What ’90s teen movies taught me to expect from high school (and what actually happened)

As a teacher, I think a lot about the way that television and movies portray those heady years when you’re in high school versus what it’s actually like to be in the throes of all that teenage emotion. When I headed into high school, I thought I would know exactly the way things worked thanks to watching all those classic ’90s rom-coms. My hair would be just as shiny as Cher’s in Clueless, right? And at the last minute my crush would totally pull through and ask me to prom. But um, it turns out that’s not exactly how it happens.  Here’s what I thought would happen in high school thanks to my favorite movies versus what actually did happen.


What I expected: High school would mostly focus on the important things like fashion, gossip, and shopping. Actual classes and learning would fall to the back-burner but I would still manage to have a robust vocabulary, which I would use more than sporadically. But truthfully, worrying about school was pointless since I’d be able to argue my way to better grades and make my parents so proud. I would refuse to date high school boys because as if! Why would I waste my time with a grungy, immature, badly dressed high school guy? I would live for makeovers which would give me a sense of control in a world full of chaos and I would be confident and completely self-assured until I had a fight with my bestie over a boy. At which point I would question everything I knew and suffer a mid-high school, existential crisis in which I discovered who I truly was and would emerge with better, shinier hair, a truer sense of self, and a new boyfriend.

Reality:  After the fashion nightmare norm of curled bangs, butterfly clips, and toe socks with flip flops in middle school, I found my style was much more minimalist: jeans and a t-shirt. I was far less focused on my appearance than I was on my grades, because I quickly discovered that there was no such thing as arguing my way to an A, and spent all of my time either doing schoolwork or dancing. I started dating the ex-boyfriend of a girl on my dance team and caused more chaos than I wanted to, but I rode it out. We moved right before my junior year so the crisis I suffered was one of change and distance more than self and though I was truly devastated by the move, I adjusted. Eventually. A makeover sequence would have been a real time saver in starting over and making friends.

She’s All That

Expectation: I would float ethereally through high school, expressing myself through deeply personal and poignant writing, which I would submit to lit mags. I would leave vague yet profound AIM away messages (“Who are any of us?”) meant to provoke people into true introspection. Then, one day, after his break-up with Miss Teen Queen, the hottest guy in school would make a bet that he could make me prom queen discover my inner awesomeness. He would be amused by my nerdy side and help me conquer my teen angst and I would be surprised by his depth and teach him that it was OK to be himself. Then we would, essentially, save each other. Just before the prom, I would reveal my newly made-over self to all amidst much awe and admiration.

Reality: I crashed through freshman year loudly and obnoxiously in hopes of catching the eye of the hottest guy in 9th grade who I’d had a crush on for years. He proceeded to date each of my best friends at some point while cutting up with me in Algebra every day because I was always such a cool friend. Devastated, I took to dating any guy who would let me wear his watch and recording each and every detail of our three-week relationship in my journal while writing vague AIM away messages (“I like him.”) meant to provoke the next boy into talking to me. Once again there were no makeovers and for prom I was forced to be (a much more glittery version) myself.

10 Things I Hate About You

Expectation: As the oldest sister, I would have made my (few) mistakes early and quickly learned from them before settling into my intellectual groove. Getting into a good college was key, as I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wouldn’t want to date because high school guys were total clowns and I was far too serious and intelligent for them. Then, someone would want to date my really cute little sister who was only allowed to date if I dated and they would set me up with the school’s bad boy who was totally misunderstood. We would go on adorable paddleboat dates and fall in love to a Semisonic soundtack as we smashed paint balls on each other’s heads.

Reality: I was serious about school and worked really hard to make good grades but I was also totally boy crazy. If I wasn’t crushing on this guy, I was, as previously mentioned, dating another. I wasn’t allowed in boy’s cars until I was almost 16, so going on dates meant mom dropped us off and picked us up from the movies. No one ever went through the trouble of concocting an elaborate scheme to set me up with Patrick Verona in order to get close to any of my sisters. And there were no misunderstood bad boys. Instead, I fell in love with the boy in my theater class to the soundtrack of Diamond Rio, as we drank Route 44 cherry limeades from Sonic.

Movies are simple and predictable: guy gets girl, girl triumphs over haters, girl learns to love self. Gestures are grand. Outfits are perfect. Endings are happy. Real life isn’t always like that but it’s real and it’s interesting and it’s mine. So I’m OK with a little bit of ordinary, a little bit of disappointment, and a little bit of self-doubt. I know that one day I’ll have my movie moment and figure things out.

In the meantime, if someone wants to gift me Cher’s computer-controlled closet, I won’t be mad.

Michelle Underwood is the girl that wins her ten year high school reunion if the award goes to “She Who Watches the Most Netflix.” A sucker for pop culture references and a self-proclaimed nerd, she’s obsessed with most things that start with the word “star.” She’s written approximately three-fourths of a terrible novel, which she plans on never publishing, and credits her current level of success to her bangs. Read more from her at curisome.com and michbelle.blogspot.com or find her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/michbellewood or Twitter @michbellewood.

Filed Under