Fast Times – America

Wingless Youth: Looking at Adolescence

But a week is not sufficient time for a really scholarly inquiry. In the autumn of 1979, however, two young men, encouraged by their agents and publishers, duplicated Miss Van Gelder’s experiments—one on the West Coast where the project was carried on for a year and one in the Northeast where it lasted for a semester. The books produced by these voyages of return, which had been made independently of one another, were published last year: Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (Simon & Schuster. 253p $5.95 [paper]) and David Owen’s High School (Viking. 262p $12.95).

There is a picture of the author on the back cover of Mr. Crowe’s book and on the jacket of Mr. Owen’s. From their portraits, it is clear that these men looked young enough to pass for high school seniors. In each case, the subject is a model of understated high school chic. Both wear jeans, of course, but since Cameron Crowe lives in California, he needs only a T-shirt to complete his costume whereas David Owen, who lives in New York, favors a pullover sweater and casual jacket.

Along with this convergence in dress and youthful appearance, however, there are also some important contrasts between both the writers themselves and their books. Cameron Crowe was 22 years old in September 1979 when, with the connivance of the principal, he began attending classes at a public school he calls Ridgemont Senior High School. This presumably pseudonymous institution is in the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach and according to Mr. Crowe it is “a calm, middle-class high school.”

He found, he says, that it was all too easy to recapture His adolescence and “the temptation was to continue the research forever.” Although he resisted that temptation, he did finish out the school year and then wrote this book that is organized into 67 short takes. One of these vignettes does run 18 pages but most occupy only two or three and the briefest is eight lines.

His aim, Mr. Crowe says, was “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.” But, in fact, it is the afterschool life that dominates this record. What goes on in the classroom only occasionally breaks the surface and when it does, it seems like something the Marx Brothers might have choreographed.

Ralph Keyes says of his own high school days in the early 1960’s: “As I recall we went to hang around before and after school, during lunch and in the hallway between classes. If being bored in class and pretending to respect our elders was the price of admission, then this was the price.” The students at Ridgemont High could have applied these words to themselves except that they did not pretend to respect their elders—not even the effective 58-year-old history teacher who modeled his appearance and mannerisms on those of Steve McGarrett in “Hawaii Five-O.”

In the first sentence of his preface, Cameron Crowe says he began doing articles for a youth culture magazine when he was 15, and the caption beneath his picture describes him as a contributor to Rolling Stone and Playboy. By now, therefore, he writes at a fast, professional clip and much of what he reports about his friends at Ridgemont High would certainly hold the attention of readers of Rolling Stone and Playboy. With careful precision, he says that all the incidents in his book are true. One can accept that, although how representative these incidents are is an open question. In any case, the development of this material is often plainly fictional since it included detailed conversations that Mr. Crowe could not possibly have transcribed unless he had tapped phones and bugged houses.

This air of fiction is intensified because as a reporter Cameron Crowe is so far under cover that he is never visible at all. He is not only taciturn about his background but tantalizing—particularly when he says that he himself attended “a rather strict Catholic school” while enviously eyeing Ridgemont High. How do these schools differ, one wants to ask. But this is not the book that will answer that question.

Blaming the public schools is, however, not only tedious but too easy. Certainly on the evidence of these two books, youth is not well served today. But American society itself is ultimately responsible for this failure. The people get the sort of education they want and will pay for, and they create, or at least tolerate, a way of life that makes adolescence more difficult than it need be.

Cameron Crowe knows as much, although he makes no judgements in his book. In those pages he merely notes that among the male seniors at Ridgemont High, the first item on a list of priorities is to have an after-school job that will provide the cash flow needed to maintain a car. So it happens that the city’s fast food outlets are largely staffed by high school students, both boys and girls. But in an interview that turned up last December in The Times (of London) Educational Supplement, Mr. Crowe deplored this situation:

“The most surprising thing to me is the fact that these kids are being robbed of a carefree adolescence. They are troubled by the same problems that beset adults, mainly financial and male-female relationships.”

It is surely true that the adolescents encountered by Cameron Crowe and David Owen seem hopelessly earthbound; they appear to have no interior life at all, much less a moral life. The churches are nowhere in sight and nothing these young people are learning at home or in school is helping them soar. But this wingless condition is both sad and threatening, as the epilogue of The Brothers Karamazov reminds us. As he is about to leave the boys he has been informally teaching, Alyosha, himself barely out of the teens, says: “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.

If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.”

But if readers feel depressed when they finish Ridgemont High and High School, they should cheer themselves up by remembering that these are no more than books. After all, these two young writers had only a casual acquaintance with some adolescents who were neither very introspective nor very articulate. Yet even the most commonplace youth entertain questionings too hidden and experiences movements of grace too mysterious to be revealed by any art.

It is quite possible, therefore, that the high school students described in these two books do indeed possess some of those fertile ideas, those good memories of which Alyosha spoke. If so, there is reason to hope that they will not only survive their adolescence but will be ready to do what they can for the survival of the world itself.

John W. Donohue, S.J., an associate editor of AMERICA, frequently writes on educational topics.

Courtesy of America – John W. Donohue – April 10, 1982