High School Confidential
Are Whistler teens any different from teenagers everywhere else?
By Alix Noble
Whistler Secondary lies almost deserted in the Friday afternoon quiet. The new white walls still look clean. Scuff marks on the year-old floors are not yet worn paths. But signs of recent life abound: student art rings the halls above the doorways and colourful posters advertize lunch time Mexican food.
Whistler high schoolers seem to have it pretty good. A big gym, a well-equipped art room, a music room and TV monitors in the classrooms create a bright picture. And the school is in Whistler, a place considered a paradise by most visitors. But this young population might not choose to live here if they had the choice. A skiers' paradise is not necessarily a teenagers' paradise. Most have to live where their parents decide to live, whether they like it or not.
But most do like it.
All over Canada kids hate their towns, complain there’s not enough to do, and can't wait to leave. Whistler is a different story. It does appeal, even to teenagers, the notoriously hard to please.
"I love living here," says Heidi St. Denis, a Grade 11 student at Whistler Secondary, "there’s so much to do."
Athletes abound, and not all are involved in organized sports. Skateboarders and snowboarders find an athletic niche at Whistler. Rock climbing aficionados literally climb the walls at the high school at lunch hour. An independent program for ski racers enables them to take time off school without falling behind academically. It’s hard not to be involved in sports at Whistler — sports which can help curb that there’s-nothing-to-do syndrome.
"The skateboard park is great," says Whistler Secondary counsellor Kevin Titus. "A lot of kids here, if they weren’t skateboarding they wouldn’t be doing anything."
Whistler teens were once shipped off to Pemberton to attend high school, but the opening of a new school closer to home prompted council to address the needs of a growing high school student population. The number of young adults attending high school in Whistler has increased dramatically. A high school built for 200 students opened last year with 319 people, and enrolled 360 this year.
Whistler Mayor, Hugh O’Reilly, dedicates himself to making Whistler a better place for all 360 of them. He speaks earnestly and with enthusiasm about his plans for Whistler teens. He has implemented a program which encourages Whistler businesses to hire local summer students. So far only the mountains and some golf courses are involved, but O’Reilly is now trying to expand this program to other local businesses.
O’Reilly’s second step towards improving things for youth was to create a new municipal job for a full time youth programmer. Simon Hudson, a former ice maintenance worker and manager of children’s stores was chosen for the job. He will work with both high school students and the transient young adult population in Whistler.
Hudson has the unique opportunity to "be talked to like a kid and respected like an adult" at the same time, he says. The students like him — they duck in and out of his office to say "hi" or ask for change for a pop.
Since Hudson started his job in September, he has initiated the scuba club, evening drop-in sports, a joint program with Bard on the Beach and the school drama club, and intramurals, as well as overseeing the high school athletic body STORM. In his spare time he runs two businesses and coaches junior hockey.
Hudson hopes to add some non-sports activities to Friday night drop-ins at the school. He eagerly describes contests: a KGB run/scavenger hunt with flags and water pistols, an open gym and a jam session in the music room. If Hudson’s dream of adding videos and popcorn in the multipurpose room and an open, supervised art room comes true he’ll be able to provide more affordable entertainment options than what now exists in the village.
Students agree his programs are worthwhile, although so far they have primarily interested the younger students. Kelty Dennehy, a Grade 9 student, has been to some of the drop in floor hockey sessions.
"Simon’s great, but I feel sorry for him, no one’s really going. I’ve gone to a couple of things, and there were only four or five kids there."
The drama club has 10 members, intramurals draw 60-80 players per sport (six per year) so when you add it up, the number of students involved in Hudson’s programs falls somewhere in the 120-150 range.
Hudson’s next goal is to engage the older kids, perhaps with girls vs. boys volleyball games or other more social events. But it may not be that simple.
"If someone wants to be involved, there’s lots to do," says counsellor Titus. "But there are certain kinds of kids who say there’s nothing to do, they aren’t interested in any organized activity."
And Hudson needs to get as many involved as possible. He is not only charged with spending money on kids, he’s supposed to raise money too. Youth fund-raising is an important component of his job as it ensures that all the kids who want to participate in the activities he organizes are able to. In order to let them in for free Hudson must charge an extra $5 per head on a paintball outing, for example.
The truth is, not all Whistler teenagers care about floor hockey and basketball. Most teenagers 15 and older interviewed had been to a bar and all knew people their age who had. It’s a fact of life to students surrounded by people partying every night of the week.
"My friends go out to bars to dance. There’s an older crowd there, and they’re not afraid to just dance. People my age aren’t as comfortable," says Grade 12 student Melissa Ayearst.
Whistler’s party atmosphere can really have an effect on teenagers’ perceptions of the world says Titus. "Whistler is an unreal community, where it’s normal to go to the bars. Kids don’t realize the people they see going to the bars every night are on holiday, not living their regular lives. They don’t drink all the time. There’s a skewed vision of reality, a carnival like atmosphere. There’s a good community here, but for kids not connected with it, we have to help them realize that’s not the norm."
Kids at Whistler do drugs, they drink like at any school in the province. The perennial "hanging out" often includes some sort of substance use. Even in Grade 8 there are tales of drugs and alcohol. The students themselves don’t find it a problem, even though they admit that some people come to school stoned. But, Hudson says, drug use is not as prevalent in the school as people often think.
"Depending on how they approach it, Whistler can be an unbelievable place to grow up, even if you’re not interested in organized sports," says Titus. "However, if you’re interested in drugs, the sky’s the limit there too, as to when, where and what to do. It’s extremes, it can be great or troubled if you’re caught up in that. There’s a lot of potential exposure."
Teenage life is never easy, and the cliques and divisions among peers often cause friction. At Whistler Secondary, students divide themselves into groups which are sometimes hard to define. None of those interviewed put themselves into any specific group. Ski racers, snowboarders, skateboarders, smokers, nerds, losers — the perennial categories of high schools everywhere. The biggest division seems to be between the ski racers and the others. Racers have their own study program and are around each other a lot. Although they spend the first and fourth quarters with everyone else, the second and third quarters they must take responsibility for their own learning, outside of a classroom situation. This can create a feeling of difference between skiers and the other students.
"We do have more freedom," than the regular students says Ian McKnight, who is in his second year in the skiing program. They also have more responsibility. McKnight lives in Whistler with his older sister. They moved from Revelstoke (and the rest of their family) to join Whistler’s ski program. Academically, says McKnight, "We miss out a bit, but not that bad if you try hard."
There is a range of interests at Whistler Secondary, true, but not enough genuine diversity for some students. Grade 10 student Natt Gibbons, for one, misses the different backgrounds people brought to the Pemberton high school. The size of Whistler, although pleasant in some cases, (reduced crime, closer community) can be a bane to teenagers.
"I don’t like how everyone knows you," says 14-year old Kelty Dennehy. "If you mess up, everyone’s on you." Dennehy wanted to play peewee football, but the small number of kids his age meant there weren’t enough people for a team. Heidi St. Denis had the same problem. She hoped to be on a basketball team for her Grade 11 year but couldn’t because of the lack of interest. There are options, however, she is still in the biking club and outdoor club.
Despite all the sports opportunities many teenagers find something still lacking in Whistler, a place to "hang out" at night without having someone’s parents in their faces. O’Reilly says there’s plan in the works to solve that problem, too. The former campground building was moved to Spruce Grove, where it now sits empty and without electricity or plumbing. It, and a lot of teenagers, wait for funding from the developers of the Westin Hotel, who have agreed to pay $250,000 towards a community building. Renovations should begin in the spring of 1998, barring funding problems. Bill Barratt, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, expects that it will be ready for the fall school season.
This new facility will not be strictly a youth centre, but "as multi-use as possible" says Barratt. It could, for example, function as a senior centre and/or daycare in the day and become a youth centre in the evenings. The specifics will be decided after a series of meetings with community groups in January and February.
A teen centre appeals to teenagers, but many caution that the use of the space will decide who frequents it. Suggestions from teenagers range from live band performances to videos to pool tables. Regardless of what goes on at the future clubhouse, it will not attract everyone, says Jhan Derpak, a consultant and trained counsellor. She thinks youth centres are a "great idea, but they don’t always cut it because those who attend are a certain group. If its boarders, the others will know it. Unless it has programs, I’m not convinced it will work." She suggests pinball, a big screen TV, and equipment so bands can jam.
All Whistler youth will be able to offer their own advice at a youth forum in January. Hudson hopes this will produce the same good results his focus group of high school students did when he was figuring out what programs kids really wanted.
After moving here from Ontario two years ago, Heidi St. Denis is taking every advantage of living in Whistler. She says of her fellow students, "They sometimes don’t realize that there is all this in front of them, they don’t notice how much there is to do."
And there is more on the way.