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My High School Got MADE

A teacher describes what's it like to be in the middle of an MTV invasion

Every now and then I used to hear students in my classroom talk about the possibility that MTV was going to shoot an episode of MADE at our high school. But nothing ever came of these rumors. Why would MTV care about this school? I dismissed their stories as just one more Great Pumpkin fantasy that kids tell each other to make it through the day. I can’t blame them; even for happy teachers like me, the daily grind of high school can wear you down. Besides, everyone needs something exciting to gossip about when their cell phone batteries are low.

But this past fall, I overheard some kids complain about camera crews blocking off parts of the hallways during passing time. Then I overheard other kids bragging about not signing release or waiver forms. Eventually, when I saw a girl pass by my classroom followed by a cameraman sporting the kind of sophisticated AV equipment that wouldn’t look out of place with a network correspondent schlepping the 2012 campaign trail, I realized that, at long last, the rumors were true. They were confirmed during last Tuesday’s Snow Week pep rally, when the emcee announced that an episode of MADE starring one of the girls from this year’s Roseville Area High School (RAHS) graduating class was airing on MTV the following night.

For those readers who don’t watch much MTV these days — or aren’t middle school girls — MADE is a resilient little teen-makeover show that has been airing on MTV since 2003, which is also the same year I started teaching English at RAHS. Each episode plays like a cross between Pygmalion and Flowers for Algernon: A kid expresses a wish to change something about themselves; a MADE coach and “expert” in some field or other comes in and helps the kid achieve his/her dreams; the kid performs in a public forum and is warmly received, after which everyone lives happily ever after. It’s lighthearted, fairly dull reality fare, closer to a pragmatic, let’s-put-on-a-show series like Sell This House than it is to the atrocity exhibitions and epics of self-delusion that you can find on Bravo, A&E, or on other MTV time slots, for that matter.

Now, some words about the location: RAHS is a public high school in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, with a solidly multicultural student body and a strong reputation both locally and nationally for turning out qualified and college-ready students. (Last year we learned that two former graduates were named Rhodes Scholars.) Roseville can also boast an unusually strong roster of celebrities; its alumni include Loni Anderson (I knew a roly-poly math teacher here who — incredibly, impossibly — was Anderson’s high school sweetheart), Peter Krause, MacGyver, and musician “Kid” Jonny Lang — or, as our superintendent once called him in the greatest “Welcome back, staff” speech he’ll ever give, “‘Kid’ Jonny Holmes.” Dance crews are part of every pep fest, the school has a competitive dance team, and the music that plays in the halls to get kids to class before tardy bell rings is an instrumental version of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” Like every school, it has its issues, but it’s a terrific place to work.

The MADE episode that partially takes place at RAHS stars senior Mary Beth Bibeau as a girl who wants to “come out of her shell.” There are about a dozen archetypal MADE transformations. In this one, Mary Beth wants to stop being an outcast and start being a Hip-Hop Dancer. (MTV has filmed fifteen other Hip-Hop Dancer episodes, including three this season. Other popular transformations include Prom Queen, Ladies’ Man, Boxer, and Cheerleader. In one episode — which I really, really need to see — MTV tries to make a kid into a “High School Graduate.” As far as I know, this is the only time they’ve tried to help a student earn a diploma. How did that go, I wonder?) The last two Hip-Hop Dancer episodes showcased nerdy kids who proved to the world that there was more to them than 4.0 GPAs and weekend sessions with gastroenterology textbooks.

This episode takes a different approach. According to its storyline, Mary Beth feels like an outsider. (Cue her eating lunch alone.) She wants to build her confidence and meet new friends by forming a hip-hop dance crew and performing during halftime of a school basketball game. Now, in the other two episodes, the only real enemies for these kids are the perfectly understandable fears and anxieties they experience when they’re asked to step out of their comfort zones and try something tough. But in this episode, Mary Beth has an additional nemesis. In many early scenes, she’s constantly fighting with her older sister, a raging, bitter, scene-stealing shrew who’s always sticking her leg out every time her younger sister wants to have some fun. What is going on here? This is not at all like the other two episodes I watched; this is more like an unrehearsed children’s theater version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Other students have assured me that this isn’t all that unusual; some MADE episodes are just more uncomfortable and intense than others.)

After watching the whole episode, I talked to several students and staff members who were involved with the shoot either directly or indirectly. The adults here used their own names, but I’m protecting the names of every student I interviewed by either giving them aliases or letting them choose their own.

Here are five insiders’ observations about this episode of MADE (Season 11, Episode 72, still unavailable for re-viewing online):

1. At one point, Mary Beth is compared to Amanda Seyfried. Believe it or not, seeing kids who look like younger versions of celebrities is one of the uncannier parts of my job. Currently I teach a girl who looks like Kat Dennings, a guy who looks like Drew Brees, three or four guys who look like Kyle Kinane, and a girl who looks like Buster Keaton.

2. I was happy for Mary Beth when she went to Manhattan and met Doug E. Fresh, but I was sad when she identified him as the guy they named the dance after. How could she not know that Doug E. Fresh was the human beat box on Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” or one of the stars of “The Show”? No matter how many Rhodes Scholars our staff gives the world, it’s times like these when I worry most about the future of American education.

3. I wasn’t impressed with Kira, Mary Beth’s MADE coach. You know how some people admire athletes because they can do things normal people never could? Well, Kira would last about six minutes in an actual classroom. Granted, it was probably part of the script for Kira to depart from the dance studio in a huff, but it’s still a bad move by a teacher who eventually has to go back and face the student she’s abandoned. Feeling taken for granted and abused because your girl’s not doing a jumping jack exactly the way you want her to, Kira? Well, to misquote Alec Baldwin, if you think that’s abuse, how can you take the abuse you’d get in a classroom?

4. When Mary Beth wanders around school and tries to pass out flyers for her dance crew, she eventually drops some flyers on what looks like a vacant or abandoned school bench in frustration. Problem is, this is not some ordinary corner. It’s a major intersection for three hallways. It’s also the corner where many of RAHS’s African-American kids hang out. (Relax, equity police: Every large and diverse high school has places like this. In fact, one of our guest speakers once opened a school-wide staff development session by saying, “Where’s the black hallway in your school?”) And as my student Beats told me, whenever the camera crew wanted a hallway shot, they kept blocking these kids from their usual between-classes meeting place. These kids got upset by this show of disrespect — at one point, Beats said to a cameraman, “We’re gonna have a problem if you keep filming here” — and as a result, they didn’t feel too charitable toward Mary Beth or the whole hip-hop dance crew thing. Oh, did I mention that the members of our school’s dance team here are predominantly African-American? And you wonder why Mary Beth couldn’t find anyone who wanted to join her dance crew.

5. I learned from my student MCA, a member of the basketball team, that the climactic dance routine was re-shot at two separate home games with two different crowds. One performance took place in front of a full gym full of fans all lathered up and excited by the first half. The other performance occurred in front of a crowd half the size, which was relaxing during a 40-point blowout. The MADE crew’s attempt to stitch those two scenes together through sheer editing artistry was probably the worst-produced segment of the entire episode.

Most of the kids who had more than a passing involvement were pretty cool about the whole MTV thing; many described George, the MADE cameraman/producer/writer/director, as a cool guy. But they were also absolutely aware that MTV was clearly manipulating reality to tell the story they wanted to tell. (Eerily, the kids I interviewed were as composed and media-savvy as most professional politicians.) As one student, Amaranta Ursula, said, at times they felt “like a chess piece,” but she liked the opportunity to talk to a media professional about all the adventures he had. And other kids certainly noticed the cameras, too; I heard several stories about girls getting dressed up and invading scene after scene in hopes of getting noticed.

The teachers and building administrators were less enamored. Tara Miller, English teacher and yearbook editor, was repeatedly contacted by the show’s producers to identify hundreds of students from a series of photos. (She responded by deploying the ultimate teacher weapon — she ignored the e-mails until they went away.) Gregg Martinson, media-center specialist and morning video-announcements producer, was one of many staffers who noted of the camera crew that “they would film things and then stop the class.” For his video production class, he tried to do a making-of documentary about the shooting process, but the MADE crew wouldn’t sign a release form similar to the ones they asked every student who appeared on-camera to sign.

Some of the teachers, like consumer-science and AVID teacher Anne Barnes, eventually banned the camera crews from their classrooms because they kept dropping in unannounced and making students uncomfortable during discussion of controversial issues like immigration. According to Anne, they tried to smooth matters over by saying, “Everyone wants to be on TV.” I didn’t have Mary Beth as a student when shooting occurred, but the whole scenario sounded like a serious teacher’s worst nightmare — a classroom beholden to pushy media pros who barged in whenever they felt like it and shot tons of footage they would probably discard anyway.

I spoke to Mary Beth the day after the episode aired. Despite Amaranta Ursula’s claim that the experience wasn’t all that life-changing (“I don’t think there was any change,” she said), Mary Beth showed a curious kind of poise and confidence that probably came from being a camera subject around the clock for a month and a half. She was already feeling the fallout from her catastrophe of success. “They didn’t tell the whole story,” she said, and she talked about certain omissions and cuts made in the name of good TV. (She was definitely OK with the way her sister was portrayed, though.) Consider one of the last scenes of the episode, where Mary Beth breaks up with her boyfriend, Josh, in a moment that instantly reminded me of this. According to Ria, one of the girls who talked to Mary Beth about her decision, when a miked-up Mary Beth brought up the idea of ending her relationship, the producer swooped in out of nowhere and half-jokingly told Mary Beth and her friends not to talk or text about the issue until the cameras were in place to get the footage. Not only that, but apparently the first breakup wasn’t very good television; several students said that this on-camera breakup was shot more than once. (Apparently, Josh has found someone else, though, so don’t worry — it’s just high school.)

Not surprisingly, she caught some flack on Twitter and at school for dumping her boyfriend this way, but unlike those pathetic, gross star-crossed teenage lovers who perform exploratory oral surgery on each other in the stairwells between classes, Mary Beth seemed comfortable and even wise when pondering the transience of most high school relationships. And even though it was a stressful experience, she admitted that it had its perks: She got to go to New York, she met a celebrity, and she learned about the Tree of Hope at the Apollo Theater. When I asked her what advice she’d give to any current students who were going to be on MADE, she said, “Definitely think before you speak, and know where your life is going.”

This is great advice for future MADE stars. So listen up: If you’re a star-struck teen with a problem or weakness who wants to cede control of your life to the media for six weeks and let the world watch your tear-filled struggles, you should emerge from the whole ordeal relatively unscathed as long as you can speak carefully and predict the outcome of your life — you know, the two things no functioning adult can possibly do. What’s the harm? Who knows — you may even get a complimentary pair of shoes out of it.

Addison Engelking has been teaching The Grapes of Wrath and other classics from your high school English class since 2001. He also writes about movies for the Memphis Flyer. He has no Facebook page or Twitter feed because he’s got papers to correct.