Millions of American students are returning to school this time of year. Commentator Rawlins Gilliland will be among them, 50 years after graduation from his North Dallas High School.
Ours was a small tight-knit class, many of us public schooled together all 12 years. Despite being relatively popular, high school struck me as a three-year holding pen one suffers before being released to pursue adult adventures. That stubborn indifference to academic authority may have been perverse but so too was the prevailing scholastic mindset that questioning nothing was a virtue. Still, the Kennedy era was a fascinating time to be young and bored.
Civil Rights struggles had begun to rumble in the seismic background. Vietnam was barely a blip on our conscious radar. But after countless atom bomb drills throughout grade school and 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, there was a wary fatalism underlying otherwise carefree teenage groupthink. It didn’t take long to see why.
Six months after graduation, President Kennedy died after his motorcade passed within blocks of our high school. My former cheerleader partner’s husband became the first Texas soldier to return from Southeast Asia in a body bag. A female friend was rejected for med school despite brilliant grades, told to ‘consider nursing careers’.
Many low-income males married and became fathers, unable to attend college where student status meant draft-deferred whereas family men were permanently exempt. When the draft board inexplicably declared me an unfit "free-bleeder," I gravitated to the late 60s New York and early 70s San Francisco’s Nixon era counterculture. And returned home for the 20th reunion to learn my earliest hush-hush high school crush had fallen in my generation’s next war; a new disease called AIDS. He was hardly the last.
Reading social media, many fellow graduates still favor 1960s liberalism. One woman says her "bi-racial marriage avenges slavery." But far more classmates migrated to the world where angry conservatism impersonates devout maturity. 50 years after we were Boy Scout camp counselors, a suddenly evangelical childhood friend rails against allowing gay leaders? A Vietnam veteran calls women in the military, ‘dangerous social experiments’.
Since 50th high school reunions remind anyone we once had our whole life ahead of us, here’s my class report card. Many of us undoubtedly found it comforting to unapologetically play the conformist game. But others instinctively wondered how resisting being drafted to fight a discredited war was avoidable. Or how demanding racial equality or gender parity while shunning the homophobic status quo was not our age and time’s mandate.
We grew up in an era when many idealized American norms no longer felt genuine, desirable or relevant, even logical or just. We came of age at an historic crossroad; after a world war ended, before the culture wars began. We cannot claim to have had all the answers but it can be said that we asked the right questions.
To the Class of ’63: ‘Here, hear."