I didn’t have cable television when i was growing up.
To anyone older than me, this is not uncommon, but to people my age and younger (especially those that I have taught), not having cable and growing up with only seven channels is a completely foreign concept. I am sure that some would even consider it child abuse that I didn’t get to watch the latest Stryper video when it ran 20 times a day in 1990, but in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. Oh, I suppose it did because I missed out out on most of The State and Remote Control when they first aired and several years’ worth of VMAs. But for every video I didn’t watch, I caught another, way more important show, and that was Degrassi Junior High.
I don’t remember the exact day when I first watched Degrassi Junior High. I know that I was in the fifth grade and it was probably in the winter or spring of 1988 because by the time school was out that June, I had already watched several episodes. What I do remember, though, is that I more or less stumbled onto it because I was bored one afternoon and had tired of seeing commercials for the Craft-Matic adjustable bed on channel 11 between reruns of 1970s-era television shows. So I flipped around and when I landed on channel 13–PBS–there was a scene of a boy and his father walking along a beach and talking about sex. That was, as I discovered later, the midpoint of the first season episode “The Best Laid Plans,” which originally aired in March 1987.
“The Best Laid Plains” centers around two of the older students at Degrassi Junior High and how one date leads to pressure to have sex at a young age. The boy, who I first met on the beach with his father while they had “the talk”, is Derek “Wheels” Wheeler (Neil Hope), who as I continued to watch and then became a fan of Degrassi in the following years, would be a major charcter in the show’s original run. The girl is Stephanie Kaye (Nicole Stoffman), a major focus of the first season who is written out (or, “sent to private school”) by the beginning of season two. Wheels is a pretty typical boy for his age, the type that your average junior high school boy can identify with, especially when he is happy to go on a date with Stephanie, who is known for not only being the class president but putting forth an image that she’s easy. Every day, she shows up in rather conservative clothing but changes into much more revealing clothes in the bathroom.
She gets away with it, too, because her mom’s divorced and works to support the two of them and probably oblivious to what Stephanie tries to pull off every day–although to be honest, why she hasn’t received multiple referrals and calls home for dress code violations (and fashion violations … I mean, seriously, the stuff’s bad even for 1987) is beyond me. The only person in her family who does know about her “double life” is her brother Arthur, who she probably keeps under constant threat of execution so he won’t tattle.
Speaking of Arthur, he owns the show’s secondary plot. Tall, heavy, and with Art Garfunkel hair, Arthur Kobolowski is the epitome of the nerdy awkward kid who has absolutely no clue about anything. Fortunately, he has a best friend named Yick who professes to know a bit more than he does (along the lines of getting knowledge from an older brother/cousin, as you do), and who swiped a copy of a porno tape named Swamp Sex Robots. Yick won’t be able to watch it at his place because his grandmother’s always home, but Arthur’s mom has a date on Friday night and there’s a working VCR so it’s porno time.
The Wheels/Stephanie “relationship” in the main plot comes about almost by accident. After the opener (featuring one of the best theme songs ever, to which I could probably devote an entire post in and of itself), we find out that at one point the two of them went on a date and that made them a “hot ticket” but the date went bad or something, and Stephanie decides that she’s going to take the initiative and ask Wheels out again. Oh, and Yick has a porno.
So before Stephanie and Wheels actually go on the date–which they have scheduled for Friday night, the same night her mom is on a date and the same night as porno night–word gets around to just about everyone else on DJH and what exactly is going to happen to them gets trumped up. Of course, Stephanie doesn’t exactly stop any rumors because when someone asks her if she’s going to do anything risque with Wheels, she says, “I’d do anything if I wanted to.” This leads to the couple having “the talk” with their respective parents (where I originally came in) and Wheels going to the drugstore with his friend Joey (another major character in Degrassi but not in this episode), where they’re sold condoms by … Stephanie’s mom. Oh, did I mention that Yick has a porno?
You know where this is going, btw, because it’s right out of an urban legend (and actually was a gag in the 1988 remake of The Blob): Wheels shows up at Stephanie’s house before her mom leaves on her date and is immediately recognized. Stephanie comes downstairs to meet him, her mom tells her she’s dressed like a tramp and grounds the crap outta her. Oh, and right after mom busts her daughter, Yick and a few guys show up saying they want to watch the porno. Arthur’s obviously in deep too.
More than twenty years later, I can see what made me want to watch another episode of this show. The plot was pretty easy for me to grasp at eleven years old, but at the same time it was a little more mature than what I was seeing on television at the time. Seeing Stephanie tart it up when re-watching it for the first time was a little unsettling, although I don’t remember being very much attracted to her when I first saw it (then again, I was never very much attracted to girls like that), but I do remember identifying with Arthur. I definitely was that naive, nerdy kid who didn’t know much of anything about the opposite sex aside from the filmstrips that we were required to have permission slips signed in order to watch.
And the show really captures the fresh hell of junior high school. Even though you’ve got a story that is a bit cheesy at points and dated (in 2010, Yick wouldn’t have had to steal a porno; he would have had Arthur at his place to look at amateur porn on the web), the characters were written in a way that I could have very well gone to junior high school with them. Well, they were in Canada so I couldn’t have gone with them (and btw, I didn’t know the show took place in Canada until much, much later), but they definitely would have been the older kids in the school that I knew about because everybody knew about them … although more accessible than, say, the Zack Attack.
I wouldn’t be immediately hooked on Degrassi, as that would take a few more episodes and figuring out that the show aired after school at a regular time. And it would take actually being in junior high. But my introduction came at a time when I was definitely starting to look beyond the kid stuff that I’d been so used to for so long.