Life and My Box: School’s Out

Kate Zahnleiter was raised by a single working mother and a television. She writes that “not a day goes by in which I’m unable to relate something which occurs in real life back to an episode of something I watched as a child, teenager or young adult.” In Life and My Box, Kate shares the lessons she has learned from TV. 

When I was a teenager, I watched a lot of reruns of Degrassi Junior High and, when that was finished, the just as delightful Degrassi High (I can only hope you are humming the theme song to one of these now—I prefer High, but it’s really just a matter of adding or subtracting the word “junior” to your personal taste). I used to think of myself as a bit of a Caitlin Ryan, because she was a feminist and a journalist and a social activist and did a lot of things I liked to think I’d do if I wasn’t so lazy and didn’t have to spend so much time pretending I could skateboard and making sure my Tencel jeans looked amazing (both Caitlin and I did question our sexuality after having a sexy dream about a female teacher, but that didn’t really need a lot of effort on my part).

Caitlin and Degrassi taught me that things were hard for teenage girls, who, compared to me at the time, actually seemed about thirty. I learned that adolescent life was full of racism and homophobia and eating disorders and suicide, and abortions and AIDS scares, and that I should probably never get in a car because it will crash and I will die, and that if I don’t sleep with a boy he will cheat on me with someone who will sleep with him, but then if I do sleep with him I will probably maybe contract AIDS and also probably definitely get pregnant, and then people will get all uppity and shove plastic foetuses in my face when I show up for my abortion, which I would really need to get because long ago I accepted the fact that I don’t have the hair to be Spike Nelson. Degrassi taught me that I should probably think about those things A LOT and be afraid of everything all the time, and that shit is fucked up in Canada, I guess.

If I am to believe my teacher friends, co-workers with children, and the two shop assistants I overheard the other day complaining about the number of tweens unnecessarily buying bras, these days it is young girls themselves—with their language that nobody outside of high school understands and wealth of information absorbed through subliminal messages in One Direction lyrics—who need to be feared. Maybe because with every year that goes by, teenagers become different to how we were teenagers, and that’s confusing.

I really love teenage girls. Like, a whole bunch. Not in a creepy, predatory way (though wouldn’t that be an interesting and, I hope, unexpected announcement?) but in the way that I think they are simultaneously the best and worst people in the world. They can throw a Toddlers in Tiaras worthy tantrum one minute and debate the meaning of true love the next, rounding it all out with a dance routine they choreographed after they faked a period to get out of PE. That’s all just wonderful.

Now I actually am thirty, and teenagers’ lives still seem hard. The difference between me at sixteen and my step-sister who is currently sixteen is that I didn’t have to worry about my every fuckup living forever on the internet (#schoolies13…yikes). It is the difference between Degrassi and Pretty Little Liars. Not only do those girls have to work through their parents having affairs (though I totally understand why someone would cheat on Holly Marie Combs) and that time they accidentally blinded Dani from Home and Away, but they have to deal with getting cyber-stalked while doing it (go to the police, pretty little liars). Constant generational Instagramming means they must look fierce at all times, even when receiving death threats via text (GO TO THE POLICE, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS).

These days, teenagers have to be fearless and tough in a way I don’t have the technology skills for. I still have a radio because I don’t know how to download music. Ninety percent of the Snapchats I send are of my friend’s dog asleep in various suitcases (though sometimes you can see his penis, so I think I’m still using the app correctly). Caitlin Ryan and I didn’t have to worry about taking 100 selfies a day or checking in on Facebook to prove we were having fun. Of course, we also didn’t have the benefit of hair straighteners, so maybe we break even.

Yes, sometimes I cringe when I sit in front of girls singing Katy Perry earnestly on a bus, but mostly because I would have done the exact same thing fifteen years ago with just as much enthusiasm and probably at a higher pitch, and it would have been to 5ive’s “When the Lights Go Out” (Degrassi may have taught me that sexual harassment is wrong, but it didn’t tell me I couldn’t sing about it). Recently, a friend and I went through a box of letters we had written each other in high school, and a lot of it was contrived drama and lip gloss, but it was also a lot of real angst and uncertainty and trying to work out what life was. And we used words like “neeb” and “eyiee” and “gooneybird” which didn’t mean anything, but fuck it we’d just seen Jodie Foster Nell and could make up our own language if we wanted to.

So I think we should give teenage girls some credit for surviving in this environment. Let everything be that exciting or that devastating. Continue being the most important people in the world. Wear dresses with cut out sides and no backs, because one day you will show up at your friend’s birthday party at Skate Haven and discover you’ve grown giant boobs literally overnight. You will spend the next two hours trying to find a new centre of balance as you wobble to “Always” by Bon Jovi, until your mum picks you up and has to take you shopping IMMEDIATELY for a real bra with heavy duty underwire and obscenely wide straps. It will probably be beige.

One day that will happen. And a few years after that you’ll encounter a new wave of magnificent and terrifying creatures, like me and those shops assistants or Caitlin Ryan in Degrassi: The Next Generation.

I’m sure teenage boys are fine as well, but really that’s none of my business.

Lesson learned: For the next seven to twenty-one days, stay away from Surfers Paradise.

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