This story first ran in the May 11, 1982, edition of WW.
Last week, we ran the first of two articles on high-school life. We focused on Grant High because it is a fairly typical school with a long tradition in the city. For two weeks, Susan Orlean went to classes, hung out, and talked with Grant students in order to get a kids’ eye view of school. Has anything changed in high school today since the last decade? Plenty — jargon, style, and a heightened awareness of economic strife. But plenty has endured — like smart kids, school spirit, and questions about the future.
To understand high school these days, you have to understand the word “awesome.” For instance, you might admire an awesome athlete, who might also be an awesome party hound. A band can be awesome. A fetching girl might be awesome. Many things can constitute an awesome day. It might be the day you get asked to the prom. It might be the day you flunk a test. Or ace a test. Or make a friend. In other words, awesome is a catch-all for all the stupendous things that matter most when you’re 16.
A couple of weeks ago. Grant High School had a particularly awesome day. With the school year nearing its end, all the special events are coming at a fast and furious clip. The prom, the Rose Princess selection. Senior Skip Day. dress-up week, the Senior Best vote. Senior Best, a grand tradition at Grant and most other Portland schools, is a democratic selection of the senior class’ cutest, smartest, best built, shyest, nicest, and friendliest members. According to some kids it’s really fun: according to others, it’s just another of the silly popularity contests in which high school in the ‘80s is abounding.
Hence the Senior Worst Awards. These are as much a tradition in their own right as the Senior Best: they’re part of the secret life of high school, the part everyone knows about but no one sanctions. For instance, where each clique congregates in the cafeteria, where it’s fairly safe to smoke marijuana, which assemblies are cool to go to and which aren’t. Senior Worst, one girl informs me, is more interesting than Senior Best, and though a lot of girls feign shock to see themselves on the Worst list, they would have gone home and cried if they hadn’t made it. To qualify, a girl might be one of the following:
• “Most likely to have the Heimlich maneuver performed on them while giving a blowjob.
• Most likely to get a male teacher fired.
• Least likely to talk about sex openly, yet most likely to wear out her vibrator batteries
• Most likely to want to get laid at a party, however least likely to succeed.”
School administrators hit the ceiling when copies of the Worst List surfaced. This made for an awesome day. Any departure from the usual grind is greeted warmly by students, but this had more — drama, intrigue, and sex. And attention. Grant officials were stunned that the girls named on the list defended its perpetrators, but what they forgot is that being noticed in high school is reward enough.
Because, as any kid will tell you as automatically as if it’s a tribal chant, school is boring, boring, boooooring. Each morning the most bored of the bored gather in the gymnastics room at Grant. Because it’s the loosest, easiest place to be. it’s where a lot of students, inches from dropping out altogether, hang out. This morning, the room is in its usual buzz. Frank Sinatra is crooning away on the record player, which does little to please the students. “Mr. Amaya, can we change this? It makes me sick,” pleads a sloe-eyed, lank-haired girl. No way. She scowls, turns around, fakes a gigantic sneeze, knocks the arm off the record. “Oops,” she says to no one in particular. “I’ll have to change the record.” On goes Van Halen. Not surprisingly, gymnastics class is park-rat heaven, thanks to the fact that the pressure to perform is minimal and the music is loud. More important, the chance to socialize is great.
Grant has a lot of smart kids who win National Merit Scholarships and math competitions, who take college-level writing classes and rip through Shakespeare with vigor and interest. Grant also has a lot of solid kids from families who’ve lived in the neighborhood forever. Those kids thus walk right into a legacy left by their parents or at the least by their older brothers and sisters. Grant is blessed with some of the Portland school system’s best administrators. But bear in mind that Oregon has the fifth highest dropout rate in the nation; one-third of all Oregon ninth graders never graduate; Grant has one of the highest dropout rates in the city, and, as of last week. 395 out of 1,850 kids had left Grant before the end of the year. Those dropout rates can be attributed to the rising transience in Grant’s territory in Northeast Portland, due to unemployment. crumbling families, and the black surge and white flight over the last decade.
Many Grant students come to school in the morning, slide through the day, and scoot home in a hurry when it’s over. They have a few friends and know a lot of people well enough to know their first names. They do their homework; they often juggle a job on the side; they keep their lives in order without leaving skid marks on the way. They don’t look for a way to stay numb; they don’t seek constant states of awesomeness.
For one thing, they go to class every day, and few awesome things happen regularly in class. Remember, though, this is a subjective view from an observer of Grant, not a scientific comparison of all Portland schools. Classes at Grant are orderly and friendly. Many are run on a point system — do your work with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of timeliness and you can succeed. There are a number of impressive moments — sitting through an English class reading Chaucer in Middle English, or a choir class in which students are practicing for state music competitions. But otherwise it’s business as usual. The scene is like the scene from every high-school class in every era: A few kids in every class are excited and involved, while the bulk of them drift in and out. Some teachers seem as weary as the kids; others really prod. “Come on. come on, who can tell me what a realtor sells?” one frustrated social-studies teacher begs his class. “Come on. Marie!” She’s caught off guard, but tries gamely: “Insurance?”
U.S. History class, current events day. Several students offer news stories on the Falkland Islands; one reads a newspaper report about legislation to limit distribution of contraceptives to minors. A few kids nap in the back. Mark, a tough, boxy boy in jeans, pulls out his article. Every week he picks a story about murder, so the teacher has requested that he broaden his scope. He’s sure he has. He says proudly. “My story is, ‘Twisted steel beams and concrete littered the scene . . . ‘” A freeway ramp collapse in Indiana that killed a dozen people. Some scope.
The bell rings: we’re off to lunch. Grant’s cafeteria, like those in most high schools, has the jostle of a Chicago feedlot and the politics of the Holy Roman Empire. To start with, if you had two nickels to rub together, you probably wouldn’t be in the cafeteria at all. Since Grant has an open-campus system. students can go wherever they want when they don’t have classes. Staying at school in the echoing gut of the cafeteria is last choice. Lowbrow lunching out takes place at the AM-PM Mini Mart, where you can get a microwaved burrito to go, and you sit on the hood of your car and eat and think about the weekend. Next rung up the social ladder is Taste Tickler or Little King or Taco Bell. Anyone with money — here soshes predominate — goes to Yaw’s.
But no one has any money most of the time, so the cafeteria will have to do. Tables are chosen with finicky care, and it’s here that Grant’s racial isolation really shows. All the Southeast Asian students clump together at one end of the room; all the black kids eat together at tables near the serving lines. The white kids break into their cliques and hog the middle. It isn’t really unfriendly, it’s as if the rest of the room dissolved outside your table of six or seven pals.
That’s not too different from everything at Grant, and it’s been an abiding problem for minority students. Nothing heated, nothing violent — it’s more that black students, in particular, feel they have little to do with Grant High School, the institution. There’s a Black Student Union that’s wobbling on new legs, and there’s black territory in the center hall and in the cafeteria, but it seems there should be more. “I don’t know,” says Kenny, a black junior who is playing backgammon while eating lunch. “Everyone thinks of the black kids here as one big giant group, but we’re not. But we’re not all split up like whites, either. I think there are really two groups of blacks — the good ones, and that’s us”— he sweeps his hand around the table — “and the bad ones.” It’s pretty lousy when white kids call the black hangout in center hall “Little Zimbabwe,” just as it’s lousy that the one sport in school is to slip magnetic tape from library books into the Asians’ pockets so that they innocently set off the library’s detection system as they walk out. But it’s usually tolerated by other students as if it’s a giant fraternity hazing. No complaints if you’re cool.
There’s another noteworthy table in the cafeteria, this one with the word “Ladykiller” painted on it in pink nail polish. This is the usual haunt of a couple of dozen cynical, ambitious kids who 15 years ago might have been organizing moratoriums against the war, or working for Eugene McCarthy. But because no one is much on politics in high school these days, the sharp, sophisticated kids at Grant end up as Ladykillers. “We’re intellectuals who are into fun,” explains one of them. They are also “into” thrift stores, old Beach Boys, college, sloe gin, the school newspaper, eyeliner, kicking their serious pot habits, the Galleria, and good grades. “Most of us,” brags a Ladykiller, “haven’t been to an assembly all year.” Nearly everything about high school vexes them but they’re not dorks, they’re cool, so they do all those vexsome high-school things with several degrees of detachment. Ladykillers party, but on their terms — Kinks and Beach Boys music, plenty of dancing and Peppermint Schnapps. Ladykillers go to the prom, but it’s a theme they like this year — As Time Goes By. Ladykillers like old things, such as big-band music and Humphrey Bogart. They vote in the Rose Princess race, but only so they can vote against the dumbest girls. They go to the Rose Princess assembly but with some reservations. “I’m glad Dina won,” says one Ladykiller as she leaves the assembly. “She’s gorgeous. I hope all her pictures in the paper are hideous.”
When it comes down to it, all the petty snobbery and clannishness gives way to camaraderie, especially in the classes everyone’s required to take. There, the mix of kids leaves little room for anything but a good old healthy dose of us-vs.-them mentality — namely, students vs. teachers. At a mid-afternoon biology class, the teacher is in a snit about a forthcoming test, and is regaling the class with a cryptic lecture. “I tell you,” she smirks, “you can lock the barn door after the horses are out, and you can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I’m as firm as this floor. You can take that to the bank.” The kids eye each other with sly smiles. She continues, “This is no picnic. Some of you are going down for the third time. The only way you can get out of this test is if I’m dead or unconscious. I rest my case.” They are rolling their eyes and squeezing back giggles. “Do I make myself clear?” She strides out of the room in a huff. The class breaks up laughing, even the shy Vietnamese boy in the back. They quickly agree that she’s been sniffing formaldehyde and is completely berserk. “Wow, you think that was bad?” sighs a black student in front, “just imagine if you were stoned!” That’s it — that’s the password that marks off teachers, who are probably all berserk, from us, who are all capable of imagining sitting through that scolding stoned. Strife and snootiness and class consciousness run through high-school life but so do these other moments when it all gets put aside. There’s a remarkable amount of vicarious pride at Grant, too. Every student can and will point out the smartest kids, the prettiest girls, or the most successful students without a trace of envy. Ask at any lunch table, and they offer a quick rundown of their lunchmates’ various achievements. And every kid speaks with unbroken pleasure about Grant’s Kevin MacMillan who was killed in a car wreck at Stanford last fall. He was a hero if the school ever had one; he was, they’ll tell you, the smartest, the handsomest, the best athlete, the coolest.
What is rarely forgotten is the feeling that the world is sagging beneath your 16-year-old feet. There are mushroom clouds on the cover of Newsweek and student loan programs melting away and constant reminders that, even if you want to work, you might not get to work. Not all teen-agers think about it. but those who do see the future as bad news. Yvonne is a senior, the editor of the school newspaper. “I don’t want to have to start thinking about college and working full-time, but right now, school is just a technicality. A lot of us are disillusioned. From sophomore year on, everyone wants a job. Our parents can’t really support us entirely, and the thought of college tuition is disillusioning. A lot of us are into old things, and looking back. The ‘40s are really big right now, like big-band music. Actually, music is a big deal, and a lot of groups of kids in school are known by the music they listen to, like the rockers and the punks. My friends listen to Devo, the Go Gos, the B’52s, the Kinks. Beach Boys. too, but old Beach Boys. The new Beach Boys’ stuff is pseudo-’70s music.
“In the summer, we all want to work. Money — money is freedom. Everyone hangs around downtown, at Galleria, or up here at Yaw’s or Kelly Point Park. College is what I’d want if I had money. My boyfriend says if he had money, he’d pay for college for himself, and then for his little brother, and for his friends. But we don’t want to think about it. We talk about the Falklands in class, and El Salvador a little, and especially when a lot of guys are turning 18 and have to register for the draft. There was a lot more militance at school last year than this year. People were working to stop the draft. This year, all people really worked on was the marijuana initiative.
“No one thinks about wanting to come back to Portland and work on making it a better city. They think about coming back to show everyone how cool they are. It’s just that there are so many problems and it’s so hard to deal with the present. We figure we’ll just hassle with that bridge when we get to it. From what I’ve seen, there’s not a lot of optimism. There isn’t even any guarantee that there will be any future. Optimistic? No. I think I’ll get by. The hardest time ahead is college because of money. If Reagan doesn’t start a nuclear war and we don’t all die. we’ll get by.”
Partying. It starts early Wednesday, when the first word on where it’s happening this weekend starts trickling out. Where, mind you — not who, because most of the time the host’s name gets lost in the shuffle and the invitation goes something like this: Kegger on Friday at 30-something and I think Fremont, and it’s two bucks for a cup at the door. “Kegger,” by the way, does not distinguish parties with beer from parties without. It’s just that keggers have more of it and hordes of kids. Two-bucks-for-a-cup is standard for high-school parties, sort of a forced contribution system in which you buy a plastic glass from the host.
We’re off to party. There are parties every weekend, and hitting more than one in a night is hip. If you have a car. you are definitely Miss or Mr. Popularity come Friday night.
We’ve found it. Someone whose parents are relaxing blissfully at the coast is having a kegger. Kids are sitting on the hoods of their cars, sizing up the newcomers; a bunch of them are in the backyard lurching around and roughhousing. Inside, about 30 more are milling around, sloshing beer, scuffing the woodwork. In the kitchen six or seven boys slouch back on the sink and counters, talking sports and whooping it up. The inner sanctum, complete with keg, is in the basement. So is the make-out room. A rumor spreads that Carter, a goofy class-clown type, has passed out cold in the make-out room. The rumor has people in stitches; they line up at the door of the room and burst in, only to find a pair of sweethearts rolling around on a bed. In the meantime, Carter has stumbled out of the bathroom and wants to know what everyone is looking at in the back room.
The big entertainment is watching how silly everyone is when they’re drunk. Next is listening to Jimi Hendrix on someone’s portable cassette deck. The rest of the party guests have settled into stupors in front of the television, watching rock video on cable. On screen, a man in black makeup slices a tomato over and over again.
The party busts up pretty quickly when the host’s elder brother makes a surprise visit and shoos everyone out of the television room. No sweat; just head out to the next party, another parents-gone-for-the-weekend special. This one’s even better, mostly because there are more girls. “Good grills.” a senior explains. “You know what it’s like when you put a piece of meat on a good, hot grill and it sizzles? That’s a girl who’s a good grill.”
The last party was basically jocks; this one’s more of a mix. Two black kids, even a couple of park rats. Everyone is reeling around, beery and silly. There’s surprisingly little marijuana and no other drugs at all. If the recession has left a mark at all. it’s in the number of Grant graduates from the last few years who are at the party because they hadn’t enough money to go away to college. They’re the drunkest and most weepy, even though the younger kids treat them like venerable elder statesmen.
When things get a little rowdy, the hostess decides to pull the plug. “OK, you guys, everybody go. The keg’s being moved to Normandale Park.” No one budges. “I mean it, you guys. Everybody go. Keg’s being moved.” As she starts panicking, a friend chips in. “Hey come on, you guys. Everybody leave. The cops are coming. I mean it.” Still no one moves. I ask James, my companion, whether he isn’t worried about getting busted. " Oh no,” he slurs cheerfully. “The cops aren’t really coming. They say that at every party just to get rid of people.”
He may not be worried, but I am, so we head out. Besides, James’ mother likes him home by 11. Does she get mad when he comes home drunk? “Well, no, because it’s too late. I’m already drunk.” What’s the best thing about Grant? “Friendly school. Everyone likes to party. Good teachers.” What does the future look like? " I think my stomach’s gonna give out on me,” he ventures, rolling down the window. He throws up a prodigious amount of the party dangerously close to a young couple strolling up the street. “Thanks for the ride,” he mumbles and smiles. " I have to go. I lost my hat.” He trots out of the car toward home. He’s not a bad kid; in fact, he’s a good kid with a chipper attitude who is worried by the realization that he draws a blank when he thinks about the future. It has nothing to do with Grant High School; it has to do with wanting a defensive posture in an indefensibly shaky world. Like most of the students I met, I think I’d be disappointed that I ended up young and expecting to be carefree at a time when no one could afford to be. It’s not hard to understand the kids who want to be numb all the time, or the ones who relentlessly look for thrills. Zombie out or freak out. Still, most of them seek some middle ground and do that enthusiastically; all of them take care not to expect too much from anything.
It reminds me of a solemn statement offered by one of Grant’s Rose Princess candidates earlier in the week, a typical week at a good, typical high school. “Having fun,” she had intoned graciously and carefully, “is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”