Marty McFly was a high school senior in 1985. So was I. Marty's dad wrote science fiction and bought him a sweet pickup. Mine, on the other hand, discouraged me from writing science fiction and borrowed radio parts from my hand-me-down Chevy Malibu, a car that couldn't have achieved 88 mph if it were chased by Libyan terrorists. Marty had a band, the Pinheads, who were told by Huey Lewis they were just too darn loud. I listened to Huey Lewis (we all did--don't be a hater) on my "boom box," a kind of iPod the size of a suitcase.
That was 25 years ago. Twenty-five years. Also 25 pounds ago, with at least 25 percent more hair.
I spent my freshman year in a suburban high school in northern California, but graduated in Crowder, Oklahoma with about 30 other seniors. I was voted most likely to succeed, a feat comparable to being named employee of the month at Taco Bell. Our calculus teacher didn't know the first thing about calculus and had to be coached through it over lunch breaks. Our history teacher was really the basketball coach. Our basketball team had no minority players. We were mostly Freewill Baptists, mostly hypocritical.
Time travel back to the future and the year 2010, only five years shy of flying cars powered by Mr. Fusion. Turns out we're still working on electric car batteries. Instead of holographic shark sequels, we get Piranha 3D. Hell, I'd be happy with a self-drying jacket. But there's one thing the Robert Zemeckis sequels nailed about our tech-happy decade: our kids look exactly like us. They're distracted, overworked, out of shape and fascinated by sex and its consequences.
The movie Waiting for "Superman" is an excellent documentary-slash-propaganda screed that decries the failure of our schools, then blames it on tracking (more on that in a minute), tenure and greedy unions. As the movie entered the national news conversation, I resolved to spend a full day in a local high school to see how bad the situation truly is. This would also give me the chance to compare my classmates to the kids of today.
Back to school?
Any journalist who revisits high school is beholden to Cameron Crowe. Yes, that Cameron Crowe, the guy who directed Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Crowe was Rolling Stone's youngest reporter ever at age 15 and tested out of his senior year to tour with the Allman Brothers. Five years later, he enrolled in San Diego's Clairemont High and spent nine months in the guise of a teenager. The result was a nonfiction book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was adapted into a sleeper movie hit in 1982.
Industrial Light + Magic couldn't turn me into a credible teenager, but Principal Matt Grant and his staff were kind enough to allow me to spend a recent Thursday as a "student" observer at Olympia High School. It quickly became obvious Oly High is no "dropout factory." Its graduation rate is in the mid-90s. Its alumni include ‘50s pop trio the Fleetwoods, singer Rickie Lee Jones, a chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, and both daughters of Governor Gregoire.
I arranged to have the bus pick me up at Roosevelt Elementary School on Workingman's Hill. This required waking at a time my alarm clock called "5:30 a.m." Did you know they made a 5:30 a.m.? Driver Jim and his old-school yellow bus arrived at 7:15 sharp. The buses are still bereft of legroom and, as on the U.S.S. Enterprise, seatbelts. There is no Mr. Fusion. Jim greets every passenger by name but, sadly, none reply in kind. Ear buds are ubiquitous. Though this is Oly and no one is dressed like a fashion model, Proactiv's battle against acne has been largely won and, despite the cold, foggy weather, many of the girls reveal expanses of cleavage that would've fried the synapses of my teachers, male and female, at Crowder High.
In 1985 and well into the ‘90s, the F-bomb was explosive. Now it's everywhere. Before the day was out, I'd hear it in classrooms, a few times within the unfazed earshot of teachers. This is something we middle-aged fogies will just have to wrap our heads around. Language changes. Society evolves, and it always seems to be going straight to hell in a hand basket. While everyone's favorite four-letter word loses its heft, other words once familiar in the classrooms of previous decades are reclassified as hate speech. The N-word was common in the small-town Oklahoma of 1985, as was a certain three-letter British slang term for a cigarette. Principal Grant's office contains a sign that expressly forbids derogatory language but, as I'd learn, even that permits a level of wiggle room.
As with any student's first day in a new school, I spent much of that morning lost. It began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a few announcements over closed-circuit TV. I was surprised to see the Pledge and its idolatrous vow of loyalty to a "nation under God" in effect after all these years. One student took the Pledge in a Snuggie. The only school announcement the students paid any attention to whatsoever was the joke of the day, which they dissected with critical fervor.
My agreement with Principal Grant requires me to change the name of every teacher and student, so I'll use their last initials. Mr. S's AP (Advanced Placement) History represents tracking in action. These classes are much more rigorous than the standard high school fare, but if a student passes an AP class and a standardized test at the end, he or she earns college credit. Kids are nudged into or away from these classes by teachers and counselors. According to Waiting for "Superman", this creates a caste system of students, some prepped for success, the rest madly spinning their wheels while falling inexorably behind.
In less than an hour, Mr. S's students digested the key controversies of the 1796 presidential election, with side notes on Pinckney's Treaty and the Bank Act of 1791. I had no clue what Pinckney's Treaty was intended to resolve, nor whether it succeeded. (Turns out it was border issues with Spain, and yes it did.) After class, a student and I chatted about the book she'd just read, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which we both enjoyed. This is, in every sense, a college class. Mr. S told me one of his challenges is that "some of these kids are smarter than us." I met a student (call her Jane) who scored 30 points shy of the SAT maximum but plans to take it again. Oly had two students achieve perfect 2400s last year, out of only 1000 nationwide. "It's our job to help them grow into their intelligence," Mr. S believes, "to help them with problems beyond their IQ."
Oly's AP classes used to be by invitation only, but over the last few years a wider selection has been admitted. Some students continue to struggle, necessitating greater individual attention, but in general Mr. S agrees with Waiting's assertion that top-level work should be expected from as wide a variety of students as possible.
Second-hour AP Biology was as tough as AP History or tougher. These kids already knew more about plant biology than I've ever known about anything. Mrs. S (no relation; and it was Mrs., not Ms.) used Hasbro's Mouse Trap game to illustrate photosynthesis. Back in 1985, my bio teacher read the newspaper while we catalogued flowers. These students can explain the Calvin cycle and the difference between ATP and NADPH. I had to look up the spelling of NADPH. One student used "bullpen" as a euphemism, which is so clever I've decided to adopt it.
I asked Mrs. S whether she's experienced any backlash as a result of teaching evolution. She said few local parents bat an eye. Jane from AP History chirped, "Calling evolution ‘just a theory' is like calling gravity ‘just a theory.'" I found myself tempted to adopt her.
Back to reality
I've spent the last few years teaching developmental math at community colleges, so non-AP Algebra 2 put me on familiar ground. Mr. R's students spent the first few minutes going over homework, then were tested on their ability to solve and graph systems of linear equations. (For the uninitiated, that means figuring out where two lines cross on a grid.) I'm pleased to say I aced the test--even two bonus trivia questions, marking the first time it's ever benefited me to know Echo Base was on ice planet Hoth. If Mr. R's trivia questions seem especially trivial, keep in mind most teenagers have difficulty concentrating on the words of authority figures. By quizzing on what they heard in class, even casual conversations, Mr. R rewards listening skills.
Outside of AP classes, students' inability to listen and focus was a recurring problem. It wouldn't be stretching the truth to say most drifted off the second a teacher's eyes left their own, and they started talking no matter who might be listening to whom. Studies have shown today's under-25s, the so-called "Millennials," have what adults might characterize as a superhuman ability to multitask. The average reader of this publication is concurrently listening to MP3s, watching both Facebook and TV, conversing with friends and perhaps even doing homework. It's nothing less than an X-Gene-level superpower, and fortysomethings like myself--or their teachers--cannot fully comprehend it. Also, today's teens possess a staggering social facility; while we count ourselves lucky to have four close friends, they have 400 Facebook friends and keep track of them all with little visible effort. Sadly, what they lack is the ability to task. They can't focus on a single job (especially one they don't enjoy doing) and see it through to its conclusion. Mr. R's students groaned at each new math problem, but navigated his cutting-edge "smart board" computer interface at least as well as he did.
Mrs. P, a 10th-grade English teacher, tried to keep her students' attention on Lord of the Flies but spent most of the hour herding cats. Mrs. S read from a newspaper article about a 2009 study of chronic multitaskers, whom the study found "deficient in memory and attention." In other words, the superpower comes with its own kryptonite. "The huge finding is, the more media people use the worse they are at using any media," explained researcher Clifford Nass. "Is multitasking causing them to be lousy at multitasking, or is their lousiness at multitasking causing them to be multitaskers? ... They couldn't ignore stuff that doesn't matter. They love stuff that doesn't matter." A follow-up study found multitasking releases dopamine into the brain. When Millennials attempt to concentrate on a single, unpleasant task, they experience a crash similar to that of an adult who quits smoking.
School lunches haven't changed much; they're still cheap and filling if not always nutritionally sound. Teens still prefer high-fat snacks to salads, though soda machines have been replaced by coolers full of juices and sports drinks. P.E. is still grueling and demoralizing ("Hey," the coach yelled to an overweight student, "don't break any more bicycle seats"), but Oly's weight room and spin bikes rival those of a Bally's franchise. Students began the hour with a 10-minute P90X routine. Back in the early ‘80s, we suffered through a brutal mutation of dodgeball called Bombardment. These kids work on their cores. They're thinner than I, for the most part, but not in much better condition. World of Warcraft has taken a toll. The coach said his most dedicated weightlifters are skateboarders and other extreme sports enthusiasts.
I finished my day in Mrs. D's Advanced Theater class. Contrary to the expectations of drama geeks like me, these kids were nothing if not focused on the quality and creativity of their work. A local playwright of note, Mr. W, served as guest lecturer. As students performed short scenes they'd written, I heard language and sociopolitical debates that would've gotten us expelled a quarter century ago. (I was sent to the principal's office for joking he combed his hair with a Handi Wipe. Follicular karma's a bitch.) The students, several of whom are openly gay, scarcely flinched at the use of a six-letter pejorative rhyming with "maggot." Politics are generational, so if current polling or my experiences at Oly High are any indication, both pot and gay marriage will be legalized before these students hit middle age. [P.S.: Did I call it or what?] It seems we'll also have robbed ourselves of truly shocking harsh language, and I rather believe I'll miss it.
Back to earth
As have millions of hapless high school students before me, I missed the bus home. I'd forgotten how much it sucks to not own a car. (Incidentally, "sucks" and "pissed" were both full-fledged cuss words in 1985. Don't believe me? Ask your parents.) As I walked the 45 minutes to my house, I reflected on the future these adolescents portend. They'll know everything there is to know about a handful of things, but only half of what there is to know about anything else. They'll display all the aftereffects of Internet-era ADHD. They'll be sexually post-postmodern and unconcerned about Biblical mores, but also unable to tell the difference between porn and reality. They'll say brilliant things in 140 characters but seldom contemplate the value of higher complexity. They'll write impassioned blogs but superficial novels, and they'll vote the way the flashiest ads persuade them to vote.
I don't believe America is crumbling into ruins. I wouldn't mind these kids running my rest home. I just hope they can learn to turn off their iPods and concentrate long enough to notice if my heart monitor stops beeping.