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What Really Happened to the Class of '93: Start-Ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade
From the Introduction: It's been a decade since my high school classmates and I have all stood under the same roof, since we've filled each other with the same confusion and smallness and lust. Our ten-year reunion is nearly upon us, and at this moment millions of other Americans are planning for similar evenings of nostalgia and embarrassment, with roughly equal amounts of clamminess to their palms.
Whatever that clamminess is, however scientists might classify it--I suspect the heart of this book lies somewhere nearby. The nation's palms can go moist for a great number of reasons, many of them less absurd than an awkward roomful of former fifteen-year-olds demanding refills. There are planes to worry about, disease, nuclear bombs, wild dogs. But high school has its own special catalog of eerieness, its own constellation of high stakes, and it does not respond to reason. Nor does it vary all that much from person to person. One may spend those four years in countless circumstances-there are boarding schools, magnet schools, military schools, Catholic schools, wealthy schools and poor schools, happy schools and unhappy schools-but ultimately, impressively, something fundamental happens to every American high school student.
By the end of this book, my northern Virginia high school's class of 1993 will have flown in from all corners to answer that question. Hundreds of us-old friends and old enemies and old strangers-will have hugged each other or snubbed each other and otherwise processed the last decade. Between now and that day, I've decided to perform something of a warm-up.
In the year and a half leading up to our reunion, I tracked down as many of my former classmates as possible, though not nearly all 404 of us, and asked them to tell me about their lives since graduation. I Googled and dug through phone books and begged old classmates for other old classmates' numbers. I bothered these people at dinnertime and at breakfast time, lunch time, work time, and vacation time, insisting on impromptu high school reunion after impromptu high school reunion, cajoling mere acquaintances into sharing profound life moments as well as recollections of what high school itself had really been like.
The conversations about individual lives-Where do you work? Whom do you love?-became larger conversations over the course of my interviewing: What happened to us? Who are we? What country is this, exactly? Sometimes my classmates' answers opened windows onto a complex and momentous swath of American history; other times, just accounts of how a human being brushes teeth in 2003.
I suspect any high school class in history would yield just as much oddness and awfulness and hope as mine has-in that sense, these stories might as well be anyone's. But we also came of age together at a very particular time. In the decade since that last day of school, the country rose and fell, or fell and rose, or simply convulsed along a series of profoundly chaotic moments. From Rodney King to O.J. to Monica to the Boom to butterfly ballots to 9/11 to the war in Iraq, the last ten years accomplished a cumulative strangeness unlike anything ever seen in America.
I'm trying to carve out a decade here. Not just ten years, but a decade: the Twenties, the Sixties, and now, with slightly less of a ring to it, 1993-2003. I propose this was the Nineties. Just as the Sixties really went from '64 to '73, the Nineties were slow out of the blocks and then stretched enough beyond September 11, 2001, to see that famous optimism of ours fully evaporate. It wasn't just a strange decade-they're all strange, really. What's extraordinary about this one is where it deposited us. To interview Americans about their lives two and three years into the second millennium is to witness a sudden rush of people concluding that the nation, if not the world, has swung from prosperity and hope to someplace more worrisome.
Granted, someone or other has believed the end to be near since, well, the beginning. The Russians were going to destroy us; before that, the Japanese, and so on back to the witches of Salem. But Americans born at the jammed end of the twentieth century have seen something unique: a tech-fueled acceleration of incredible progress, followed by an acceleration of incredible crises-a proliferation of political, biological, environmental, and economic genies let out of bottles, with no discernible vision but chaos. This book is not about those things-we've read about them too much as it is. Rather, it's about the newly minted high school graduates who became full-fledged people in the midst of them. It's hard to imagine another generation knowing the same combination of potential and uncertainty ever again.
One can look in on an assemblage of classmates, gathered years after graduation, in a number of places. Jill Abramson wrote Where Are They Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law, 1974, journalist Karl Vick wrote a series about his high school class of 1951 for the St. Petersburg Times some years back, and of course Mary McCarthy's The Group got everyone thinking about the subject in the first place. Sherry B. Ortner's terrific New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58 brings an academic's eye to the years her classmates have seen since graduating-specifically, to the role social class has played in the group. On my desk is an old flea market find called Harvard College Class of 1892: Fiftieth Anniversary Report, full of wonderful, brief rendezvous with men like Rudolph Wieser Holmer, M.D. ("He cannot believe a new order of being, better than our past, can come from the world cataclysms that are upon us" and "His principal recreation is long-distance automobile driving.") But it's Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky's What Really Happened to the Class of '65, published in 1976, that this book takes its title and inspiration from. In it, Medved and Wallechinsky caught up with a group of fellow graduates from their wealthy Los Angeles high school and traced their paths through the upheaval of the late '60s. These stories, told mainly through oral histories, chronicled a remarkably different era, but one whose apprehension and uncertainty aren't wholly foreign, either. As with the 1965-1975 period, America between 1993 and 2003 changed at the highest and lowest levels. Confidence went to fearfulness and routine to disorder in a mood swing that couldn't be more American. What emerges from my classmates' lives is a glimpse of the decade itself.
From Chapter Three, Lorraine Bembry: Lorraine and I met in our sophomore-year Spanish class — home of the blessed group project, public education's answer to oysters and Spanish Fly — and I still recall that immediate recognition that we'd been put on the planet to locate each other and begin construction of our separate and preferable universe. We didn't get A's that semester in Spanish. No nos preocupabamos.
Lorraine liked things that were not popular in our forward-thinking school--things I happened to know were unbeatable, like certain Simon and Garfunkel songs, and cutting class, and intrepid stares delivered to the almighty jocks. Many thought she was shy, because she was quiet. I didn't. I thought she had an elaborate energy-expenditure plan, and that the average person simply didn't make the cut. (I was above average; this was inexplicable to me, but great news.) Lovably, Lorraine distrusted authority even more than I did-she didn't even talk to it if avoidance was an option. She was a sharp, sweet, good old soul, and could inconspicuously knock your head off with some quiet sarcasm. Lorraine was very pretty, with one tooth that peeked through her smile when her mouth was closed--a genuine snaggletooth. The tooth suggested many great things to me: reluctance, strangeness, and, ultimately, irrepressible goodness.
Each of us had "dated" other people before, but mainly in that preadolescent summer way, via string bracelets and polite phone conversations. Not until each other did we have someone with whom we could not exchange bracelets. We forswore all things juvenile, not to mention treacly, square, stupid, smart, quaint, and modern. We invented our own creaky world, a miscellany of pretentious bohemia and mild rebelliousness. At times we were a Leonard Cohen song, other times a minor crime syndicate, still others an old Mike Nichols film that never was made. We took walks at the zoo. Moreover, we adored each other.
What was love at fifteen and sixteen in 1990 in America? I don't know, but it usually happened in a car. Cars equal independence and cars equal coming-of-age, and both of those require privacy, and cars also equal that. One night Lorraine and I parked and left the radio on. My father had to come jump-start the car, back there behind the Safeway after midnight. "What were you doing back there?" he asked, and that now strikes me as an interesting question. We did it again weeks later, killed the same battery. He didn't ask that time.
In retrospect, it's unclear what Lorraine and I actually talked about. We didn't talk about classes, or teachers, or friends much, and probably not politics, or art, or religion, either--those things were understood. If a good book was being read, that was noted--I remember Salinger being passed between us meaningfully--but I don't think we lingered on literature much, particularly. One would assume, then, that it was ourselves that we talked about--our hopes, our thwartings, our ambivalence about later Woody Allen. But really I think most of our communication happened through code. "Hi," we said to each other a lot. "Hi," we wrote on scraps of paper on lockers. It went without saying that we'd understand each other's deeper meanings. Hi. Hi. Hi.
Someone asked me recently if we ever talked about race, since Lorraine is black and I'm white. I remember only one conversation in which it came up. What will our kids look like? we wondered aloud one afternoon in the back of a bus. My--our?--exposure to such things must have been awfully limited, for I remember us sharing a kind of thrill: Here two teenagers had inadvertently discovered the cure for racial strife-love. It's not that we made light of race, but rather we made heavy of our more fundamental connection. Had someone described the aching race conversation we would have in her kitchen a dozen years later, we would have laughed and driven off to another parking lot.
From Chapter 17, Matt Farbman: The cop eased the squad car over to the two youths, who were in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong hour. It so happened that one of them — the tall, lanky one, my classmate — represented all that may evolve in a human being over just ten years, perhaps represented human potential itself in this way, certainly represented the most dramatic transformation among the Thomas Jefferson High School Class of '93. This was not apparent or of interest to the cop. He arrested them.
Or rather, he had another cop arrest them-they often do it this way, my classmate explains to me a few years later, having a certain but classified familiarity with such things. This was one of Minneapolis's controversial Code Four sweeps, a system of periodic neighborhood purges designed to get criminals off the streets awhile or to repress systematically the underclass, depending on which side of the argument you're on. "I had a flashlight-all punk kids carry flashlights-so [later] he said I had 'burglary implements,' so I must have been planning on breaking in somewhere." (Later, the official charge became "lurking." My classmate, a lover of words, delights in "lurking," and briefly considered getting a "Lurking Class Hero" T-shirt made.)
Before he could have them arrested, the first officer had to ask the two what they were doing. What they were doing was walking toward a Dumpster, which they hoped to liberate of some free clothes. They kept this information to themselves.
"I don't talk to police in that situation-there's no point," my classmate says. "Their job in that situation is to incriminate you. They're not trying to find out what's going on-that's the job of the D.A.'s office, the job of the judge, the job of a jury, technically. The only responsibility the police have is to elicit evidence from you, and any question they ask you has that aim. What I generally say is 'Any information that you need from me is going to be on my I.D., here's my I.D."
And this is where it starts-where it always starts-my classmate says. The officer takes one look at the I.D. and snorts. Later, at the jailhouse, more snickering.
"They've got me in the search room, and of course they have to have a male or female officer, whatever's appropriate. And they kept [saying], 'This one's one of yours.' 'No, no, I think this is one of yours.' 'No, I think...'"
My classmate was Matt Farbman in high school. Now she is Anne. The people at the jail threw up their hands finally, put her in a solitary cell.
Copyright 2004 Chris Colin. All rights reserved.
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