Fast Time at Ridgemont High Introduction

For seven years I wrote articles for a youth culture magazine, and perhaps not a day went by when this term wasn’t used -“the kids.” Editors assigned certain articles for “the kids.” Music and film executives were constantly discussing whether a product appealed “to the kids.” Rock stars spoke of commercial concessions made “for the kids.” Kids were discussed as if they were some huge whale, to be harpooned and brought to shore.

It began to fascinate me, the idea of The Kids. They were everywhere, standing on street corners in their Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts, in cars, in the 7-Eleven. Somehow this grand constituency controlled almost every adult’s fate, yet no adult really knew what it was nowadays – to be a kid.

In the summer of ’79, I had just turned 22. I discussed the idea for this book with my New York publisher. Go back to high school, he said, and find out what’s really going on in there with the kids. I thought about it over the weekend, and took the project.

I had attended Ridgemont Senior High in Redondo Beach, California, for a summer session seven years earlier, and those eight weeks had been sublime and forbidden days, even if it did mean going to a school in the summer. I normally attended a rather strict Catholic school, and there were many of us who believed that all our problems would be solved, all our dreams within reach if we just went to Ridgemont public high school.

In the fall of ’79 I walked into the office of Principal William Gray and told him the plan. I wanted to attend classes at Ridgemont and remain an inconspicuous presence for the full length of the school year. The object, I told him, was to write a book about real, contemporary life in high school.

Principal Gray was a careful man with probing eyes. He was wary of the entire plan, and he wanted to know what I had written before. I explained that I had authored a number of magazine profiles of people in the public eye.

“Like who?” he asked.

I named a few. A president’s son. A few rock stars. A few actors. My last article had been on songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson.

Principal Gray eased back in his chair. “You know Kris Kristofferson?”

“Sure. I spent a few weeks on tour with him.”

“Hell,” said the principal. “What’s he like?”

“A great guy.” I told him a few Kris stories.

“Well now,” said Principal Gray, “I think I can trust you. Maybe this can be worked out.”

It was. Principal Gray called in to an English teacher, Mrs. George, and gave me a homeroom for the year. Four other teachers were also informed. I started school the next week as a seventeen-year-old senior named Dave Cameron.

Walking the halls of Ridgemont was at first an unnerving experience. I wore standard Southern California attire–tennis shoes, t-shirt, and backpack, but as I pushed past the other students, I began to wonder. Was I walking too much like an adult? Was there some kind of neon light blinking on me–Imposter?

I was never found suspicious. In fact, for the first month, I was completely ignored at Ridgemont. I eavesdropped on conversations around me, made copious notes, winked at the teachers who knew, and made my way. I began to feel like a third-rate spy.

One day after school I wandered into journalism class and saw a girl I’d noticed before but had not met. She was hunting-and-pecking on the typewriter, looking caught in the midst of writer’s block.

“Sorry to bother you,” I said.

“You’re not bothering me,” she responded. She switched off her typewriter. “I’ve seen you before. Who are you?”

“Dave Cameron,” I told her. “This is my first year here.”

Her name was Linda Barrett, and she began asking rapid-fire questions, as if she was making a mental computer card out for me. Do you have a girlfriend? Where do you work? Who’s your favorite teacher?

We talked until the janitors kicked us out, and then we sat in her car in the parking lot. She began pointing out campus notables through her windshield. She knew them all, and they knew her. Linda Barrett worked in the local mall, at a popular ice cream parlor.

I soon realized what a valuable friend I had made. Through Linda Barrett I met her best friend Stacy, Stacy’s brother, Brad, and many others. It was the beginning of my social acceptance at Ridgemont High. As the year progressed, they became my group, and they were the characters I spent most of my days with. They were my friends.

As it happens with any writer, the temptation was to continue the research forever. My entire lifestyle changed that year. I went to malls, to slumber parties, to beaches, to countless fast-food stands. I can’t remember all the times I left situations “to go to the bathroom” and furiously scribble notes on conversations and facts I’d just heard. Back at Ridgemont, no doubt, some still remember Dave Cameron as the guy with the bad bladder.

I found it was all too easy to recapture one’s adolescence. The hard part was growing up again. I would return to my home in Los Angeles to visit former cohorts and old friends more and more infrequently. Their look was distant and puzzled.

“Still alive?” they’d ask. “Still writing?”

(Magazine journalists, like P.O.W.’s and Turkish drug prisoners, are presumed dead if not heard from over two major holidays).

Even my own mother looked at me sadly as I passed through the living room one day.

“You used to be such a mature person,” she said. “I remember when things like cars and the prom didn’t mean anything to you.” She shook her head. “You’ve changed. What happened to you?”

By the end of the school year I had become so accepted that even Principal Gray had forgotten about my project. I attended the prom and passed by his table near the entrance, where he sat with Mrs. Gray, greeting students and introducing them to his wife.  When he saw me, a fleeting look of panic crossed his face. Nine months later it was as if he couldn’t recall my name or where he knew me from.

“Cameron,” I helped him.

“Yes,” he said. “Cameron! Meet my wife, Ruth. Cameron here is one of our outstanding journalism students!” He seemed pleased with himself, and I didn’t spoil it.

“It was a great year,” I told him. “Thanks.”

I returned to a prom table with a group of Ridgemont students and began to think. I had developed close friends and had come to follow their thoughts and movements so carefully, that I wondered exactly how important my own undercover scheme really was. I did not want to become yet another adult writing about adolescence and kids from an adult perspective. This story, I felt, belonged to the kids themselves.

Over the next summer I visited many of the students I’d lived with that school year. I told them the story of Dave Cameron, of my project. Their reaction was almost always the same.

“A book?” they said. “About Ridgemont?”

I later interviewed the main characters extensively, corroborating stories and notes from the previous year. I have tried to capture the flow of day-to-day high school life, as well as the life that begins as soon as the last bell rings. It was my intention to write of the entire business–from academic competition to the sexual blunders–of teenage adulthood. In all cases the people I have written about have been given names other than their own. I have taken the liberty of changing superficial identifying characteristics, but all the incidents are true.

It was an experience that will forever change the way I perceive the word kids. The only time these students acted like kids was when they were around adults. What follows is a year in the life of Ridgemont High.

– Cameron Crowe – February, 1981