My So-Called Teenage Life in the USA
I am a bit fascinated about what it must be like to be a teenager in the USA. Why? Because, quite simply, I grew up as a teenager in the UK and I know there must be quite a lot of differences in the social structures and education system and wot not. We are different in so many ways, and I often wonder how I would respond if I were a British teenager out here in the USA. For a start, there’s the difference in the legal age for drinking…..
I also have images of Glee, the Breakfast Club, Grease and all those high school TV shows and movies in my head, and I wonder if they must be true. I kind of glamourised American school culture, with no school uniforms, lockers, catching the school bus, driving to school in open top cars, the jocks, the geeks, the cheerleaders, the marching band, the prom, the homecoming dance, graduation…..
I asked a British teenager, Molly, who has just moved to Howard County at the age of 17, about her experience of the differences and similarities between the British and American systems and ways of life. I’m curious about her experience, because I went to live in Gibraltar as an expat child at the same age as Molly and was met with a gregarious, exciting and crazy social life, a British/Gibraltarian education system, a plethora of opportunities, freedom, a drinking culture, lazy days on the beach, Spanish culture and adventures that have stayed with me forever.
This is a very honest, insightful piece by Molly about her new experiences in the USA.
Molly’s Teenage Life in the USA
Time in the USA: 3 months – arrived January 2014
1. When you arrived here as a British teenager, what were your initial impressions of the USA? How do you feel it differed from the UK?
Moving to the US has been one of the most daunting, but amazing experiences I have ever had. And what a hectic 3 months it has been! I had already visited the States a number of times with my family before moving to Columbia, so I vaguely knew what kind of lifestyle to expect. We always loved our American holiday adventures, Florida being a favorite, and it seemed crazy that I would actually end up living here. Moving over in January seemed a very bizarre time to come quite honestly! It completely ruined my AS schedule, as I had to leave halfway through the school year, we faced continuous torrential rain whilst trying to move out of our UK house (typical British weather!) and then we faced a large amount of snow in the first couple of weeks after arriving in Columbia which stopped us from sorting out numerous important things that we needed in order to live over in the US.
On so many occasions in the first month, I seriously questioned why I was actually out here. I doubted whether it was the right move and I was adamant that my life would have been so much easier if I had just stayed in the UK. It took a painfully long time for me to get into high school, which left me a lot of time to worry about everything!
2. You attend high school here.
a. Tell us what you would be doing in the UK for school and social life right now if you were there.
If I was still in Britain I would be currently studying for my AS Exams. I was so happy when I finished my GCSE’s because I thought I could just focus on four subjects that I really enjoyed for A level. Unfortunately that didn’t happen for me – you have to carry on studying every subject until you graduate over here (just when I thought I had managed to shake off Math’s and Science!). As I had to leave halfway through Year 12, I made the decision to study just one subject in the 3/4 months I had left. This was a really intense period, trying to cram everything in, but I managed to get it done and I am due to fly back in May to take the exam.
Sixth Form in the UK is generally a really fun time (despite the school work!) for most students. From the small amount of experience I had, there were loads of social events to attend and you got so much more freedom compared to the lower years in school. The introduction of free periods was a blessing! On top of this you had really strong friendships due to having spent the last 5 years with the same people. This was something that made the move over here so much harder.
b. How is this different from what you are doing now in the USA?
The first week of American high school has definitely been one of the most hysterical times ever. Whenever I opened my mouth, people would either be mesmerized by my accent, kind of in a trance or they completely freaked out and started shouting and pointing at me! In the UK I wouldn’t say I stood out for a particular reason at school, I just was a normal teenager getting on with life, so having all the attention focused on me felt quite peculiar and unsettling. I have kind of got used it now, something still happens every day as I am introduced to more new people. I am continuously repeating certain words and phrases much to the amusement of the students, but I quite like it and I feel very flattered!
My UK school timetable would have been Art, Textiles, History and Business Studies, however at my American high school I am studying American Government and Politics, Fashion and Interior Design, Psychology, Law and the Citizen, Algebra, English and Sociology. Completely different! Not only are there nearly double the subjects but half of them I haven’t even studied before. I went in a bit clueless really! However I didn’t let this phase me, I went into all my classes with a positive attitude and now I really enjoy them (except maybe American Government and Politics, it’s just sooo boring!)
3. What are the key differences between the British and American teenage social structures?
I’ve only been at an American high school for roughly 8 weeks, so I haven’t been able to observe in depth the social structures. However, one thing I have noticed in particular is that people tend to hang out with peers that are interested in similar extracurricular activities, whereas in the UK I was friends with people who all had different types of hobbies. For example if you played an instrument in band, you would most likely associate yourself with other band members – just like in the movies!
4. What differences have you noted between the British and American teenage social life?
I think the large majority of American teenagers social lives are based around their extracurricular activities. It is seen as important to take part in activities out of school in order to make your college application stronger. Therefore extracurricular activities are put ahead of social lives. High school sport teams for example are a huge commitment, and training occurs almost every afternoon after school. Most after school clubs in the UK were once a week, so this is a huge contrast. When teenagers have the time to meet friends out of school, it seems pretty similar to the UK. It is usual to go out to eat, go shopping, watch a film at the cinema etc.
5. What differences have you noted between the British and American teenage education / schools?
One thing I have particularly struggled with since starting high school is the early mornings. I have to be on the bus at 6.45am in order to get to school on time, but in the UK I didn’t have to catch my school bus until 8am. The benefit is you do get to come home earlier, so you can achieve more in the afternoon when you get back from school. I have also noticed that I don’t receive as much homework either over here, which I personally think is brilliant after having to spend so many hours at home completing work for GCSE and AS exams. Lessons in American high school are a lot more vocal, as teachers regularly hold class discussions. I have really enjoyed this because it enables everyone to get involved.
6. What three things do you think British teenagers could learn from American teenagers?
• Be more confident – e.g. American’s generally enjoy speaking publicly, whereas I noticed in the UK most tried to hide away from it!
• Don’t be afraid to say your opinions.
• Get up earlier in the morning – my days have been more productive since I have had to start school so early.
7. What three things do you think American teenagers could learn from British teenagers?
• Be more creative – structure and guidelines are very rigid over here, there aren’t enough opportunities to express individuality.
• Take pride in self image- I have seen too many flip-flop and sock combinations!
• Respect elders – teachers and adults aren’t given enough credit for the hard work and effort they have put in to help our generation succeed.
8. Complete this sentence:
American teenagers are: enthusiastic, confident and committed.
9. Complete this sentence:
British teenagers are: hard-working, creative and sociable.
I definitely think moving out here was a good choice. All the positives outweigh the negatives – not many British teenagers get the opportunity explore the US in their free time! The move has no way been easy, that is for sure, but we have met so many lovely people in Columbia that have made us feel welcome, which has made the transition more enjoyable. To anyone who is moving to the States, the only advice I could give to them is embrace all the opportunities that are available over here. It is a great way to meet new people and make new friends, with who you will potentially keep in contact with for the rest of your life. It is not like you are completely cut off from your life back at home, I have been so grateful for the technology that has allows us to FaceTime or Skype friends and family, they’re only a phone call away.
We often think that USA high schools are like those we see in the movies or on TV.
a) Are there any similarities or not? and
b) Do you ever stop and think: that’s just like Glee, Grease or similar…?!
I have constantly been comparing the situations I’ve been in, or the things I have seen with scenes out movies, because that is all I had really to form a picture of American high school. I have found a lot of similarities, much to my amusement, but I don’t know whether that is just because I was looking for them!
Cliques definitely exist in the American high school environment, because your interests define what ‘group’ you associate yourself with. All the big events that you see in films and T.V such as Prom and Home Coming most certainly occur too, and these from what I have seen and heard are very materialistic, and you are judged on your dress, transport, hair , date etc. so there is a lot of pressure put on people. Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen anybody break out in song in the school corridors, like in Grease or Glee, but I am hopeful that it one day might happen!
A fan piece, Molly. Thank you!