“That is so High School!”
What pops into your head when you hear that phrase?
If you grew up in the 1960’s it means a situation in which all the inanity of high school, the rigid social structure, the arbitrary rules, the clueless adults in power, is echoed in some present day inanity. A generation of hippies and other misfits found common cause in referring to high school with a sneer; comics and drug addicts, wall flowers, poindexters, artists, deviants, the neglected, the abused, and, as happens, a sprinkling of saints. For our generation High School was a microcosm of the System, a universal symbol of spirit-draining bogosity.
The social hierarchy of high school is imprinted early and emphatically. It is unforgiving. It has an (evil) eye for detail. Your “place”, your first sense of yourself in a pecking order with vigilant beaks is decided by a haircut or speech impediment or hand-me-down sweater. The only upward social mobility in this system belongs to the athletically gifted. If you can hit a jump shot at the buzzer you are golden.
I’m speaking of course as one of the uncoordinated misfits. A rueful tone and present tense has crept into the memory. Let me shake that off now. Because I want to talk about an unexpected insight of going to high school in the 1960’s.
All across America, with the exception of the deep south, it was a common experience. The social structure of a high school in Duluth was the same as one in Seattle or Falls Church, or New London. We knew each other in that nebulous way kids the same age always do. As if a conspiracy of adults to perpetuate the cruel hoax of childhood seemed a real possibility. We examined each others clothes and cars and house and parents looking for clues to the riddle.
The real-world fate of our classmates seemed like a gimme. We knew who would be professionals, those brainiacs in Advanced Placement, the math and chess club dweebs. We knew the first generation college bound. They would have an office in the places their parents worked a shift; Public Works, Electric Boat, the hospitals. The fate, my childhood friend Nick said, of the mediocre bright. He was looking for clues.
Also distinct, maybe two or three real artists, futures lashed to the mast. We never heard from them again.
Unlike, say, the guys acing Shop who would go to work at Electric Boat and date/impregnate/marry the cute little buttons taking home ec. classes. An early, fusty air surrounded those going down into the service industry mines, the hairdressers and tire salesmen. We had a pretty clear idea who would be living out those lives. And, in their own category, the guys most likely to be cops.
Back in the 1960’s you could tell a kid who was likely to become a cop. In an anti-war era, they volunteered for military service even if they personally disapproved of the war. Not to enlist was not an option. They were inflexible in Civics class, speaking with a moral compass that pointed true north, even when hooted at from the far corners. If a Biblical perspective was going to make its way into a discussion in the 1960’s, it was likely to come from a cop-to-be. Good all around athletes, three-sport guys, physical guys. The moral certainty and physicality often showed up together. In my high school, bullying, preying on the weak, general craven behavior, was still considered bad form and was dealt with after school behind the gym. And it was often the cop-to-be who was administering the payback beating. The child become a man who cannot let the wicked go unpunished.
If I’m rhapsodizing out of proportion blame nostalgia. But there was a time in America when young men of character, people we knew, made a committed choice to defend the weak and to protect a way of life. They had a character flaw, an inability to turn away from danger. They put their lives on the line, literally. They were, if we can use a term like this now, Heroes.
Maybe this is all just geezer reminiscence, an old guy’s vague unease. Covering up the sins to sing the virtue, ignoring the inescapable moral complications present in every human life. Certainly the narrative has changed in forty years. Race, class and corruption are vital now to the public conversation about policing. Cell phone videos have destroyed the implied credibility of law enforcement, both in the courts and in the public mind. Whether the actual percentage of bad cops is one or forty, the badge is smudged.
This is a dangerous and unnatural circumstance. With wolves among the flock, don’t we desperately need to trust the sheep dogs?
Don’t we as a culture, and maybe as a species, don’t we need Heroes to survive?
(End of part 1)