Born in 1946, we are Good Fortune’s children. The tip of the Baby Boomer spear, we began high school riding a wave of American prosperity, witnessed the solidification of the middle class, and shared an optimism about America as a force for good in the world. Two months after our first high school class, John F. Kennedy, our Catholic president, was elected. Even though he was born just a year after my old man, he was packaged as a member of a new generation of American politician. If we had been paying attention, the start of our sophomore year coincided with the opening of Vatican II which ushered in changes, mostly liturgical as we saw it, into a moribund Catholic Church. In the fall of our senior year, the Kennedy assassination rattled us, but as self-absorbed 17 year olds we rolled with the tragedy, disappointed that the sock hop and basketball game had been cancelled. In the spring we were probably more aware of the Academy Award performance of Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (it was about nuns) than the murder of Medgar Evers or the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Who gave a thought to the passage of the Civil Rights Act during a July graduation party?
We are the beneficiaries of well-intentioned Catholic parents, most of whom had not been to college and some of whom didn’t complete high school, parent who thought that a $198 yearly tuition bill ($1,500 in today’s dollars) was not too much to pay, even though there were four of five more children in the family expecting the same investment. For them, sending a male child to the Christian Brothers was an extension of the 8 years of parochial education with the good Dominican sisters. My high school was not technically a neighborhood school, but a short two-mile bus ride on Belmont Avenue made it seem so. That and the fact that 25 of my elementary school classmates had made the same high school choice.
Supported by our parents’ sacrifices, we were to provide the confirmation for their belief in the myth of an ever-improving future. The sons of barbers, tool and die makers and insurance claim adjusters became attorneys, big-time real –estate brokers and, in my case, a college teacher with a few advanced degrees.
In 1962, our sophomore year, 36 brothers worked at St. Patrick High School: most were in the classroom teaching a variety of subjects. 24 laymen assisted them in their mission. This was the high water mark of Catholic education with enrollments in Catholic schools nationwide exceeding 4 million. The teaching staff came in all shapes and sizes and displayed a wide range of attitudes and talents: saintly and cynical brothers, charismatic laymen teachers and lazy football coaches assigned to teach physical education, strict disciplinarians who took advantage of permissive notions about corporal punishment and globally-aware missionaries who tried to let us know about the world outside our bubble.
But the more I think about formative influences, the more I reject the standard answers about caring parents, character-forming coaches, and soul-saving clergy. I put my money on my friends, on that 5% of our 476- member graduating class with whom I studied for physics tests, hid from the goofy cross-country coach during practice, cut out of class for First Friday worship time, and hitch-hiked home after school. They taught me how to behave in school. They taught me how to be academically successful. They created the rules for healthy academic competition. Their vague goals of going to college and then…. became my own.
Judith Harris’s 1998 book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do –– heretical when it first appeared — has helped me to see that while the parent and teacher role is not insignificant, peers – and genetics — exert a more powerful influence on the shaping of character than commonly acknowledged. Fortune was again at work: I was part of a generational cohort of well-fed, smart, decent, ambitious, prone-to-mischief adolescents; we formed a circle of tolerant mutual respect and admiration, won in a variety of ways: by adding exponents or consistently hitting a 20 foot jump shot or conjugating tricky Latin verbs or mimicking an overly-exuberant biology teacher. I scored major points by being fleet of foot but even moreso because I had the first pair of Adidas shoes in the school. Long before multi-cultural awareness was embedded in the curriculum, we took in the lessons of our Irish-Italian-Polish quasi-polyglot society; the number of African- and Hispanic-Americans could be counted on two hands. Many of us came from hyphenated marriages — in my case Irish-German — where minor episodes in cultural blending occurred regularly.
By 9:30PM much of the reunion crowd of 100 had dispersed, home to let out the dog or to take their heart medication or to suffer the abuse of their wives who were mistakenly brought along to a pretty-much all-male affair. The dozen who remained fell into familiar habits: spinning out oft-told anecdotes. In the dimmed light of the banquet facility, we were like primitives around the campfire repeating, without little solemnity, our origin and survival myths. It was so easy to revert back to our silly-cruel adolescent selves, laughing at stories of transgressive classroom behavior. Not a single word about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg or Frost’s irony in “Mending Wall.” Gene spun out the tale of the 300-pound ex-Bear Washington Serini who in his effort to win for his homeroom the mission-collection prize, turned his students upside down to shake loose change out of their pockets. Tom reminded us once again how Larry tortured our clueless algebra teacher, Mr. Meyers. While Meyers wrote on the board, Larry, sitting in the front row, would push his desk so that by end of the period the inept teacher would have fewer than three feet between desk and board to awkwardly operate in. I momentarily felt a rush of compassion for Meyers that I had never felt before. Pity Mr. Meyers and many belated apologies to all harmed by our animal spirits.
And pity the ghosts who are dutifully recorded in the Reunion Momento Book, the 66 deceased from Allaire to Zurawski. What consolation is there in knowing that this 13% death rate is better than average for the national 1946 cohort? [19% of all baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are no longer living.] On the list are the names of three grammar school classmates who didn’t make it into their 60s; the early exit of the third made me wonder whether I had grown up in a cancer cluster and would not make it to full life expectancy.
Some of us spoke about the joys of being grandparents, especially as retirement has provided more time for these cross-generational relationships. But I wonder if, when these grandchildren get older, they will have mixed feelings about us, appreciative of our kindness and the wealth transfer to their parents but scornful of the ways in which our Baby Boomer excessive appetites, utopian schemes, self-congratulatory pronouncements, and tolerance for corruption in its many forms have left them with a diminished world. Entering high school in 2015, 55 years after we did, they will be stepping into a far different world, one much more instantaneous but also much more fractured than the one in which we came of age. Will they, growing up at a time of cultural fragmentation, have a common core of cultural touchstones as we do…will Lena, Tavi and Toure reverberate for them in the same way as Lucy and Mick and Malcolm do for us? Who will be their Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?
As I drifted off to a boozy sleep, I had a brief vision of their 2069 reunion conducted via hologram, a virtual gathering in which former Facebook friends shared memories of the time they cyber-bullied an all too lenient math teacher.