Fast Times – Philadelphia Daily News

He Spied On High School Kids

The secret world of contemporary high school students is revealed in “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” a new and fascinating book that will soon become a movie.

The inside realm of teen-agers, traditionally closed to adults, is opened up by author Cameron Crowe who, at 22, became an undercover senior student at a Redondo Beach, Calif., area high school.

Crowe, a newspaperman who wrote in-depth profiles for Rolling Stone and other publications, spent an entire school year as a student two years ago, involving himself in the social and academic life without revealing his identity.

The school’s principal and a handful of teachers were apprised of Crowe’s intent. Not a single student, even the popular group with which he became most involved, detected the fact that he was a spy.

Crowe, even at the advanced age of 24, still could pass for a teen-ager. Whether it is due to his year’s regression as a high schooler or a natural characteristic, Crowe has the shy, self-conscious mannerisms of post-adolescence.

His revelations of the values, manners, morals and attitudes of students in a middle class school, Crowe believes, reflect similar schools throughout the United States. Lifestyles, he found, vary little from state to state.

During a recent promotional tour he made for his publishers, Simon and Schuster, Crowe encountered the same sort of teen culture time and again. If Crowe’s perceptions are accurate—and they would seem to be to any parent of teen-agers, the country might well take a deep breath of relief. The current crop of kids is bright, ambitious, hard-working ad difficult to fool.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” covers sex, drugs, jobs, sports, family and school related problems with an uncanny and unerring ear and eye for teenage jargon and their views of the adult world.

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

“Another surprise to me and to my publishers is the impact of the fast food hierarchy on the lives of teen-agers. I don’t think any fast food franchise could exist without the cheap labor of high school kids.

“Look around you the next time you go into a Burger King or McDonalds or Jack In The Box. There’s an adult manager or assistant manager and all the rest are teen-agers working all kinds of shifts.

“The pay and the popularity of the franchise are all important to the working kid in terms of stature in their school and social group. Fast food joints are where the kids hang out.

“High school kids around the country are work oriented. They’re not the ‘me generation.’ I call them the ‘bottom line generation.’ Everything they want or enjoy is expensive—cars, clothes, record albums, food.

“They’ve gotta get out there and get some cash. It’s no longer okay for them to get an allowance. It’s embarrassing. So they earn money in construction work or fast food franchises which establishes a hierarchy and a way of life.”

Crowe does not think of his research in terms of espionage or double crossing the youngsters who befriended and accepted him as a peer.

After completing his year on campus, Crowe visited the principal characters in his book, all of whose identities and names have been changed, along with the name of the school, to confess his duplicity.

The teen-agers had mixed reactions to Crowe’s revelation of his true identity. Half of the youngsters didn’t believe him. Some shrugged it off, others wanted to help out, volunteering to tape conversations to aid with his dialogue.

“The girls were more helpful than the boys,” Crowe said. “Some guys were concerned that I wanted to write about their secret lives.

“I learned a lot more about high school than I ever experienced when I was a student myself. I graduated at 15 when I was a junior, so I’d missed a lot myself. I discovered I really liked going back and participating in all their activities, sports, parties and conversations. I was emotionally involved.

“I went back to be a camera, not interpreting, just reporting. And I wrote the screenplay with that in mind, to tell it exactly like it is.

“Kids these days don’t believe in ‘Happy Days’ because they are aware they are being misrepresented. That was the ’50s.

“They are a little bit cynical. They know that great Madison Avenue arm is reaching for their pockets. They’re brutal on movies and record albums. Film producers and record people should go on campus and really learn what they like, what they want and what they won’t go near.

“This isn’t a hostile generation. They only get bitter about the establishment when they think it exploits adolescents.

“But the saddest thing about today’s kids is that they’re trying to lead adult lives when they should be having fun just being kids.”

Courtesy of Philadelphia Daily News – Vernon Scott – November 9, 1981