Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: High School Confidential

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: High School Confidential

Author: Jeremy Iversen

Author's web page:

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Date: 2006

Length: 447 pages

ISBN: 074328366X

Quote: "I had to find out if I could still pass for seventeen."

Jeremy Iversen went to prep school. Then he went to college. Then he decided that, before doing a job, he wanted to go to public high school, just for one year, just for the experience. Also, since he was from the East Coast, he wanted his second year of grade twelve to be in California.

He passed. So, of course, he was drawn into a high school social drama that starts off slowly, with gossip ganked from his friends' blogs. (Thanks to the invention of blogs, high school boys can now "write" credible first-person narratives about high school girls, and vice versa.) The plot thickens, though. By the time Iversen is emotionally committed to one side of one conflict between students and school administration, readers feel involved too.

If you're a high school or college teacher or student and you've not already read this book, you need it. A high school teacher reported to Amazon: "I have never received more polished or more passionate essays than the ones my students compose in response to this book."

The school fictionalized as "Mirador High" isn't necessarily the most typical high school in North America--I would guess much wealthier students, much less supervision, much more efforts in the direction of political and religious conservatism even at the same time that kids carry on the sex and drugs experiments their conservative parents dread, and much more access to sex and drugs for all the teenagers, than you'd find if you went undercover at your local high school. It's real, though. The lifestyle of Jeremy Iversen's friends in the popular twelfth grade crowd at his Orange County, California, school may be beyond the reach of even the preppiest, richest, and most popular students at some schools, but it's what some kids are reaching for.

The book is well written, despite its sprawling length and sizable cast of characters. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Some tear-jerking moments, too--little did Jeremy know that, as he joined a high school social clique, he was replacing a boy who'd died a few months earlier, whose friends would remember him all year. Teen alcoholism. Sneaky sex. Incompetent teachers. The recent phenomenon of "teaching to the test." Kids covertly videotaping other kids in bed. Bullying. Kids goofing off on their jobs. Mean girls, who demand a "powder puff football" match because the organizer "just wants to beat the [rude word] out of" another girl; when parents and police show up to watch the game, the organizer whines, "This is so unfaaair...I don't want to play reeeal football," but her buddies force her onto the field saying "This was your idea," and the principal "defensive play" consists of one girl growling, "I'm a lesbian, and I...want...your...body." A boy who's gained such a reputation for troublemaking that even when he's behaving well he's punished on suspicion.

Race hate? Iversen seems particularly interested in exploring this aspect of social life in California, and finds an interesting state of confusion among his friends. The popular clique is integrated. Younger and poorer kids, so far as Iversen can tell, don't belong to multiracial social groups, but then many of them have only one school friend or none--that's not changed. Some of the White students sport "White Power" souvenirs. The general level of confusion about race relations in California has always been pretty interesting, with Valspeakers going, like, "There've never been enough Black people in California for real race problems to develop," while Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Rodney King, and anyone who remembers the Watts riot of 1965, definitely disagree. I'm not sure to what extent Iversen succeeds in clarifying matters for the rest of us, or for himself.

Violence? Not much, but some. Teen pregnancies? Not many, but some. Use of "hard" drugs? Not a great deal, but some. Filthy language? Lots of it. Evidence that teenagers understand how much hate, violence, and obscenity their favorite words communicate to adults? Not so much of that.

If you've ever been a teenager, High School Confidential is a fun read, and warmly recommended. And if you're currently the parent of a teenager, I suggest buying one copy for yourself and one for the teenager.

One reason why teenagers seldom report this kind of stories to their parents is that they don't have the information, the verbal skills, or both. I can testify that even as a teenager who wanted to become a writer, whether I was talking to my mother (very frankly), my brother (almost as frankly), my father (guardedly), my best school friend (almost as guardedly), or my private diary, I was constantly aware of not having the ability to narrate everything I remembered in a way that would communicate what I remembered. I would sit in the classroom taking notes, on student behavior more than on the teachers' lectures, and still feel that I hadn't written down what had been going on. Parents who want to know what teenagers are up to need to understand that they're likely to be up against this lack of fluency more than they're up against secretiveness with or without reasons. My adolescent efforts to write about ninth grade life as I was living it didn't involve any big secrets--I wasn't the first to know that Jane was pregnant or John had been expelled--and mostly involved the kind of harmless, mildly entertaining school scenes you find in Paula Danziger's Pistachio Prescription, nothing like High School Confidential. But I wasn't Paula Danziger; I was fourteen, so I couldn't (yet) make them read like The Pistachio Prescription. I mention this by way of warning to parents. Reading High School Confidential may prompt your teenagers to express themselves more clearly than they've done before, but it will not give them the descriptive powers of grown-up writers.

The odds are against your teenager ever being able to write like Iversen. Few people are. But, in any case, at least you and your teenager will be able to bond by sharing laughter.