Degrassi Junior High “Kiss Me, Steph” (part 1 of 3)
If you haven’t already, make sure to read my Agonizer article Degrassi: An Introduction for all the background info about Degrassi Junior High you could ever want! And remember, all three seasons of Degrassi are now out on DVD!
And so it begins. It’s morning outside the fabled Degrassi Junior High. A young girl heads down the sidewalk, ready to begin her school day. And her outfit, it seems, is about this far from being a burqa: She has on a big baggy blouse, an ankle-length dress, and a sweater tied around her neck. I only note this because it’s about to become important to the plot. Well, not the sweater tied around the neck. I’m only noting that because it makes it clear this is the ’80s.
A younger boy with curly red hair calls out to her. “Hey, Steph!” He continues to call out her name, but Steph starts briskly walking away from him. Yes, it’s a mugger with a bookbag! Run, Steph, run! She whirls around and harshly says, “Go away, Arthur, I don’t know you!”
Arthur is taken aback, and reminds her that he’s her brother. And so Steph brings it on, coming straight at him with the snide, patronizing air that we shall all constantly be living in for the duration of Steph’s time here at Degrassi.
She fully condescends to him, explaining that he is not to speak to her when they’re at school. Also, he is not to tell anyone that they’re brother and sister. Because the first rule of having a bitch for a sister is: you do not talk about having a bitch for a sister. So, I guess Stephanie doesn’t want the shameful secret of actually having a younger brother to hamper her entrance into the cool kids club here at Degrassi. She tacitly dismisses him and walks away.
Arthur yells out that people are going to figure out they’re related, because “Kobalewscuy” is not exactly a common last name. Maybe not in Toronto. But have you been to the Czech Republic? I’m telling you, they have Kobalewscuys up the hooha.
Steph stops in her tracks. She stomps up to Arthur in a rage. “Kaye! My name is Kaye! K-A-Y-E!” Because—yeah, you guessed it—Stephanie Kobalewscuy died in the war.
She makes quick work of expositionizing that their parents are separated. Arthur lives with Daddy Kobalewscuy, while Stephanie lives with Momma Kobalewscuy, who went and changed her last name back to “Kaye”. And thus, Steph is changing her name to Kaye, too. Somehow, I don’t think it’s that simple, but are you getting yet what Stephanie’s modus operandi will be for the coming school year?
“Look,” she says, “It’s not you. It’s the system.” It’s just like the man, always keeping the Kobalewscuys down. She says, “I’m in Grade 8, so I’m important!” She’s right, you know. After all, she has hit puberty, a sure sign of relevance.
She then dismisses Arthur, a lowly Grade 7, as “like, totally embarrassing.” Not as embarrassing as this dialogue will be to her in twenty years. Or the sweater around her neck. I’m just saying.
As she turns and heads up the stairs into the school, we hear a chorus singing our very first (and as it so happens, very last) exposure to the Degrassi School Song.
You know we’ll be true
Bringing victory and honor to your name…
Well, I’ll give them credit, because the song is just as morose as a real school song. Steph gives Arthur one last dramatic look over the shoulder before heading inside. And that’s all we get to hear of the school song, because the drum machine suddenly kicks in, and it’s off to the opening credits we go.
Ah, yes, the opening credits. Probably the most well-known part of the Degrassi Experience. The theme song is not particularly good, or even catchy, or even something I would describe as not-painful. And the lyrics are really stupid. Despite all this—well, actually, because of all this, whenever I watch an episode, I have to crank the volume up as loud as possible during the opening credits.
The theme is performed by a woman who sounds like Terri Nunn‘s older aunt who sings at church services, and she lyrically takes us through the typical day of a Degrassi Junior High student. And the credits open with a random student’s hand as he picks up a stack of books labeled History 7/8, Geography 7/8, Math 7/8, and English 7/8. See? He’s in junior high.
The student grabs up the books in this weird animation, which is like crossfades between still frames. It’s actually a lot like the closing credits to Casino Royale, except with far fewer women getting their thighs played like pianos. But, as it turns out, this is about the only trace of animation in the opening credits. The rest is just random footage from different episodes (including the scene between Stephanie and Arthur that we just witnessed).
Well, there is some other, very minimal animation. Every now and then, there’s a still photo of a student, and then an animated hand takes a chalkboard eraser and “erases” the photo, revealing another photo behind it. And I can easily imagine someone at the Playing With Time production offices just beaming with pride at coming up with this effect.
So this recap wouldn’t be complete without the full lyrics to the theme song for Degrassi Junior High. I wanted to include an MP3 audio clip, but ever since Viacom took down my Degrassi video from YouTube, I haven’t been all that eager to tempt fate. So for now, it’s just the lyrics.
A lot of sites claim to have the lyrics to this song, but I checked, and most of them have the words ever so slightly wrong (can you imagine?). So, here are the actual, complete lyrics, according to the closed captions and my own well-trained TV theme-listening ear:
Feeling shy and lonely
Gee, I gotta go to school
I don’t think I can make it
Don’t think I can take it
I’m wondering what I’m gonna do
But when I look around I see
That someone is smiling right at me
That someone’s talkin’ to me
Hey! I’ve got a new friend
Everybody can succeed
All you need is to believe
Be honest with yourself
Forget your fears and doubts
Come on, give us a try
At Degrassi Junior High…
Tell me that’s not one of the most easily parodied songs ever written. I can still remember one particular parody my friend came up with back in high school. His version started with “Wake up in the morning / Feeling kinda sticky / Gee, I think I had a wet dream…” And it just went downhill from there. Sadly, his alternate lyrics were somewhat overshadowed by the actual Degrassi episode devoted to the subject of wet dreams. That’s the beauty of Degrassi Junior High: You simply can’t parody the show any more than in it already parodies itself.
I could go off on a total tangent about these credits, but it would be of very little interest to anyone not intimately familiar with the show. So I’ll probably come back and revisit them as I progress through recapping this series.
The credits close with a still photo of the cast holding up some sort of trophy, and we get no inkling of what the trophy is for. In fact, until just now, when I freeze-framed on it, I had no idea who was even in this picture. Let’s just say out of the seven visible faces, only three look the slightest bit like they want to be alive. (Steph is in the foreground and smiling, but of course we know that’s a fake smile, much like every other component of her identity.) Meanwhile, the other three students in this photo look like their favorite teacher just died.
But no matter, because the picture is gone in a flash. The word DEGRASSI comes flying overhead, lands on a sheet of notebook paper, and turns a charming shade of purple. Now, on with the show!
Steph wanders through the halls, while a voice on the intercom welcomes everyone to the first day of school. Kids pretend to be delighted to see each other again. Yeah. As if they couldn’t clear space on their social calendars to see their supposed “BFFs” over the summer break.
Several kids say hello to Steph, including a guy named Rick who declares, “Grade 7 again!” And another kid named Shane greets her, and let me tell you, this guy is going to have quite the tumultuous junior high experience.
Here’s one of the few great things about Degrassi: The closing credits identify the cast as “the PWT [Playing With Time] Repertory Co.”, and for the most part, they really are a repertory. As in, all the people you see milling around in the background aren’t extras. They’re all part of the cast, and everyone is playing a character. And on this show, even the most insignificant, barely visible background cast member will eventually get a decent amount of screen time. So while you might look at this scene and see random extras standing in the hallway, I see multiple souls set for years of longing and heartbreak and tragedy, adding a whole new level of post-modern glee to the Degrassi Experience.
Steph enters the girls’ bathroom, the place where her secret yearnings will at last take flight. Steph first has a big hug-fest reunion with her best friend Voula, a cutely dorky girl with orthopedic-sized glasses. She’s even wearing a frilly plaid blouse, like this is an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Steph has a present for Voula: a set of gold bracelets, “from one friend to another.” Oh, boy. These sure won’t be a poignant prop later, to be angrily ripped off and thrown to the ground after someone realizes who’s really who’s friend.
They talk about how exciting it is to be in Grade 8, and “almost grown up”. And then Stephanie… well, she begins undressing. She whips off the burqa to reveal a top that, on its own, is not that remarkable. But then she pulls it down off her shoulders, and clips it in front to expose both her cleavage and navel. She then pulls off her frontierwoman schoolmarm dress to show off a pair of tight black dance pants. You are witnessing a seminal moment in Degrassi history, my friends. And Voula is, of course, agog.
Steph says, “This is Grade 8, right? We’re supposed to be more mature.” And sadly, her young mind has equated “more mature” with “dressing like Cha Cha from Grease“.
I’ll guess I’ll spoil things a bit and say that Nicole Stoffman, the actress who plays Steph, only sticks around for the first two seasons. I don’t know exactly why she left, but I would imagine being Canada’s official national jailbait may have taken its toll. I mean, I doubt there’s one straight male viewer of Degrassi who wasn’t boning it up while looking at Stephanie Kaye, and I presume being a 14 year old sexpot wasn’t the ideal situation for Nicole. Or any girl, for that matter. That’s when you start attracting the John Hinckleys of the world.
In recent years, it seems Nicole has taken up a career as a jazz singer, with a website that talks about how she’s performed alongside legendary blues guitarist and Road House star Jeff Healey. Good for her. Although, she does seem to have a strange, Todd Rundgren-esque need to put her name in front of every band she’s in.
Meanwhile, Steph’s misbegotten brother Arthur enters the school, and happens across Doris Bell, who we later learn is the principal’s secretary. Clearly, it’s not the same actress who plays her in later episodes. And I know it’s not uncommon for a show to recast a part between a pilot and the actual series, but it’s not even the same actress to play her in later scenes of this episode. Arthur approaches Doris and asks the way to “Miss Avery’s class”. Oh, sweet Miss Avery.
Just before he walked up, Doris was having a friendly chat with another student. This boy is wearing a sleeveless denim jacket and a porkpie hat. He introduces himself to Arthur as “Joey Jeremiah, Esquire! Chairman of the Welcoming Committee!” He shakes hands with Arthur, and does some weird soul brother handshake where he both snaps and points at Arthur. And thus begins, no exaggeration, another seminal event in Degrassi history, an event that will, if you can believe it, get referenced several times over the course of the series.
I really must talk about Joey Jeremiah, Esquire. Questionable claims to English nobility aside, he’s without a doubt one of the major players on the show. Actually, he pretty much became the heart and soul of Degrassi once Stephanie left. I’m not even sure there would be a Degrassi franchise if not for Joey. He’s definitely the one kid that pretty much anybody can relate to. He’s the guy who fucks up pretty bad on occasion, but always means well. In a nutshell, he’s not out to hurt anybody. All he wants to do is skateboard, rock out with his (soon to be formed) band, talk to some chicks, and all the while, foible the best attempts of teachers to make him learn something.
Meanwhile, back in the Restroom of Ill Repute, Steph is putting on makeup. Scandalous! What’s worse, she’s evidently applied blue eye shadow with a paint roller. She’s got on the Hooker Red Lipstick (a term that actually made it into the Urban Dictionary), and is standing in a cloud of rouge, which she is now brushing across her cheeks. It seems she also equates “more mature” with “Turkish prostitute”.
She stands there, regarding herself in the mirror, with her teased up hair. She tells Voula that it’s her “new image”. Man, is she hot, and it is so, so very wrong. Voula asks what was bad about the “old image”, and Steph merely snots, “Grade 8!” Yeah, come on, Voula? Isn’t it obvious that when you get to Grade 8, you have to dress like a whore?
The voice returns on the intercom—which I’ll just go ahead and identify as the voice of Mr. Lawrence, Degrassi’s principal, who we never actually see in person. All we ever hear is his voice on an intercom, meaning the chief inspiration here was Charlie. Principal Charlie tells the student body that school elections are next week.
He adds, “Get involved, guys!” Steph is outraged that he would say “guys” and forget all about the girls. Because we all know that Degrassi women have not yet won the right of suffrage. That would explain all the ankle-length dresses, anyway.
Voula and Steph talk about what they would do if they were school president, with Steph wanting stuff like “more dances”, while Little House on the Square-y Voula would add more “current events” to the curriculum. Steph just rolls her eyes. Yeah, I mean, you’re in Canada. They don’t even have current events up there. All they’ve been doing is dipping French fries in gravy non-stop for thirty years.
Meanwhile, throughout all of this, Voula is looking at Steph with—dare I say—pure infatuation in her eyes? I know this is the Agony Booth, where a popular pastime is inventing homosexual motivations for characters in kids’ entertainment, but honestly, I can’t describe what Voula is doing any other way besides “ogling”. I don’t think that was the intention, so I wholly attribute this to a combination of poor directing and acting.
Finally, Steph declares she really should run for class president, and Voula agrees, because Steph is “popular”. But, she adds, “dressed like that… I don’t know.” Voula, Stephanie is about to become popular enough to blow the fringe right off your surrey.