High school, then and now

June 5, 2008

Dare I compare atmospheres at different high schools forty years and three thousand miles apart? Such comparison seems sure to illuminate nothing surprising and elicit a chorus of yawns. It would be like examining life on planets in different solar systems populated by different life forms and declaring, “Eureka! They’re not the same!”

But after visiting a small Portland high school Tuesday and Wednesday to research a freelance newspaper story, I can’t resist.

I graduated from Winter Park High School near Orlando in 1968, a year of unparalleled tragedy and turmoil for my generation. I’ve been reminiscing about my high school life more than usual since a classmate’s recent death and registering to attend my reunion in September.

What I remember most are friends and the fun we had (shocking revelation!), as if we were isolated from the tumult roiling the outside world. They and the things we did glow now with a patina that exaggerates in the best possible way what our lives together were like. Age and memory conspire to edit out the unpleasant and painful. Anxiety and embarrassment didn’t exist. However, regrets loom larger with each passing year, a subject for another day.

I could devote reams to that time in my life. Perhaps the yearbook photo above conveys enough. I’d do just about anything to relive this moment or even know what we were saying when the picture was taken. Better yet, I’d like to recapture the precise emotion I felt; it too is gone with time, though it lurks on the periphery just beyond reach, like a word I know I know but can’t recall.

Anyone looking at the picture is left to guess which character is me. I’m wearing a hat. In fact, it must have been hat night at the WPHS football game because hats weren’t as prevalent then.

What I observed this week is less restraint and inhibition and more spontaneous communication and expression of happiness at being together. Decorum has been redefined. The kids at Leadership & Entrepreneurial Public Charter High (LEP) in Southeast Portland do a lot of hugging over seemingly inconsequential things. It’s as if hugs have replaced smiles. (Wish this had been the custom in my day.) They also seem more self-assured and forthright with adults.

Are they typical of today’s high school kids? Probably, though their school isn’t. It’s two years old and has 150 students, all freshmen and sophomores. While outwardly they seem very much different than my classmates and me, perhaps they’re not. I couldn’t see myself accurately in 1968; I’m too old and had too little time to truly gauge the students at LEP.

One anecdote reveals a big difference. I watched a 15-year-old girl sing a song she wrote. Her teacher was nearby, recording the song for a class CD. She was nervous, partly because I was photographing her, and classmates were watching from a hallway window. But she wasn’t too nervous to take her cell phone from her pocket and check who was calling or texting, all without missing a beat.

Forty years hence, will her high school memories flow past like mine, vivid and visceral as yesterday, but only as snapshots? What feeling will she long to conjure up, only to find it’s just beyond her grasp?

My guess is that some things never change.