A Brit’s Guide to Understanding American High School Customs

Most Brits know about American high school customs from Hollywood exports like 'Mean Girls.' But the customs these films lampoon are very real, if alien to Brits. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Most Brits know about American high school customs from Hollywood exports like ‘Mean Girls.’ But the customs these films lampoon are very real, if alien to Brits. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

This article is not about the differences between British and American education systems (a comparison that should probably be reserved for a post of its very own). Rather, it is a look at the little things, things that breathe life into the everyday American high school, things that—to a British outsider—might seem a tad bizarre and/or unfamiliar.

Firstly, and this is true of American life in general, things are so much bigger in the average American high school. Actually, a better phrase might be more bombastic.

And things perhaps don’t come more bombastic than high school marching bands, huge armies of instrumentalists who perform at various events throughout the school year. These bands are usually of considerable quality given that they are comprised entirely (excluding the conductor) of teenage students. And if it wasn’t enough that they (as well as various other performance troupes) play before a dedicated demographic of family members, many will also perform at state level, while the very best get to compete at what Americans refer to as “nationals.”

Of course, it’s no good having highly dedicated performers if they don’t have a venue in which to perform. Thankfully, American high schools don’t disappoint in this regard; indeed, if you think that the seemingly massive auditoriums featured in American TV shows such as Glee are exaggerated, think again.

Moreover, high school basketball gymnasiums are also substantially bigger than anything you would see in Britain, and they host not just marching band performances, but cheerleading and Color Guard competitions, as well as basketball itself. These venues are particularly popular in the Midwest, where the state of Indiana boasts 12 of the 13 largest high school basketball gymnasiums in America.

Meanwhile, there is one aspect of American schools that isn’t quite so big: school buses. Those same yellow vehicles you’ve probably seen in countless American movies are real—as real as the vast corridors of lockers that also feature in said films—and they’re everywhere.

They’re even utilized by some students on prom night. And nobody does prom night—a milestone that has evidently grown more popular in Britain over the last 10 years—quite like the Americans. Dressed to the nines, students attend the event (again, regularly featured in the movies) at the culmination of senior year, crowning the Prom King and Queen in the process. This event is similar in some respects to that other milestone known as homecoming, which welcomes back school alumni at the beginning of the school year, and which also sees much formal attire during the coronation of a king and queen.

Speaking of attire, it is a long-held belief among Brits that American school kids don’t wear uniforms, attending class in jeans and button-ups. However, while this is still largely the case, in recent years a number of public schools around the country have begun adopting uniform policies in a seeming effort to improve conformity.

Of course, conformity is the name of the game early every morning, too, when many students join in the daily Pledge of Allegiance, an expression of loyalty to the United States. In high schools, never is this commitment to country more evident than in the classroom, most of which contain, in some capacity, an American flag. Indeed, for a British child enrolling in a U.S. high school, this—as well as all of the above—can make for a very confusing time.

What are some American high school customs that would seem entirely foreign to Brits? Tell us below:

See more:
College Life in the U.S.: Tips for Reducing Move-In Stress for British Parents
A Brit’s Guide to High School Proms in America
What the U.S. Can Learn From British-Style Parenting

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Laurence Brown

Laurence Brown is a British freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs a blog called Lost In The Pond, which charts the many cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.
View all posts by Laurence Brown.
  • ImprovAndrea

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention the American Football! It’s so huge on Friday nights. The entire community comes out to cheer on the team, even people who have no ties to the school at all. It’s a status symbol to play the football in high school and it’s a status symbol to be a cheerleader. Girls who have a boyfriend who plays football wear his practice jersey to school and on game nights and that’s a status symbol too. Local TV and radio stations even broadcast the games.

    • GeordieKin

      My comment about football was to be a reply to “ExpatMum” however it was posted to “Improv Andrea” by mistake, sorry for the confusion.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    I feel like I’m living a parallel American school life. Mercifully we don’t have any of this. There’s no way I’d be standing on the sidelines during a Chicago winter.

    One additional thing – they really do have lockers lined along the walls of the corridors like you see on the telly and in movies. And yes, they also slam them.

    • Krista Kay Anderson

      At least when I was in marching band, it was only in the fall, for football games. (Although in the Midwest, fall can be crazy cold.) Mercifully, we weren’t one of the big marching band schools, and it was discontinued the next year. I joined band to play music, not to learn coordination and choreography!

      • maggie

        Our town is obsessed by the High School’s band and the sports teams. In fact the town approved to have an increase in taxes for pay for the flipping ski team.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

          Oooh, that must hurt if you’re not into skiing.

          • maggie

            You are not kidding. The kids on the team are from well-off families too. An elderly man told me what next are taxpayer going to have to pay for chess, tennis, or whatever team. We can’t wait leave here.

          • Paul Stonkus

            All sports and activities are paid for via tax dollars here. there are no fees charged to individual students. In band, many of the instruments are also owned by the school system

    • http://ymuchomas.com/ Kaley

      In my high school, which was newer, we had a big “bank” of lockers in the main entryway, so we didn’t have these. I never could tell if this was better or worse …

    • Jennifer Hossfeld

      That’s what lockers are for…lol. From Elementary (gr K-5), Middle (gr 6-8), High (gr 9-12), we always had lockers. They were in every hallway and down every corridor. Every student was assigned a locker and the combination to the built in lock, whether or not they used it was up to them.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

        My kids had “cubbies” in Lower school (JK-5) which I love. Basically it was an indented coat peg but I loved the name “cubbies”. (Could that be because I’m in Chicago?)

        • Paul Stonkus

          and yes, some students regularly find themselves stuffed into a locker with the door shut upon them

  • Deanna

    When my in laws visited from England, they thought the school bus was the best thing! We live outside the city limits, so the bus picks my kid up at the end of our driveway. There wasn’t a day my father in law missed waiting with the boys for the bus and waiting for the bus to pick them up. I spoke to him earlier this week and we were talking about school busses. He drives my sister in law’s kids to school and picks them up. He laughed and said it would take a great number of cars off the crowded roads and that when you see most of them are OAPs driving their grandkids, that might not be such a bad idea!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      It definitely is an American way of life in most parts. We live in the city and walk, but even those families who don’t live that close have to get public transport. I believe it’s either free or heavily discounted, but there are no special yellow buses.

      • pathfinder_01

        It varies by community. I live in chicago. A large walkable city with public transport and so some children who are nearby walk to school, and some who are further are bused and older children who say are 7th grade or higher(7th, 8th, or High school) use public transportation(at a discount).
        There are also usually limits such as must live further than a mile away to sign up for school bus service.

        School buses in high school are usually provided in burbs or more rural areas where there is little to no public transit to school. School buses in Grade school for children a bit too young to ride public transit and too far away to walk (and their parents don’t want to drive them). In Chicago high school students commute via public transit and their shcools may be across town.

        School buses are also used for school trips and are usually run by local companies so sometimes they are booked for like work sponsored events, Church or other activities. They really are not comfortable for a long trip but for short trips they are fine.

    • http://ymuchomas.com/ Kaley

      My husband (Spanish) loved the school buses! In fact, here’s a funny pic of him with the bus: http://bit.ly/Hw94Hk

    • Jwb52z

      Deanna, one thing you might should have explained is what “OAP” means. Although readers of these articles are more likely than other Americans to know what it means, some people wouldn’t know what an “Old Age Pensioner” is without an explanation.

  • Nick Boyer

    That video doesn’t represent a typical HS field. That is for the NFL. The band playing is HS.

  • JustMe
    • SharonfromPhoenix

      That’s not normal. Linked below is a typical high school football field. I am not the creator of this image, it just looked good. :) http://www.hsfootballweb.com/sfayette%20stadium2.jpg

      • Jennifer Hossfeld

        Yes, the 2nd pic is typical. It looks just like my high school, except we had about double the seating. My senior year student body was so large, that the school had us sit together there for a huge class picture. While the photographer was half way into the field on a tall ladder. It was a mad house to say the least.

      • dp

        That’s only typical if you don’t live in Texas. Here the majority of stadia for larger highschools seat 10,000 or more.

  • KathifromTexas

    Even for high school customs there is great diversity across the country. Come to Texas, where Friday night foot ball is king, just like so many places, where marching band is its own spectacular, but you also have drill team. Nothing like it in most of the rest of the country. We have high school drill teams who could put the Rockettes to shame. Great expense and training are part of being on a team. The Kilgore Rangerettes, who most people know of, are a junior college drill team, but were the first and gave the idea to all the rest of Texss. Half time would not be the same without this wonderful entertainment.

  • Olivia

    Band was my favorite part of high school hands down. Jazz band every morning before school, band class every other day, marching band in the fall for football, pep band in the winter for basketball, jazz festival in the spring… It goes on and on. We even had a fundraiser to fly to Disneyland in a national competition my freshman (erm… 9th grade) year.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      Gosh that is so funny. If there’s one thing that makes me feel really homesick it’s the band stuff. They’re everywhere. And I’m a mother and have musical kids so I’m not hating the kids in band but….. it’s so jarring! When it’s bad, it’s really bad. And the feckin’ Gary Glitter song…..

      • Aurelas

        My husband and I went to a small rural school that had very few extracurricular activities. The emphasis for the whole school was on basketball and still is. Basketball players are superstars and can get away with anything. If they are failing, their grades magically rise to meet the athletic requirement, etc. If you didn’t play basketball or become a cheerleader, you could play baseball or softball. Usually that was it. Most of the time we had no art or music, though many years we did have musical theatre. You could also join a club such as Future Farmers of America. But I wanted more…a band was on my list. i am happy to say that my little girl will go to a school that has a band. It is not so much that I love the sound of band music, but the fact that she will get a chance to learn to play an instrument–heck, she will get a chance to see all sorts of instruments close up! Would I love to see her learn to play the first of Bach’s cello suites? Of course. But even if it has to be blaring a school fight song from a borrowed tuba, I will be happy that she has had a chance to be involved in music. Unless she doesn’t want to, of course. lol

  • colinmeister

    As an ex-pat Brit who came to America as an adult, I learned about American high school life from the cartoon “Daria” on MTV. That show seemed to sum it up quite well.

  • GeordieKin

    You are definitely not overly stating the high school marching band Playing an important role. The high school I attended, Lockport Township High School in Lockport, Illinois (a bit south west of Chicago), has been featured in two movies many years apart, “The Music Man” filmed in 1962 and “Ferris Buellers Day Off”, the later movie our band was the band playing the song “Twist and Shout” filming took place my junior year 1986. It is very common for school bands to play in parades both big and small. The band members also has a role in high school drama clubs which in some schools are quite good. I’d say one of the best things in American high schools is that there are many extra curricular activities so most teens can find something they enjoy, and most colleges expect to see that the student participated in extra curricular activities on their enrollment application so it isn’t all simply fun and games these activities can make or break the students path in life as well.

    • Paul Stonkus

      and yes, our band also marches and plays in the Memorial Day and Veterans Day civic parades. They also went to DC to march in the national fourth of july parade representing MA.

  • John H Harris

    Of course, in recent years, British school districts have been operating American-made school buses (specifically, the iconic “Type C”). I saw quite a few during my visit back in 2007. A friend who lives in Cardiff explained that “they’re built like bloody tanks”, and, having fond memories of riding more than a few for various reasons (mostly field trips and music competitions, since I live in a small city where none of the schools are too far away to walk), I quite agree. Indeed, two of the biggest producers, Blue Bird and IC Bus, could make a mint just with a limited production of “mirror” buses (i.e. right-hand drive version).

  • MrGoodmorning

    Part of the reason high school facilities are so large in the US is that they get a lot of use by the local community outside of school hours. Many New England towns use the local high school auditorium or gymnasium (or both, depending on how many people show up) to conduct their regular town meetings (a system of direct democracy in which a town’s voters (or in most towns of over 20,000 inhabitants, a representative body, usually in excess of 100 of elected town meeting members) assemble several times per year to vote on bond issues, taxation, zoning and local bylaws). Local sports clubs and recreation departments use the gymnasiums, theater troupes use auditoriums, not to mention the classrooms are used for adult education or may be rented out by local universities for off-hours instruction. The high school I went to in Greater Boston was used by the town’s recreation department (the athletic area for all kinds of sports, the cafeteria for cooking instruction and the auditorium for movies on Saturdays), two local universities for night classes and one of the local Catholic churches for CCD classes on Sundays.

  • Jen

    Band was the only reason I liked high school. Marching band, jazz band, concert band… and then when I went to college (university) I still didn’t stop!

  • Jack Cooke

    I graduated from a HS in an affluent town in NJ. We had two gyms & two Olympic size pools (one dedicated solely for team sports) In my graduating class (1978) we had 993 graduates

  • J Adams

    Do you know that in the state of Texas, the schoolkids say a pledge both to the USA and Texas? And at my kids’ elementary school (an hour drive north of Houston), they said both pledges in Spainsh and English.

  • Michelle

    Marching band and sports were really big back at my high school (especially American football). I’m surprised they didn’t talk about the pep rallies high schools had. One of my friends in Wales asked me what it was because it’s unknown there (it does seem quite American, now that I think about it). I do have to say that both of my jr high and high school years, I never had a locker except for PE. I had to drag my book around everywhere in my backpack. Always wondered what it was like to have lockers like they have in TV shows.