to kill me.

    i liked PS better- less pressure, and less judgemental people. and that guy is right- there is no afterschool in jewskool, but the PS kids use their time off to hang. and it gave us a valve, you know?

  • Frum Satire November 23, 2008, 7:53 PM

    I had after school in my day school- it was exceedingly expensive and all sports oriented.

  • shevers November 23, 2008, 10:56 PM

    We had precisely 4 minutes inbetween classes.

  • Batya November 23, 2008, 10:59 PM

    Phone numbers? Very simple in my day. You knew their last names and then looked it up in the phone book.

  • tesyaa November 24, 2008, 9:44 AM

    I think your poll lacks scientific veracity (but you knew that). It seems to me that people who were cool in public schools are very, very unlikely to become baalei tshuva at any point later in life (and I think most of your readership are frum or peripherally so). If you’re cool in HS, you’re probably cool in college and you get a cool job out of college. Unless something goes horribly wrong, you’ve got it made and why search for more?? I do not want to say that your public school readers became frum because they were misfits in public school — that would be insulting. I have a convoluted explanation to myself of why it was inevitable that I would become frum at some point in my life (it actually happened in HS), but really, if you’re the popular kids, you’re not looking to give it up.

  • abandoning eden November 24, 2008, 10:33 AM

    ha, you think people who are cool in high school stay cool in college and beyond? It is my experience that everyone who was cool in high school (or in middle school), peaked in high school, and the people who were nerdy misfits are the people who are the most successful now.

  • Frum Satire November 24, 2008, 12:22 PM

    Agreed with Eden- the nerdy folks who started all the big computer companies and the like were definitely not the cool kids in high school or college if they even went to college.

    In my experience the cool kids always ended up as the drug dealers and burger flippers. But then again I watch a little too much of Jay and Silent Bob.

  • shevers November 24, 2008, 1:44 PM

    Tesyaa – I feel like your statement is rather unscientific.

    The craziest thing about the fact I became “religious”, is the amount of good things going for me I gave up to become observant. Musically things were taking off for me, I was getting with a higher frequency much better gigs. I was accepted to multiple private universities and one of the top ten public universities. I was well liked and knew everyone at my school.

  • abandoning eden November 24, 2008, 1:51 PM

    heh, in my experience the vast majority cool kids all ended up as stay at home moms with no careers at all, and a few more are working those traditional jewish jobs (education, pt, ot, etc), which I don’t think is all that impressive.

    While the misfits are just as likely to be married, but many are doing really cool things (a few getting phds or other grad degrees in “not traditional for young Jewish women” fields, one works for a major newspaper, some working in some cool nonprofits). But I probably have an extremely biased sample here.

  • tesyaa November 24, 2008, 2:22 PM

    abandoning, we’re talking public school here…the cool kids in your experience would not have been the cool kids in PS, I am sure.

    I will admit it. I was not cool in HS and I’m not cool now (although I dress better).

    If the cool kids in public school became BTs, the uncool kids would automatically want to follow. Has that ever happened? No.

  • tesyaa November 24, 2008, 2:25 PM

    I do know one frummy type guy whose wife claims that he was a cool jock in HS. I can’t picture it. I would have to be transported back in time and see it to believe it.

  • shevers November 24, 2008, 4:19 PM

    Tesyaa, is this guy and his wife just have a baby? Because thats my cousin and in fact, he was a cool jock back in high school.

  • sheva November 24, 2008, 4:29 PM

    I just wanted to say that public school is exactly like the movies exactly nothing different. Well maybe the people are not as pretty, being they are not actors, and oh schools are pretty dirty . Like actual dirt not what you are thinking. There was a movie in the 8o’s called Can’t buy me love, and THAT WAS MY HIGH SCHOOL I WAS EVEN THERE WHEN THEY FILMED IT. Go Tucson High!! I was never in any of the movies, i guess they weren’t into goth new age robert smith wannabee extras.

  • suitepotato November 24, 2008, 4:30 PM

    Public schools are nothing like television and movies.

    For starters, most actors are several years older than the kids they portray. Which is probably why so many Americans today more than twenty years out of school themselves have sketchy ideas of age based on appearance. Twelve year old junior high boys are actually twelve. Not fifteen and waxing their faces. Though many of the twelve year old girls these days are better endowed than I recall those in my classes, but early external sexual characteristic development seems to be a problem these days judging by what I read in the news (the tinfoil hat money is on DNA mutations, pick your own paranoid reason).

    Another thing is that it is mostly middle of the road nobodies without a good recollection of their youth who write these things and get them conflated with their ideas if how they wish school had been.

    Public school is largely boring, uninteresting, and filled with the same kinds of people you get as adults in office settings. Jocks, wallflowers, nerds, comedians, silent people, etc. Introverts, extroverts, in-betweeners, etc.

    It was no big thing really.

  • KT November 24, 2008, 5:10 PM

    ae – each person defines success on their own

  • tesyaa November 24, 2008, 6:10 PM

    shevers, no, must be a different guy. You mean there are 2 of them??

  • Shevers November 24, 2008, 9:52 PM

    I can actually think of two. SO there are three of them.

  • Inquisitive November 26, 2008, 4:27 PM

    I went from public school straight to a bais yaakov high school – and let me tell you they bot have there challanges. Nothing you’ve seen on TV comes close to public school – though maybe I had a better experience than others because I was in a smallish school in a small city. Where I went, people were friendly, or polite at least. For the most part no one bothered me about wearing skirts, eating kosher or anything else I did. My one encounter with bullying was when my brother and I were in the schoolyard and some older boys starting shoving him around and making fun of his kippah. Mostly it was smooth sailing. Bais yaakov however, was very far from smooth sailing. If you didn’t fit the box they had, you were screwed. My opinions often veered from theirs and my way of life was not exactly that of a paradigmatic “bais yaakov girl”. Going to school often left a bad taste in my mouth. Funny how the majority of prejudice I’ve faced in my life was while in an Orthodox school.

  • jzitt November 30, 2008, 8:53 PM

    I went to high school in suburban NJ, graduating in ’76 (yes, I would have been in the same class as the folks in “Dazed and Confused.” The movies of that time nailed it pretty well. I think schools today seem to have more sex and drugs (if not rock’n’roll). Yes, we nerds hung out together in the lunchroom and in our after-school activities. There were a few cool teachers, but for the most part it was on-the-job training for how to become a corporate automaton.

  • Anonymous August 6, 2009, 12:35 PM

    I just graduated and was one of those “losers.” My school was very click-oriented. There wasn’t a specific “popular” crowd or “geek” crowd, but everyone did hang out in close-knit groups. My problem was that I had a falling out with a bunch of friends and couldn’t work my way into another click. Oh, well…

    There were definitely kids at my school doing drugs and having sex, but they kept it pretty much to themselves; they didn’t flaunt it the way characters in the movies do.

  • anon April 8, 2010, 12:04 AM

    Hmmmm. well my public experience was that by far, the girls who wer on the dance squad were defintiely the most popular, hands down. Guys liked them, wanted to date them, and lots of girls tried out for the squad. Also, there were fights about once every month or two.
    Also, the cool kids were SUPER involved, ran everything in the school.

    Now, COLLEGE – that is a waaaaay better experience. Nobody over there really cares how popular u were in HS, unless you want to join the Greek life. Its way better than HS.

    Worst public school = = = Middle school. by far. especially when all of your friends look and act so much older, and you still look like a little girl.

  • y April 10, 2010, 11:33 PM

    just like 90210.

  • Sasha April 28, 2012, 6:30 PM

    I went to public school from K-8 and then to a “conservative” jewish high school. Public schools have some qualities like the movies. At least 50% of the school in my area is on drugs perhaps more. The parties can be awesome or lame depending on who throws them. The social groups really don’t socialize at all so it is hell if your not “cool” which is generally defined as athletic and being rich.

  • lexi December 12, 2018, 9:34 AM

    You sit with your friends at lunch, popular or not. In my experience, the jocks act like any other kid, nerds don’t exist, but there are some weirdos. Other than the fact that there isn’t a uniform and stuff, it’s basically the same as private school. It’s probably less strict though. Nobody really cares who is popular and who isn’t, and where I live, bullying is rare.

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