How many parents would love to be a fly on the wall of their child’s high school? CBC’s This is High School, premiering tonight, puts 48 flies on that wall. Cameras, that is, on the walls of British Columbia’s South Kamloops Secondary School, and they offer a compelling and compassionate peek at the lives of the students.
The six-part documentary series intersperses footage from these cameras with interviews with the subjects, including students, teachers, guidance councillors, the vice-principal and principal.
“We scoured the country for the right high school that would not just let us in—after a long conversation with administration, teachers, students, parents, and the government—but the school had to have inspiring teachers and an open administration,” said David Paperny.
Luckily, Paperny has an Academy Award nomination for the documentary The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter and success with series such as Yukon Gold and Chopped Canada as his calling card.
“We had to prove to them that we had no hidden agenda, that we really did want to present life as it was, and to use our tradition as reputable producers of factual programming for the last 20 years.”
They selected certain children to follow who were on an interesting journey. About a dozen are highlighted, two per episode, and they offer some naked vulnerability on screen. Sometimes the students are obviously mugging for the cameras, sometimes they have obviously forgotten the cameras are there, and sometimes they are speaking directly to the interviewer about their experiences and feelings.
For someone whose high school days are a far-off but not unpleasant memory, I was reminded of three things: children can be casually cruel to each other, I’m incredibly thankful I didn’t grow up in the social media age, and the adults who tried to tell us back then that those were the best years of our lives were out of their minds.
In the first episode we follow Maddie, who is adjusting to changing friendships and cyberbullying, and Dusan, a good-hearted boy who’s causing chaos with his antics. The children and their parents put an enormous amount of trust in Paperny and CBC’s hands, and it’s not misplaced. Their stories are told with respect and compassion.
“They’re volatile, they’re poignant, they’re at a stage where their lives are being shaped and they’re making big decisions. For us to be there was such an honour and a privilege.”
“Once we started following kids they knew we were following them, and we’d be pulling them aside for short interviews at the end of a school day,” said Paperny. “Yes, they left themselves vulnerable, but I think they were proud that their lives were important enough to be followed for a few weeks by a television production company, and that their seemingly small struggles are actually—for all of us, but especially for high school students—big challenges, big issues.”
The tone of the show is more poignant and inspirational than expose. “It’s not an inside report on bullying or drug abuse or teen sex,” said Paperny. “Some of that comes up, but the point is kids have goals, they have challenges. And teachers, even more than when I was a high school student, are taking on a bigger role to help individual students overcome those challenges. That’s what our show’s about.”
Paperny cites the Oscar nomination 22 years ago as the touchstone for the rest of his career when he realized “great television, entertaining television, newsy television could have a positive and inspirational impact on the world.” He sees that same force at work in his current CBC series.
“In England where they’ve had this format for a few years, it’s run for four seasons already. It’s reopened a dialogue across Britain about the role of teachers—a national conversation about education because of its insights. This is High School is exactly the kind of program we love doing.”
This is High School airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBC.