My Degrassi generation gap
Flirty, streetwise 13-year-olds? I must be an adult
As I was eating lunch in the junior high school cafeteria, I had two thoughts. First, the last time I ate lunch in a junior high school cafeteria was when I was in junior high. Second, I know now, for a fact, I am an adult. There was no escaping it.
I know this because sitting to my right was the publicity woman for Degrassi: The Next Generation, the sequel to the popular Degrassi series of the 1980s that makes its debut Sunday night on CTV. Sitting across from me was an actor who plays a Grade 8 teacher on the show. Also across from me was the glorified adult “babysitter” of the young actors on Degrassi.
At the other end of the long table, separated by a couple of empty chairs, were the young actors who make up the cast of the new series. Adults at one end, kids at the other. Apparently, teenagers don’t want to sit next to me.
Which is OK. After watching the one-hour season premiere on tape, I realized I have no idea what it’s like to be a teen any more. At 13, I wasn’t flirting with strangers over e-mail, like the character Emma does on the first show. E-mail didn’t exist then, and if my mother found out I was flirting with boys, she would have killed me.
I also certainly wouldn’t have known my way around Toronto, as Emma does when she meets up with a stranger in a hotel. Turns out a bad, bad man has lured her there by e-mail. Thankfully, Emma’s computer-savvy friends know how to break into her e-mail, figure out where she is and go rescue her.
As an adult, I sometimes can’t even get into my own e-mail, let alone that of my friends.
But this is 2001, and pre-teens know this stuff. The new Degrassi kids are articulate and sophisticated. They get drunk before school dances, they look at porn on the Internet, they have cash to bribe people with and they skip taking their Ritalin pills.
Ritalin pills? The new Degrassi series really is the new generation.
The current crop of Degrassi kids are as smart and manipulative as you and me, except shorter. I met with the actors and production team on the set in Toronto where they are filming.
In the classroom, the teacher is threatening detention. Bored, I keep staring at a wall, where signs read, “Don’t use double negatives” and “Verbs have to agree with their antecedents,” whatever that means. Watching these actors in between takes is fascinating. The young male actors flirt with the pretty young female extras. Who taught them how to flirt? They are 12.
“I hate to disappoint you,” says Linda Schuyler, co-creator of the original Degrassi series and the producer of the new series, when we talk. “But you are not our target audience.”
What she is trying to say in a nice way is that I was the audience for the original series, in which the kids graduated 10 years ago from high school. True enough, but do we ever forget the painful years of junior high?
“The fundamental philosophy is the exact same,” she says. “It’s the story of every day; a bunch of kids becoming adults.”
The lessons in the new Degrassi are the same as in the old one. You must get along with step-families. If you get drunk, you look stupid. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat, you’re still beautiful.
I asked Schuyler how she felt, after 10 years, seeing the Degrassi series come back to life. It was an honest question; I didn’t mean to make her cry.
“A bunch of us from the old show watched the finished product of the first episode and I just started to cry. I’ve never cried at a first show before,” she said, once again tearing up.
Change the subject, I thought, change the subject.
So what shows does she watch, when not screening Degrassi footage?
“The news and sometimes The Sopranos.”
Cool. An adult.
I spoke with the child actors, too, over lunch, all very sweet and nice, but I didn’t quite understand them. They all don’t want to be “typecasted” in their roles, they told me.
When I was 13, I worried whether my mother was going to let me leave the house with safety pins in my pants; I didn’t worry about being “typecasted.”
“You wore safety pins in your pants?” scoffed one of the kids. “That’s so weird.”