Lea Wait, here. In a few months my high school class will be reuniting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation. Fifty years! I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently.
Members of our class, the Glen Ridge, New Jersey, class of 1964, were the first of the Baby Boomers. Most of our fathers (and some of our mothers) served during World War II. Some returned with war injuries and variations of what we now call PTSD. Most returned determined to achieve the American dream: a good income, a family, and a home in a safe neighborhood.
If you drove through Glen Ridge you’d know most of them achieved those goals. Glen Ridge was then, and is now, a small, well-kept community of large and small homes close enough to New York City to make commuting easy, and far enough away so it can be heavily tree-lined and almost classically suburban. The sort of town you’d see in a Jimmy Stewart movie.
Sure – those of us growing up there assumed there were economic differences between families living in the north end of town, and those at the south end. Glen Ridge encompassed homes large enough to be called mansions, and smaller homes, in less elegant, but equally neat and secure, neighborhoods. (My home was one of the many in the middle.)
Our classmates and neighbors were more diverse than we acknowledged. We were gay and straight. We were white and black and Cuban refugees and World War II war orphans. We were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, although our ethnic heritages were heavily weighted toward the British Isles and Italy. But, most of the time, we neither acknowledged those difference, nor, certainly, celebrated them. There were no “black History” or “Hispanic Heritage” months. No one had heard of women’s liberation, much less gay liberation.
We played sports. We rode our bicycles on the street. We built tree houses. If we weren’t skilled at sports we escaped to books or church choirs or Scouts or art or dancing to Elvis Presley.
Our families were the centers of our lives. But inside many, if not all, of those houses on those tree-lined streets, our families had secrets. We didn’t talk about parents who drank heavily, or took too many pills, or vacationed with business associates. We didn’t talk about emotional or physical or sexual abuse. We didn’t talk about fathers we rarely saw .. mothers who were frustrated at being housewives, or who struggled to keep up with their neighbors … gay relatives .. single parent homes. But they were all there. Not all of us looked forward to going home in the afternoon. But, other than
the playing fields or the library or friends’ houses, there was nowhere else in town to go.
The Russians orbited their first satellite when we were in sixth grade, and the United States, scared and horrified, began its race to compete. Academic standards increased almost overnight. By the time we were in seventh grade we were tested, assessed, and classified in advanced classes, average classes .. and others. Of course, because society wasn’t yet comfortable differentiating between students, although every one of us knew exactly where we fell in the educational order, none of that was publicly acknowledged by the school.
We were focused on the basics. … history. English. Math. Science. But girls still took home economics and boys took shop, as we saw Kennedy elected, prayed for the Russians to back off during the Cuban Missile crisis, watched Civil Rights demonstrations in the south on our black and white televisions, and then, in our senior year of high school, saw Kennedy assassinated and the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
As our country raced to get to the moon before the Russians, education was seen as the tool to make us “The Great Society.” Competition was part of our everyday lives. In seventh grade we had a class in how to prepare for college, and several times a month we took national tests, both for what they revealed and to familiarize ourselves with critical SATs and National Merit exams to come. In high school we took advanced science courses …although the teacher of one told us no girl had ever gotten higher than a “C” in his classroom. No matter how hard we worked .. turned out he was right. No one, student or parents or administration, questioned it. We took Latin, French, Spanish … and typing (to prepare to type college papers.) Some of us struggled through advanced math classes and Advanced English and American history. Many who took those courses did well in advanced placement exams when we were seniors.
Boys played football and basketball and tennis. Girls were cheerleaders and played field hockey and learned folk dances. We worked on the high school newspaper and the yearbook and were members of foreign language clubs.
We also grew up socially. We wanted to have girlfriends or boyfriends, and some of us did. Others didn’t. Some of us went to the prom. Some of us went to Civil Rights demonstrations. We listened to rock and the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio. We lived less than an hour from Broadway, but most of us saw West Side Story at a movie theatre. “Peace” was something rising in our consciousnesses. We didn’t know it then, but some of us would go to Vietnam. Some wouldn’t return.
About a hundred and twenty-five of us graduated from Glen Ridge High School in June of 1964. Most of us went on to college; some dropped out; some eventually got advanced degrees. A few went into the service or got jobs.
We saw each other, sometimes, when we visited our parents in Glen Ridge. We grew up. We got married, or we didn’t. We lived our lives.
We had been given a mission by President Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you ..”) and by our parents and teachers. We were to make our world better.
In some ways, we did that. In others, we failed miserably. But many, if not all, of us tried.
And now it’s fifty years later. I haven’t taken a poll, but I suspect most of us are now grandparents.
Those grandchildren are growing up in a world much more open than ours was; a world in which there are not as many secrets. But also, due to reliance on social media and technology, they are growing up in a world missing some of the connections we had to each other as we were growing up.
Nationally, our school systems are failing in many ways, and the idea of “besting the Russians” in technology and the sciences now seems laughable. Instead of being the products of some of the best schools in the world, today’s American students are behind their counterparts in fifteen or twenty countries.
Civil rights. Women’s rights. Gender freedom. Our generation has made major differences in social issues, although we still have a long way to go.
But we have only begun to make inroads on environmental issues, including global warming. Today there is more difference than there was fifty years ago between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and between political parties. We’ve lost two of the great equalizing factors: excellent education for all and well-paying middle class, blue and white collar, jobs that enable those at the bottom of our economic structure to step up. The gaps between the steps are, for many people, too wide to cross.
The future success of the United States may depend on our creating opportunities for those who fall between those gaps.
This October I will gather with many of my classmates to celebrate, to reminisce, to remember classmates no longer with us, and to think back over the past fifty years. Although not everyone in our class was lucky enough to make it this far, most of us have.
I hope we also take the time, individually or collectively, to think about our next years. No; we don’t have another fifty years. But we may have ten. Or twenty. Or perhaps even thirty.
I hope we use them wisely. For ourselves and for society. For our grandchildren.
We are the first Baby Boomer class. We’ve lived through a lot of changes in our world. We created many of them, good and bad. We can’t afford – and our country can’t afford – for us to stop now.
There’s still work to be done.