Young Adults Secretly Go Back to High School With Eye-Opening Results
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to high school knowing what you know now? I was joined this week by an intrepid young man who did just that – with the cameras in tow – posing as a senior with six other young adults (between 21 and 26 years old and all unaware of each other) who all had their own reasons for wanting to do the show. The result is “Undercover High,” an eye-opening new 12-episode docuseries premiering on October 10 at 10 PM ET/PT on A& E Network. It should be required viewing for parents of tweens and teens everywhere.
The impossibly well-spoken and self-possessed Shane Feldman, who is all of 22 years old, had something of a leg up on the other participants who willingly signed up for another round of chemistry and gym classes (shudder). He is an internationally recognized youth empowerment expert and motivational speaker as well as founder and CEO of Count Me In, the world’s largest youth-run organization that, he told me, has impacted over 10 million kids in over 104 countries. Oh, and he started it in high school. His reason for signing on to do the series: “I wanted to do a deep dive on what it’s like to be a teen today.”
To be a part of “Undercover High,” Shane had to step away from his role at Count Me In, put a hold on his full slate of speaking engagements and – perhaps most traumatic of all – wipe his existing social media profile clean and pretty much cut ties to most people in his life. For nine months, Shane Feldman didn’t exist. (Shane used his middle name as his last name just in case.) Quite a feat in this day and age, don’t you think? To prepare, his younger sister Jordyn served as a “mentor” and he asked students at appearances leading up to the show’s taping what was “in” and of interest to them.
Even with his background working with teens and the intel he gleaned from various sources, what he found was still a revelation. “High school is tragically different than it was a decade ago,” said Shane between bites of mushroom ravioli. “Everything is changed, but nothing is different.”
Shane and the other undercover high-schoolers attended Highland Park High School as seniors in Topeka, Kansas for the final semester of 2016. The school’s kids and parents were told the cameras were there to film a documentary on education. The school’s diverse student body is comprised equal of numbers of Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian students. Only the school superintendent, principal and vice principal knew who the undercover student were. “I went home to an empty apartment every day and obviously couldn’t have anyone over,” recalled Shane. “The isolation was very hard.”
The crushing loneliness that Shane felt before making friends with the kids and acclimating to his new environment was, in many ways, a mirroring of one of the biggest issues facing today’s teens. When I asked Shane what he found he answered: “A epidemic of hopelessness.” Just let that sink in for a moment.
The disconnectedness so many of today’s high schoolers feel, explained Shane, can be attributed to several factors. It’s no surprise social media is at the top of the list. “It has accelerated everything. Middle school is the new high school.” Which leaves high schoolers feeling they should have it all together by then and sets up an unrealistic quest for perfection. The carefully curated lives on display on Instagram (which, by the way, has surpassed Snapchat as the preferred social media platform for teens now that it has announced its 24-hour story feature) emphasis perfection that just doesn’t exist. “Life is messy, awkward and hard and kids don’t see that there.”
Here’s a staggering statistic: Shane told me in prior years one quarter of the kids he met had either had some experience with “self-injury or self-harm” and it isn’t always the kids one would expect to be struggling that have done so. “It can be the captain of the football team, the straight A student. They feel like it’s too much of a risk to talk about it.”
And there’s this: “Parents have less influence over their high-schooler than then they think,” said Shane. “The peer group” is much more influential. “There is this growing disconnect between teens and adults that they are not understood.” But, he warned, parents should not give up. “The number one misconception is that teens don’t want a relationship with their parents. Kids want it and need it.” But they’ll keep testing the limits all the time. “Kids are in survival mode in high school.”
Before you decide to home school your kids, take heart. Shane also discovered some positive trends. There is less division [between the students] than you would think.” Even in the economically challenged community of Highland Park, he noted, the kids were there for each other. There is a sense of community, these nods in the hallway that says ‘I’ve got your back.’” The students that “flourish” are those that are involved in the school community and community at large by participating on clubs and teens.
This is something Shane already knew. Growing up in northern Toronto, he moved and had to go to a new high school where he knew no one. “There were 1300 kids and I didn’t have any friends. I went to my guidance counselor to transfer and he gave me a list and said I had to join five of the clubs on the list and come back in two weeks.” The result: “Something so simple changed my whole life. The only reason I felt like an outcast was because I was acting like one.” That experience became the basis for Shane’s school project freshman year which grew into him founding “Count Me In” while he was just a junior.
The big reveal comes at the end of the season of “Undercover High” when Shane tells his classmates who he really is. Their biggest shock: his age. After hearing his story, said Shane, the kids knew “I had their best interest at heart.” And there was a ripple effect: the school is implementing a series of changes based on the recommendations that were made after production wrapped including a club for teen moms. Do you feel as old as I do right now?
A&E will roll out digital content related to “Undercover High,” including a short-form series touching on very topical issues facing teens and has partnered with Crisis Text Line, a not-for-profit organization that provides free crisis intervention via SMS message that will be offered across the network’s platforms as a resource for viewers. The network also created a scholarship fund administered by the Topeka Public Schools Foundation aimed at providing enhanced learning and achievement opportunities for Highland Park High School students. The series’ production company, Lucky 8 TV, is also donating resources towards a new media center being established in the school district.
Trust me, this show is worth watching.
Sights & Sounds Around the Room
Frank McCourt on Table One … Andrew Stein chatting with a brunette gal on Table Three … Producer Joan Gelman with the one and only grand dame of radio, Joan Hamburg, who interviewed me about my new book on her radio show on 77 WABC last week. Thanks for making me sound so good. Joan and Joan were with two friends named – wait for it – Joan.
In the middle of the room Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer at their usual table (six) for their weekly lunch. I always stop to talk to these guys if I can because they are such gentlemen – and always interesting and funny to boot. Jerry, as you probably know, is the husband of the fabulous Judy Licht … Also at his usual perch: New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with Brooke Hayward on Table Eight … Joan Jakobson was right across the way on eleven.
More sightings This week’s best dressed couple Rich Wilke and birthday boy Steven Stolman (whose being feted here tomorrow night) in matching blinding white shirts and blue blazers on Table Fifteen. A little birdie told me Steven has just inked a deal to do his fifth book for Gibbs-Smith – a monograph of the visionary architect Wade Weissmann entitled Heirloom Homes. Sounds swanky, doesn’t it?
I also ran into my good friend Lisa Linden, CEO on LAK PR who introduced me to Christopher Perez, SVP asset management and leasing, for Mitsui Fudosan America. Lisa, you should know, knows every important person who has anything to do with the running of the city.
Spotted around the room: WWD’s baron of beauty (my title, not his) Pete Born and producer Beverly Camhe fresh off a trip to the Toronto Film Festival where she told me “There were so many filmed directed by women!” One to watch for: Lady Bird directed by indie actress Greta Gerwig. “I think it’s going to win an Oscar!” cheered Bev.
– Diane Clehane