High school without the musical

Elisha Cooper, the author of numerous children’s books and Crawling (a collection of essays about fatherhood), wanted to go back in time. So Elisha spent a year at a Chicago high school chronicling the lives of eight students – six seniors and two juniors. And then he wrote ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School about these students’ big games, bad dates, and applications to college – basically, about their lives.

Our children have become inundated with movies such as High School Musical and shows such as My Super Sweet Sixteen, which portray a picture of high school that even we adults with our foggy memories recognize as distorted. Wouldn’t it be nice for them to read about what they can really expect in high school?

Elisha hopes that his book portrays real high school life, with a different and more nuanced perspective that kids will find valuable.

You can read an excerpt HERE.  I found what’s below in the excerpt and laughed because high school is high school is high school.  He could have been describing my Louisiana high school, not the magnet school in Chicago that provided the stage for this book.

Around the fifty or so tables, students sit according to their race, eating chicken patties. While lunches are given names like Incredibles, no amount of wordplay can disguise what the food really is: not so edible.
With the last bell, students pour out the front door: boys carrying skateboards, girls carrying cello cases, blind students tapping their canes, boys in form-fitting 16-Inch softball team uniforms, girls in striped knee-high socks, boys with do-rags under oversized hats, cheerleaders with pom-poms.
As different as the students are, they all do the same thing once they get outside. Ten feet from the door, they stop, take off their IDs and put them in their backpacks, and flip open a cell phone.

This book would be a great Christmas gift for any teen. The sketches are clever and quirky, and the Green Day quote will provide the authenticity!  It’s billed as “part documentary, part soap opera”; yep, that’s high school.  Kids are sure to relate to one of the eight students Elisha follows from September through June.


FOR THIS BOOK, I spent a year back in high school. Well, not really. I spent a few days a week with students during their year of high school.

A teacher friend at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, in downtown Chicago, introdur/h/t/cced me to the students.  The students – six seniors and two juniors – were kind enough to let me follow them around with a notebook.  We talked about upcoming games, drama with friends, pregnancy scares, and college applications. Their stories made the book what it is: part documentary, part sketchbook, part something else. The book is also a journal of the day-to-day life of a high school, from Phys Ed to prom.  Lastly, this being Chicago, it’s a story about weather.

I have a great deal of appreciation for the students’ openness in sharing their lives with me.  I had fun writing this book (though I still have trouble saying the title!).  Mostly, though, I loved the reporting – going to football games, homecoming dances, or just talking with a student in the halls after English class.

ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School

“Cooper, known for his savvy picture books (Beach, A Good Night Walk) and his parenting memoir, Crawling, trains his sights on teens with this perceptive documentary account… the considerable strengths of the work come from Cooper’s genius for observation and confident refusal to dramatize what he finds.”

Chicago Sun-Times 7.06.08
“At one time or another most of us have wished we could be a fly on the wall – a silent, virtually invisible observer to worlds we normally have no access to. This is the role author Elisha Cooper plays in his wonder of a book, ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool.”

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2 thoughts on “High school without the musical

  1. Good stuff; I’ll check this one out. You might consider a similar book, although it’s a novel. It’s “108th Street” by T. David Lee. It’s a funny story about a kid growing up in school in 1958. One of my wife’s favorites, although I have no idea how she found it. Only place I’ve seen it is at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/108thstreet.html. Worth a read.

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