British Columbia·Matheson

The making of Matheson: Why I spent a month back in high school

As cliche as it may sound, spending a month back at school has made me more optimistic about the future generation than ever. We're in fantastic hands.

CBC journalist Jason D'Souza returns to high school to capture the lives of high school students today

CBC journalist Jason D'Souza spent a month at LA Matheson Secondary School in Surrey to hear stories of the students there. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Late last year, Stephen Quinn, the host of The Early Edition, asked me if I had a minute to chat.

He told me about an idea he had been mulling for a long time. The gist: to embed a journalist into a high school for an entire month in order to hear about the lives of students today.

Young people don't always have the best access to media, and oftentimes the portrayals we do get of them are from parents, teachers or authority figures talking about them. Stephen wanted to hear directly from them, unfiltered.

I loved the idea. Then he asked me if I would be that journalist.

I was terrified.

LA Matheson Secondary School is located in inner-city Surrey. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The probability of a series like Matheson was so unlikely that even though I agreed to take it on, I was skeptical about it ever getting off the ground. Not only did we have to convince our bosses to give us the time and resources to go back to school for a whole month (an incredibly expensive ask given the day-to-day workings of a newsroom), but we needed a school district, a specific school, an administration and team of staff to buy in to what we were trying to sell.

From a journalistic standpoint, we also needed to be clear that staff and administration wouldn't have an ounce of say over the stories we choose to tell or any editorial decisions over how we tell them.

Unthinkably, everyone said yes.

I was even more terrified.

Students congregate at their lockers during break. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Definitely not Jump Street

I was enrolled into a full Grade 11 class schedule and given virtually unlimited access to the school, its students, staff, administration and anyone else who I wanted to approach.

This wasn't an undercover assignment — everyone was fully aware that there was a 28-year-old hanging out in class. And even if they weren't, the beard and my inability to understand any of their slang would have given me away immediately.

Also, shout out to all the terrible 21 Jump Street and Never Been Kissed references people in the newsroom threw my way for the last six months. That didn't get old at all.

Students greeting each other in the halls of Matheson. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Getting their stories

The first week was as awkward and uncomfortable as you'd imagine it to be. You can't blame the students for that — who would want to chat with the strange old guy carrying a microphone in class?

We knew that might be the case, but that's why I was embedded for an entire month — to not only allow myself to navigate the classroom, but to also allow the students to get comfortable and familiar with me as well.

Students at LA Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

By weeks two and three it started to pay off, as the students began to open up and share their thoughts.

By week four, I felt like one of them.

I remember one day sitting in social studies class, subconsciously massaging my arm after hurting it in a hockey game from the night before. A Grade 11 student noticed and asked me what was wrong.

Before I could answer, she followed it up with "is it because you're old AF?"

That's when I knew I was accepted.

The kids are alright

A key aspect of Matheson is that we went into this school without any preconceived ideas of the stories we wanted to tell. We were completely transparent that the students would be the storytellers here.

And were they ever.

Between opening up about their insecurities, challenges, and ambitions, there was no shortage of stories to tell.

By the time I left the school, all I could think about was how to take all these incredible interviews, moments, and interactions and turn them into something that accurately reflected how amazing these students are.

The biggest difference between when I was in high school versus now is the prevalence of cell phones. Virtually every student has one these days. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

They trusted me with some incredibly sensitive and vulnerable anecdotes, and I wanted to do that justice.

I can't quite describe the level of gratitude I feel for the students, staff and administration at Matheson. It was incredibly brave of them to say yes to this project, but they did anyway.

As cliche as it may sound, spending a month back at school has made me more optimistic about the future generation than ever. We're in fantastic hands.

What was I so scared about?

This story has been updated to remove the name of one of the students quoted.

This story is part of a series called Matheson, examining the lives of students at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. CBC journalist Jason D'Souza was given unparalleled access as he spent a month embedded at the high school in order to hear unfiltered stories of students today.

About the Author

Jason D'Souza is a broadcast journalist at CBC Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter @CBCdsouza