Italian kids, and most likely kids from many other first world countries, have grown up watching American movies and American TV series. I grew up in the 90’s and the most popular series among young kids and teenagers were Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, Baywatch, and Dawson’s Creek.
At the movie theater, besides Disney movies, we would watch almost only American blockbusters. These movies gave us a juicy sample of “America,” the big country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean that was in our dreams exactly because it seemed so different from what we were and are used to: enormous spaces, long and wide roads, majestic landscapes, and hectic cities complete with blinding lights and massive skyscrapers.
And then there were American schools, specifically high schools, where many movies and TV series are set. Let me tell you that we Italian teenagers were all oh-so-jealous of what happened in American high schools according to movies and TV series. The small and big screens, in fact, portray U.S. school life as an extremely cool and exciting experience, as my personal list of the top three Italian stereotypes on teenagers’ life in the United States will show you.
1. What does it feel like to have your own locker?
For an Italian kid, a locker is a foreign object found in the hallways of a typical American school. Usually, a locker contains pictures of the owner and their friends, magazine cutouts of the owner’s favorite actors and singers, and only occasionally, textbooks and notebooks. On average, upon opening of the locker, the American kid finds a cute love note by a secret admirer and/or an invitation to go to prom with said secret admirer. Also, the locker is where the American kid is usually approached by the (at this point not any more) secret admirer or, when the American kid is particularly lucky, by his or her crush of the moment. Italian students do not get to have a locker at any point during their education, so they do not get to experience all the cute things that happen on the premises. We were all very jealous of your lockers, of your own little space to store cute things, secret crushes, and (only occasionally) school stuff.
2. American high school students hang out all the time and go to amazing parties.
Italian high school runs six days a week (yes, I used to go to school on Saturdays), from 8 am till 1 pm, and it lasts five years, or one more compared to the U.S. You have a lot of homework to do every day and that usually takes up most of your afternoons. Needless to say, we do many other things, but if you’re a good student, you have to face your homework at some point. Well, I must admit I have hardly ever seen an American kid on a TV series doing homework at any point during the series; the best symbol of this oddity is Seth and Ryan’s pool house in “The O.C.” After a long day in school, most of which was spent hanging out at the school café and meeting dates at the locker, these high school students usually gathered together again at the pool house to just chill and confront major first-world problems such as I-want-to-hook-up-with-that-girl-but-she-likes-the-quarterback-on-the-football-team or I-don’t-know-what-to-wear-at-prom. Too bad that after 45 minutes the episode was over, and we Italian kids had to go back to doing homework.
3. American kids can have McDonald’s all the time!
The first Italian McDonald’s opened in Rome in 1986, 46 years after its foundation in the United States. It was the only fast food chain in Italy until 1999, when it was joined by Burger King. For us Italian kids, McDonald’s was a culinary El Dorado. We begged our parents to go because we wanted to have a taste of those American gastronomical aliens called hamburger and fries, which represented a rare and much craved exception to our strictly Italian dietary habits. It was the food from America, from the land of modernity and future. It was the food we saw on movies and TV series, which figured so many times on the table of the average American family. For us, instead, going to McDonald’s was some sort of present from your parents if you behaved well, especially because our parents, and the oldest generations in Italy, loathe fast food. It wasn’t this hard for American kids. They could have McDonald’s-like food all the time, and we Italians couldn’t even possibly imagine that McDonald’s was just one among the great number of fast food options in the U.S.
Sometimes, when I look at you American men and women on campus, all I can think of is: they grew up in the United States and I didn’t. Their life was just like in the movies, and I was just watching.