Schools From Fiction (Books, TV and Movies) Class Reunion – Remember the Days of the Old Fictional School Yard!
So you’ve got a class reunion coming up and you’re worrying about all those countless novels and movies where some kid everyone picked on back then kills you, along with all your other classmates one by one. But while you’re thinking about that and wondering if you should go, you’re also remembering the good old days. Such as the time Ken Miller found out his something disturbing about his girlfriend, or when your teacher Mr Sikowitz made you do that play about the canary over and over again. Maybe you’re remembering that time your best friend was murdered and your dad the sheriff was sacked so it was up to you to solve the crime but couldn’t let that stop you from passing your exams. There was that occasion you moved to a new school and saved an endangered owl colony from greedy corrupt developers. In the fifth grade a bully dared you to eat a worm and not one to back down to a challenge, you did!
Or the time you were sent Mr Belding’s office. Or when you got pushed out of the gym shower room and your towel taken from you as you banged on the door and you had to run naked through the halls as other students pointed and laughed as you dashed everywhere with your hands strategically placed, looking to find something to cover you up and avoid that cheerleader you had a crush on seeing you. Or the time you ran for student president. Remember when you decided to have a day off so pretended you were sick and together with your best friend who said he was a teen but was older than your parents, borrowed his dad’s Ferrari and with your girlfriend you had the greatest day ever of your life while your principal was on your heels determined to bust you?
There was the time you were really unpopular but somehow turned it all around and were going to be crowned prom queen at your school formal but ended up covered in pig’s blood. You got your vengeance though! Or maybe that time terrorists took over your school and you foiled their plan after teaching them what the punishment of “pots and pans” was all about. Or when you discovered your teachers were giant plants wrapped in human skin who kept hogging the bubblers. Then there was time you couldn’t graduate high school without a passing grade in French so you had to go to France with the French class, but unfortunately for you a deep cover agent for the CIA was using the exact same name as yours! Then when you went to med school the janitor found a coin in the door and asked you if you put it there? Then he taunted you throughout your residency until you became a doctor. Well he still did after that as well. Those were the days! Oh wait none of that happened, you’ve blocked out your own school memories and are reliving the great fictional lives you lived vicariously through the characters on the pages of your favourite books and on your TV screen!
Some of these books and TV shows, and even the odd movie, you experienced childhood through when you actually were a child, and some you watched or read well after your last day of class. So what makes some school based fiction work and be read or watched by millions, where you’ll remember things that happened decades later, and others fail? Why was a series of books based at a creepy school called Hogwarts so much more successful than a pretty similar earlier series set at Groosham Grange that although popular when I was a kid didn’t have every kid including the too cool for books crowd reading it, and adults hiding it under an adult book’s dust jacket cover to avoid the embarrassment of being caught reading it?
So lets talk about some of the classics and see if we can unveil the answer ?
Primary School (also referred to as Elementary School if you’re fictional memory was set in the US)
Spot Goes to School – Memories for your reunion probably won’t be too strong from the picture book days, but there’s thousands of school based memories written onto the pages of this medium that you might wish to relive, especially if you make your own contribution to the next school attending generation. Starting with your first day of school.
South Park – This is one of the few animated shows where the characters actually go up a grade every couple of seasons. Sure there’s a lot of stupid content on it as the writers go more for shock value at times than quality writing but it has actually highlighted some important topics found in schools and is one of the few TV shows with regular characters with a disability, (Timmy and Jimmy introduced after a few seasons). Some of the topics South Park has covered that your regular school based show won’t touch, parents suing the school because their kid gets bullied which takes essential money away from equipment and teaching resource purchases. Double standards for teachers who sleep with kids. When the boys reported Kyle’s young brother Ike, had been molested by his teacher to anyone that came across, everyone they was instantly outraged and wanted to kill the teacher, until that is they found out it was a female, and then wanted to high five the kid.
The Simpsons – although Homer quickly took over as the main character and most stories revolved around him, season one revolved around Bart. Springfield Elementary is still a regular setting in current seasons, but initial Bart storylines covered topics like bullying, where Nelson was going to beat him up because he made his nose bleed. Homer dried his tears with a hairdryer, his sister Lisa offered advice. His mother Marge gave him the advice that someone who bullies you isn’t really your friend. Since Bart is at the top of the loser kid ladder his tactic to stay there is to be disruptive, conduct pranks and be the class clown which makes him the arch nemesis of Principal Skinner.
Franny K Stein series – Junior fiction books by Jim Benton revolving around a young girl called Franny. Lunch Walks Among Us is the debut adventure for one of the most interesting and well written child characters to come along in a very long time, and there’s quite a few books in the series. Franny K Stein is an interesting character who doesn’t follow the stereotype little girl who plays with dolls, has tea parties with stuffed animals and the like that many authors seem to want to write about. No Franny is a very intelligent girl more interested in bats, snakes, spiders, monsters and her number one passion, being a mad scientist. Interests that gel with many a real life boy or girl these days and lets be honest, always have. She tries to fit in at school and help her classmates by using her mad scientist skills but plans don’t always go the way she thought they would. The book titles are parodies of old movie titles. Jim Benton seems to be focusing on the Dear Dumb Diary series (found later on this page) as there hasn’t been a new Stein book in a few years. Probably due to cashing in while the Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon is still big.
High School (incorporating Jr High for every country outside of the US as no one else separates the first few grades of high school)
You’ve got your light comedy, usually aired on a Saturday morning or at around 4 or 5pm in the afternoon type programs. These shows were never supposed to be that realistic, usually starring somewhat good looking actors and actresses who were usually older than their characters, and occasionally lightly tackled a what did we learn today type lesson, but simply primarily aired to entertain as usually at least one of the main students had to overcome some sort of problem, usually brought on by one of the other main kid characters as they thought they had some windfall or something.
Saved by the Bell had a catchy theme song and generated a few sequels once it ended. It in fact was a sequel itself (sort of) with half the cast and their characters transferring from a show that was pulled after one season set in an Indianapolis school called Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Mr Belding, the principal at Bayside High School, California, is probably the most well known school principal from TV pop culture. He has also had guest appearances on quite a few other school shows on this page. This show was huge when I was at primary school and still had fresh episodes appearing when I hit high school. It is one of the first shows mentioned by most when I talked to others about school set shows before making this page. The central characters represented your main social groups, the popular cool kid Zac Morris, who froze the show at times and talked to the camera came up with all kinds of schemes that as kids TV shows do, always came undone.
Victorious, about a new student who enrolls mid year into Hollywood Arts, a high school for performers after stepping in one night to save a performance her sister couldn’t do. Easily the best of the modern school set TV shows, I caught an episode of two of this on a Saturday morning than decided to borrow the complete seasons from the library. Which you too can do for most of these shows on this page. Victoria Justice was the main character and usually there’s one song sung each episode to solve a problem like pay for a restaurant bill or break out of jail, but fans of Ariana Grande may want to check this series out as she plays the mentally challenged but very likeable Cat Valentine. There’s also a ventriloquist doll named Rex who I was never sure if he was actually alive or just a self punishing part of a student called Robbie’s personality. There’s plenty of adult humour in this one as well, which may go over the head of younger viewers as may the occasional movie being parodied such as The Breakfast Club. This show also parodied Apple products with kids having Pearphones, Pearpads, Pear Laptops and other devices which were also all shaped like pears. They also had an interactive website (which no longer exists) called The Slap which was a parody of MySpace and Facebook type social media websites. Another Nickelodeon school based show around at the same time called iCarly also used the same Pear products. That show wasn’t as good but there were some cross over episodes where the casts from both shows appeared in episodes of the other’s. A spin off show with Cat (Grande) and Sam from both shows also aired after both shows ended with the two running a baby sitter business from their home . The library also has the first Victorious soundtrack album in our collection and you can download that, and the second album from this show for free on Freegal. iCarly soundtracks are also available.
Malcolm in the Middle – Malcolm was the middle child of a dirt poor family who didn’t care what the neighbours thought of them. Malcolm’s older and younger brothers weren’t that bright and their futures didn’t look too bright either, but Malcolm was a child genius, the highest achiever in the public school’s gifted class. So Malcolm had a lot of pressure on him from both the school as well as his mother Lois to avoid the trouble his family was renowned for getting into. His dad would also in a dream go on to become the greatest meth cook in Albuquerque and later the most feared name in the underworld, but that was a completely different show. Malcolm in the Middle was one of the few TV shows to have a kid in a wheel chair as a regular character in Malcolm’s best friend Stevie who was in the same gifted class. His oldest brother Francis also took the viewer into the school world of a Military School and in later seasons his younger brother Dewey would take viewers into the class for kids who were a bit slow. There were also quite a number of junior fiction books published within the same world. This is I think the only sitcom family show where we never found out the family’s surname.
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose – Sort of rip off of Ferris Bueller, with a guy who resembled Vanilla Ice hair cut and fashion wise as the title character, but it was a show I loved when a kid. I remember when ER started and the Bully from this show who’s catch phrase was “Eat Now” ended up working at the hospital reception desk and I thought that’s an odd career for him to go into. This was a schemes show, where Parker always tried to get up to something and like many early 90’s shows Parker talked to the camera (audience). His little sister always tried to get him into trouble often teaming up with the principal to uncover and destroy his plans.
The Middle – People may have originally tuned into this series to see The Janitor from Scrubs and Raymond’s wife in their own show, but the kids and their problems in the world of High and Primary School soon took over as the main characters for the Heck family’s plots to revolve around. Sue a complete klutz, wants to be a part of every extra curricular activity the school provides but lacks what it takes to get into any. She also is a social loser but always has a positive outlook on the day ahead. Axl on the other hand is at the top of the social food chain, he’s good enough at football to perhaps get a scholarship into university down the track if his grades weren’t so bad. Sue has just started high school and obviously he doesn’t want anyone to associate his sister with him. In the first season Axl communicates mostly in grunts to his frustrated mother. The youngest son Brick is another socially challenged kid, but doesn’t even really seem to notice as he’s obsessed with books. He constantly misplaces them and other things that his dirt poor family can ill afford to pay for. He has no friends his own age and doesn’t understand why that’s a problem, he whispers random words from sentences to his chest which is just one of many social interaction problems other care about a lot more than him. Of course his school doesn’t understand him .
Diary of a Wimpy Kid – a series of junior fiction novels by Jeff Kinney. When this series became the latest must read fad, heaps of other diary type imitators junior fiction authors jumped on the band wagon. Greg is a student in middle school who isn’t socially popular at all. Like all the latest book fads, there have also been movies based on each book. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is quite a fun series and is sort of like a mild version of Malcolm in the Middle. The books are a mixture of stick drawing type cartoons with speech bubbles as well as traditional text, a format which has also been copied by numerous authors cashing in on this great series’ success.
Dear Dumb Diary – is also a series of written into a diary of junior fiction adventures set at middle school, by Jim Benton. Jamie Kelly is a teen at Mackerel Middle School and we the reader get to snoop inside her diary (if we ignore the warnings, death threats and commands to stop reading now!) to experience what happened at school. Like the Wimpy Kid series this also has drawings inside the diaries as well.
Lizzie McGuire – Occasional cartoon character, mostly Hilary Duff in the flesh, this is a surviving “middleschool” TV show that is quite popular although I have to admit I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of this when flicking channels. There were of course countless starring Hilary Duff school based movies cashing in on her popularity as she grew up while on this show.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch – Speaking of popular actresses playing school based characters who you haven’t heard of since they became too old to play that demographic anymore, you had Mellisa Joan Hart’s vehicle that was a spin off from the old Archie comic books, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. About a teen being sent to live with her aunts and start a new school and discovering she is half mortal half witch. Her show starting in the mid 90’s went until mid way through the next decade and took viewers through both the high school and college years. I think the talking cat was probably the most popular character on the show.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – A new hot girl comes to Sunnydale High School and isn’t that popular with the existing students, except for a nerdy guy and girl. She will find fitting in isn’t going to be her biggest worry. Instead that will be the undead. This was an originally a movie but it was the Sarah Michelle Gellar TV show spin off that made the franchise huge. There’s also graphic and regular novels too. One of the few popular school based series that had a librarian as a main character too.
Harry Potter – You can’t mention the supernatural world without the first big fad to make reading cool amongst the unread kicking of with The Philosophers Stone.
There was also Wicked Science an Australian show where two normal intelligence high school kids get hit by a ray and become super intelligent. The girl of course uses her powers for evil as well as to try and hook up with the guy who she liked before they got their super intelligence. She also recruits the not very intelligent school thug as a minion. The affected guy has more of a social conscious and likes another girl who constantly helps derail the intelligent girl’s schemes along with his male best friend.
Vampire Academy – This is quite a successful series of books, by Richelle Mead, granted I’ve only seen the movie which most who have read the books don’t believe was very good. I liked it though. Set in St. Vladimir’s Academy, a school for vampire royalty and those who will become their guardians. There are also graphic novels.
Then you had your more serious shows where those behind them wanted to change societal attitudes towards issues or minority groups.
Freaks and Geeks – I recently reacquainted myself with this show that I had originally watched when it first aired. GCCC libraries have the complete first season of this show on DVD and there was only ever one season ever made anyway. Probably the show whose TV theme song (Bad Reputation by Joan Jett), most suited what the show was actually about. Plus it has a nice heavy guitar riff in between each sentence. “I don’t give a damn about my reputation, you’re living’ in the past it’s a new generation, a girl can do what she wants to do and that what’s I’m gonna’ do, an’ I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation….” If you’ve seen Shrek you’ve probably heard a pretty similar sounding cover version by Halfcocked. Anyway the show tackles a lot of social issues, as we follow the two seen on a social scale as loser groups by their school peers, the geeks and the freaks (more often labelled in the show as burnouts) . We experience coming of age issues both groups face through its female main character Lindsay Weir, who probably wasn’t quite a geek before deciding she wanted a change of life, and to hang out with the freaks, but wasn’t popular either and was known for being the best mathlete (is this a real thing in the US?) in the school. As well we also visit the world of torment the geeks face through her younger brother Sam. The show tackled serious issues like broken homes and domestic violence, that influenced the way some kids behaved at school. It also taught parents that maybe it is better not to read your daughter’s diary if you don’t really want to know how your children view you. This show had some pretty memorable scenes, I always remembered the peanut allergy scene from the first time I watched it and Seth Rogan who plays one of the minor Freak characters, deals with a unique to TV at the time dilemma involving his new girlfriend’s past. Which could possibly be why it didn’t get a second season. Other freaks included actors James Franco, Jason Segel.
Degrassi Jr High – I haven’t seen this Canadian show since the 80’s but I can still remember the catchy theme song “Wake up in the morning, something, something, something, gee, I gotta go to school. I don’t think I can make it, don’t think I can take it, I wonder what I’m gonna do. But when I look around I see, that someone is smiling right at me. Wait! Something, something, something. Hey, I got a new friend. Something, something, something that rhymes with high, something at Degrassi Junior High!” This was a show that tackled some serious teen social issues such as teen pregnancy, adoption, homosexuality, pirating video games with the trouble that can bring with the police. I remember an episode where bullying students were putting some sort of steel foam from inside poles onto the backs of other students and scratching them up which didn’t seem a plausible thing for the foam to do when I was a kid but, I still remember it. There have of course been a number of spin off ‘new generation’ shows and was in fact a spin off itself of the Kids of Degrassi Street.
Glee – A teacher retakes over the high school glee club, which he starred in when a pupil. The glee club is now a joke and on the verge of being cancelled due to a lack of kids, the ones in it being the social pariahs of the school and who don’t get along with each other. So he decides to save the club starting with planting drugs and blackmailing the star quarterback to join, since he overheard him singing in the shower. Glee had characters sing a couple of cover songs per episode, usually 80’s rock, but sometimes modern artists or show tunes as well. Some were actually really well done, adding a unique spin on the classic original version, there’s also a few mash ups. Others were just remakes trying to sound as close to the original as possible, I never really saw the point to those ones. You can hear some of them, the good and the bad through the soundtrack albums in the library, as well as a lot of the unreleased on album tracks, from the show can be found on Freegal to download for free. For me this show was simply brilliant in its first season, one of the best school based shows ever made, it had a great script and the songs used complemented the storyline. It was funny at times and raised some serious social issues making them the talking point in actual schools as well as the workplace after they aired. Then celebrities wanted to be a part of it to boost their careers, some worked, most didn’t. The show seemed to forget about the storyline and just tried to fit the plot around the songs the studios wanted on there. They made the mistake of graduating most of their characters after just a few seasons and didn’t know what to do with them now, not prepared to just let them go making their appearance, especially at the school a bit awkward. They should have really just made the New York part a spin off show and had Glee the new class or something for the rest of the remainder, and new characters. GCCC Libraries have all of the seasons if you stopped watching and want to catch up with the added option to fast forward through the songs you don’t like. There have also been some novels and even an Archie meets Glee comic book featuring the characters from this show.
Glee might well have been the first major successful TV show singing covers of popular songs but you can’t really mention Glee without acknowledging 1980’s Fame, which also had a TV show spinoff, or song filled movies such as its predecessor High School Musical and of course Grease. Although neither of these musical shows were tackling heavy subject matter.
21 Jump Street – Undercover police officers who look young enough to pass as teens are sent into high schools to deal with youth crime operating through the student and faculty body and even student parents. More of a drama dealing with serious issues such as rape, gangs, child abuse, as well as an action show than the modern day movie versions making fun of it.
The Inbetweeners – this British show is probably the most realistic depiction of high school kids I’ve seen. I mean what school didn’t have at least one kid like Jay who makes up all kinds of experiences he’s had with the opposite sex who of course are girls his friends would never have met. Like all good non US shows, America tried to remake this one, never understanding why doing so wouldn’t work.
Mickey Bolitar series is a spin off series from author Harlan Coben’s adult novel and very successful Myron Bolitar series. Myron’s brother he had never heard of until the adult fiction novel before this teen aimed series kicked off, had a kid who is now pretty much an orphan so is forced to relocate to New Jersey to live with him. Mickey despises Myron but like him is good at, and lives for basketball. Struggling to fit in at his new high school, he eventually brings together a bunch of picked on kids who become friends and deal with threats to each other both high school and life threatening related.
Veronica Mars – When her best friend is murdered Veronica goes from being popular to social loser. Her father is voted out of the police and starts a private detective agency which she helps out with while dealing with the problems of being an unpopular high school student. The series would go on long enough for Veronica experience college as well. A movie funded by the shows fans, which has Veronica return to the town of Neptune also was released last year. There have also been quite a few books based on the character released as Kindle books by various authors and a couple in paperback by Rob Thomas (the show’s creator).
Heathers – This was an awesome dark comedy movie where a girl lethally deals with school bullies, (all named Heather, well the girls anyway) with the help of Christian Slater who plays a loner kid. Interesting look at how the use of products has changed since the 80’s as a father was convinced his son was gay when bottled water was planted at his house.
Clueless – Another interesting look at how products have changed with all the stuck up rich girls pulling out mobile phones from their purses to see if theirs was the one that was ringing, was a punchline for how absurb these kids were to have a luxury and useless to them at school mobile phone. Clueless was huge back when it was released in the early 90’s. As was Mean Girls in 2004.
Breakfast Club – Kids from range of different high school social groups are given detention on a Saturday in the school library and once there are forced get to know each other, they learn if they take away the barriers of their social groups, they are all people after all. If you don’t mind reading a good movie, an unofficial Spanish sequel called Ghost Graduation follows on from an alternative ending where the kids in detention instead of going home, died in a fire in the library due to being locked inside. They have haunted the school for 20 years but a new teacher has joined the faculty, who can see dead people.
Then you’ve got the shows that who knows what they were trying to achieve but they were successful. Beverly Hills 90210 (a.k.a. Beverly Hills School for Mature Age Students). I was actually at high school when this showed aired and it wasn’t actually that popular amongst those supposed to be the same age as the characters, everyone was more into Spelling’s Melrose Place than this. Perhaps this is because 90210 had the actors clearly in their 30’s playing teens, I mean some looked older than the teachers. But this might also be why it was somewhat successful amongst those who had left school a few decades before.
Update August 2015 – Had to add this show that I borrowed from the library. Worst Year of My Life Again! This show has a fourteen year old waking up on his fifteenth birthday only to discover it’s the same day he had a year ago when he woke up and turned fourteen. That day turned out to be the worst day of his life, in fact the entire year was the worst year of his life. Unfortunately for him, Groundhog Day style, he’s going to have to relive the whole year again. So this show other than being brilliantly written fits this post well as it is a high school reunion, although one Alex King doesn’t want to relive again. At least this time from what he knows went wrong last time he can try and make high school a better experience the second time round. Unfortunately for him, the universe doesn’t seem to want him to be popular or get the hot girl, no matter what he changes, it wants him to remain at the bottom of the social pecking order. This show aired on ABC3 which explains why you’ve probably never heard of it. But it is really clever and funny and well acted by pretty much an unknown cast. If you liked Cat in Victorious, you’ll love Maddy in Worst Year of My Life Again!
Community – This is a show that got more surreal as it progressed past the first season. It starts of with Jeff Winger a lawyer being forced to attend community college (Greendale) since he faked his law degree. There he notices Britta, a hot blond so asks her if she wants to help him study in the library. She agrees but invites a bunch of other students to join the study group who Jeff would have labelled in his high school days as losers. They include a couple of mature age students (including Chevy Chase playing an elderly openly racist and unpolitically correct Pierce), an Indian film buff, a nerd who had a crush on a former star athlete also in the group when they went to the same school. Ken Jeong also plays Senor Chang the eccentric Spanish teacher, and the school dean also has a number of issues, especially getting students such as Jeff to respect his authority.
Scrubs – This is by far one of my favourite shows. Basically a group of med students take up medical internships at the teaching hospital Sacred Heart. JD (Zach Braff) is also the narrator, and doesn’t make life easy for himself when he gets on the wrong side of the janitor on his first day. He along with Elliot (who he’d like to get to know a lot better) must career wise survive the challenges of a hospital, it’s patients and staff. JD’s best friend Turk, is also starting an internship in surgery. Doctors and surgeons often clash which will test loyalties. This was like ER (also an intern teaching hospital show) remade as a comedy, but also tackled some serious medical topics, in fact I remember the same medical storylines on more serious shows when they aired seasons after they were on Scrubs.
Police Academy – The worlds of job specific training institutions have been in many movies, but none is more iconic than 1984’s Police Academy, which was also a social commentary on the perils of political correctness and equal opportunity laws impacting occupations who had in their eyes been doing so for a reason. In Police Academy they might have to let them join but they didn’t have to let them graduate, doing whatever it took to make them quit. Of course for some they didn’t want to or in the case of Mahoney, couldn’t quit or he’d have to go to jail for his petty crimes. Sure they made way to many sequels when the jokes had gotten old, but the original is a classic.
Universities have had many a movie set in them, usually revolving around either someone on a sporting scholarship such as The Waterboy, Teen Wolf. Or Frat houses, partying and, well that’s mainly it unless you’re retelling someone’s claim to fame or success like The Social Network. Animal House, the recent Bad Neighbours, Revenge of the Nerds. A quite good Australia TV series called Hiding has a an underworld Heavy from the Gold Coast relocated on the Witness Protection Program to work at a Sydney University. He’s not supposed to teach classes or anything but ends up being asked to fill in by those who think he’s an academic. Also his kids are forced to attend a performing arts school since it’s their nearest school, where his daughter uses a more realistic and affective approach to deal with a school bully, than Tori did with Jade on Victorious.
Of course you’ve also got Pitch Perfect, a sort of combination of Bring it On and Glee set at university. You can also borrow the soundtrack for this one from the library. Legally Blonde also has reached cult movie following status.
The first novel I remember reading as a kid that I most related to the characters and could compare them to real life kids who went to my school was It by Stephen King, but I doubt that would be in most people’s school reunion memories. King has always good at his non horror parts of his novels, Christine is another we’re you get to live amongst believable high school this time kids. So there’s countless books, TV shows and movies that were around when you were a kid, or when you had kids, or at other times that you read or watched but if you mention today, you’re met with a blank stare. Why did these works of fiction fail and yet the ones on this list didn’t?