Character in High School Narrative South of Heaven Discusses the Experience 16-Years Later
By ELAINE MEYER
Since Thomas French wrote “South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century” in 1993, a candid narrative that revealed the lives of typical American high school teens dealing with issues such as dropping out, sex, binge drinking and academic stress, all but stress levels have declined statistically. But media alarms over teen behavior has only increased, from “sexting,” which captured attention recently, to the wave of abstinence-only education programs.
Viewed through this lens, “South of Heaven” is a breath of fresh air, a book that provides readers a realistic rather than alarmist view of the teenage years and the all-importance of those often uncomfortable four years known as high school.
The book evolved from a widely-read series of articles French wrote during a year spent at Largo High School as a reporter for Florida’s St. Petersburg Times. For readers who were just kids in the 1990s, the sprawling public high school with its social hierarchies and fleeting but dramatic romantic relationships is reminiscent of the era’s canon of high school movies, like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the John Hughes ouevre. But “South of Heaven” is not a movie, and French does not treat the students he has written about like one-note characters.
He focuses on four. Each is emblematic of a high school archetype, but each also has his or her own complexity. There is the sociable Christine Younskevicius, nicknamed “YY,” who is on Latin team, quiz bowl, and the school newspaper. Mike Broome, is a troubled kid who is often on the verge of dropping out of school. Andrea Taylor is the first black girl at the school to win Homecoming Queen, and John Boyd is her love interest, who lives in a gang-infested neighborhood and secretly carries a gun to school.
French also extends his lens to many minor characters, which is laudable but can confuse the story, especially in the beginning when the reader is still getting his or her bearings.
The book spotlights the teens’ intimate relationships with the adults in their lives, who range from well-meaning to willfully ignorant, to absent. One popular girl diets and makes herself throw up because her former teen beauty mom is constantly hinting that she is overweight. A 16-year-old girl whose parents are religious and who took an abstinence pledge gets pregnant from her boyfriend. The two are encouraged to marry by the girl’s parents. An overstretched single mother struggles with her teen daughter, and she ends up checking into the psychiatric ward of a local hospital after the daughter runs away from home.
And there is the often bleak world of the dedicated and underpaid teachers and their students who inhabit the “pod,” which houses a program in the school devoted to keeping students with frequent absences and behavior problems from dropping out.
In one memorable scene that highlights the extent of adult illogic, the supervisors of a high school Latin convention that takes place at an Orlando hotel happily oversee a date auction where the teen girls are encouraged to strip or expose themselves for bids. At the same time, YY and her male friends from Largo get threatened with school suspension for merely being in the same hotel room together.
It was French’s empathy and lack of condescension that helped students at Largo to open up to him. If anything, he bends over backward to get into their minds, sounding at times a bit contrived (Example: “They’ve copped a major-league attitude.”).
According to Andrea Taylor, who is today 37 and works in advertising and sales for the NBC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., French was a natural presence at Largo High School.
“Tom was just an amazing person. He was really nice. He kind of just fit in. So it didn’t feel like we had a grown-up following us around. He made it very easy to have him around,” she said.
French described his efforts to tell this story in a 2006 interview with Janet C. McCaa of the River Teeth journal. He originally set out to get into the classrooms of a high school in Florida in order to better portray the state’s chronic dropout problem. The first school principal he approached turned him down. His editor then suggested a school in Pinellas County, but French thought it was mainly a “rich-kids school.” Instead, he went to Largo High School to meet with the principal, Judy Westfall, who was notoriously cold to reporters. However, after a good conversation where he laid out his reporting vision, she said it would be okay with her if French reported on the school, as long as her teachers agreed. They voted 110 to 10 to let French in.
He had to get permission from students’ parents to allow him to use students’ names. Out of all of the students who he talked to about dropping out, only one asked to remain anonymous. Taylor said she believed Principal Westfall had suggested some students who French might want to talk to, and she was one of them. After sitting down and talking with him, she was quick to give him permission to spend time with her as she got involved in a love triangle with a girlfriend and John Boyd.
Today, Taylor finds it hard to take her relationship with Boyd as seriously as French portrays it in the book.
“John and I were considered a cute couple because he was on the football team, and I was a cheerleader, but the reality was, he was a teenaged boy. He was a boy trying to impress the other boys,” she said. Today she can impart some advice to her teenaged self and others like her. “Stay focused. Leave the boys where they’re at. It will all come in time.” Things have calmed down since then, Taylor said. Today, she and Boyd are just friends.
Taylor does not have regrets about bearing so much of herself in “South of Heaven.” She said she was surprised at some of the things teenagers do today, but at the same time acknowledged that adults tend to perceive the younger generations as more lacking in a moral foundation than they more because of their distance from those years than because of actual validity.
“It could just be that I had been out of high school for awhile,” said Taylor. “That’s what you were getting from other people. They had been out of high school for awhile.”
“South of Heaven” reminds us that part of the reason adults don’t understand and consequently label teenagers is simply that they are far away from being in high school, and the awkwardness or social pressures or conformism that many of us felt during those years has dissipated since.
Many adults think instead that struggling teenagers are the only ones with things to learn, not realizing that their lack of motivation is often related to the signals they get from their elders and the real stresses of high school. For this reason, teenagers are inundated with rhetoric surrounding their education that has the inspirational equivalent of one of those posters of a canyon with the word “Achieve!” across it. However, it is precisely a work like “South of Heaven” that reminds us, in an age when high-octane opinion is increasingly more prevalent than observant, narrative journalism, that we all have some learning to do.
As French put it in his interview with River Teeth, “I have people say, ‘Why hang out with 13-year-olds? Who cares about 13-year-olds? Why should we care about 13-year-olds?’ I’m like, ‘Why shouldn’t we care about 13-year-olds? Why are you going to tell me that some jackass with a title is more important than a thirteen-year-old?’ I don’t buy that. I don’t buy it as a reader. I don’t buy it as a writer. I certainly don’t buy it as a parent. But there are a lot of people who think that all we should have done was to interview a lot of experts.”
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