Most people would probably say returning to their high school cafeteria, gym, or prom is not something they would do very readily. And yet, for youth culture expert Amy Best, these are the spaces that teach us the most about what it’s like to be a young adult.
The meaningful events in a young person’s life are often not what happens during science or English class, but in the social spaces where kids feel they have a sense of control over the course of events.
“There is much educational research that looks at what happens in the classroom, but there is much less that explores places such as the cafeteria, locker rooms, hallways, and homecomings,” says Best, whose book, Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture (which won the American Educational Studies Association 2002 Critics Choice Award), explores the cultural implications of prom. “Activities like the prom are spaces occupied by youth—larger cultural initiations that kids invest time and energy in, and reveal to us how they make sense of the broader American culture and their place in it.”
Best looks not only at these rites of passage in a young adult’s life, but also at how broader social currents shape and change their everyday lives. “Youth are often sidelined in discussions about larger social issues such as globalization, the changing political landscape, the expansion of the consumer market,” she says. “Take, for example, the study of gender. We usually talk about women, not girls. And yet when you include them in this type of research, a lot of interesting things can happen.”
In her book, Fast Cars, Cool Rides: The Accelerating World of Youth and Their Cars, Best explored the milestone moment of getting a driver’s license, as well as the culture of car cruising and car customizing. For her field research, Best went cruising along a popular downtown street in San Jose, California, to get a sense of the scene and the young people who populate it. She interviewed more than 100 kids about their cars and discovered how cars and the relationships surrounding them interplayed with issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. She also learned these issues were tied to broader social themes, such as freedom, mobility, success, and risk.
Fun research, but as Best gets older, she admits she feels increasingly removed from the folks she studies. When she first started her prom book, she says she felt she fit in with the high school students because she dressed and looked more like them. “I had slightly more capital in their world—not much, but slightly more than today,” she says.
Several years later when working on the car research, Best spent those nights cruising in a station wagon—with a baby car seat in the back—and says that sometimes she had the motherly urge to give advice about wearing seatbelts, for example. When your life is changing just as rapidly as the youth you are studying, how do you develop rapport with them and not impose an adult view on their world, she asks.
“You can’t pretend you’re one of them,” Best says. “Kids can see right through any kind of posturing, and you have to check yourself, be critical of your own adult perspective.” This is why much of her most valuable work comes from direct, in-depth interviews with kids about these issues. “It’s important to me to solicit their opinions on things, to let them know that I am not a chaperone. I am interested in them, their viewpoint, and their voice.”
Her latest project takes her in and out of high schools by observing the way young people interact with and think about food. As part of her work, she is visiting high school cafeterias in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and nearby fast food restaurants that kids frequent after school.
“I’m not necessarily interested in how often kids go to fast food places and what they eat, but I want to know what they do when they are there and how they use the space. So I go to McDonald’s or Chipotle to observe—and I try not to eat too many French fries,” she says with a laugh.
During observation of the first high school cafeteria she studied, Best paid attention to what foods were stocked in the vending machines, what kids ate, what they brought from home, and how they talked about their food. She noted how kids reacted to healthy menu options, and how they attached value (or didn’t attach value) to being health conscious. At fast food restaurants, she looks at how kids occupy the space and what they talk about while they are there.
“I observed in a school where healthy eating had a big emphasis,” she says. “In this setting, health comes to mean certain things: health talk, food talk. There is a moral underpinning to it—to how the kids define and categorize each other—that signals a particular food consciousness that is shaped by both setting and the larger community where the school resides.” Best plans to continue observations in school cafeterias to understand the differences between schools that unfold around food consumption.
In the fast food restaurants, Best noted what she calls the “bleeding of school dynamics.” “There’s a kind of revolving door. They bring school with them in the ways they talk about school, substitute teachers, homework. There’s this fascinating bubbling up of energy. And you get the sense that school is much more restrained [and] that they see the fast food setting as their place.”
In the same way, kids also define prom or a strip of road for cruising as “their places.” What they do within those spaces and how those spaces shape their sense of identity are the things in which Best is most interested.
“If we want to understand youth, we need to pay attention to the ways in which they exercise influence over their world, what they define as meaningful, [and] how they create meaning in their world in areas that are relevant to them,” Best says.
–Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05