When the subject matter was revealed, eyebrows were raised in a different way.
Conlons hot-off-the-presses book bears the hefty and intriguing title, What Really Happened to the Class of 93: Start-ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade. What begat both curiosity and skepticism was that Conlon put forth the premise that his graduating high school class was a microcosm for a slew of the most significant events that history and pop culture could muster between 1993 and now.
Conlons take was that he and his classmates left high school for the real world midway through 1993 with a spirit of optimism that hadnt been present in American youth for nearly 40 years. Theyd weathered the jaded, decadent, money-grubbing, me-oriented era of the big 80s, and it now smelled like teen invincibility. After all, Clinton was newly installed in the White House, Big Brother no longer lurked in the form of the former Soviet Union, and the mere suggestion of a new thing called dot.coms promised lucrative, unlimited easy streets.
When the author and his classmates reunited for their 10-year reunion, the mood was noticeably different; enough so to move Conlon to write a book that examined what had taken place during that time. The other bookend to all the aforementioned optimism was a brilliant, disgraced leader who crawled away from the presidency under a cloud of scandal, the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City on a beautiful September day when America fell under attack, and a staggering economic downturn. There was also the chaos of personal lives put asunder by all the things that can tear a seemingly normal life apart.
Conlon profiled a diverse group of 20 of his 1993 classmates from Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology in Virginia, prefacing each individual story with comments by other classmates. Here is an excerpt dedicated to Chris Sununu, a minor celebrity of the school due to his rather infamous father, John:
Wes Black: Friends of ours would come up to him and spread their arms like an airplane, make airplane noises. Hed get pissed off. He was probably a little embarrassed about the whole [scandal involving his father]. I think that hurt him. He was a good person.
Rebecca (Gray) Lamey: I went head-to-head with Chris constantly. Usually what ended up happening was, he always had all the guys on his side, and I always had all the girls on my side. Something about him -- there were a lot of guys laughing and applauding him that wouldnt have normally. One argument I remember was about the differences between the sexes. He and I ended up getting pretty heated. He was going on about how if he took a woman to prom, and rented a limo, and bought her dinner, hed better get reimbursed for it at the end of the night. I said, Youd expect her to put out just because you spent money on her? And he said, Yes, definitely.
Wayne Steward: He was your typical straight guys guy. Our lockers were near each other. We disagreed on stuff, but at no point did I ever have a really nasty interaction with him. At no point did he ever come up to me and say something overtly prejudiced. Then again, I was already out, you know? What, youre going to walk down the hall and call me faggot? Id just turn around and say, I know!
Vanya (Seaman) Wright: Freshman year I went to Karen Taggarts birthday party everyone was invited. It was at a mall, and we were trying to get seated at a restaurant there and we couldnt get in. We walked around and around for 45 minutes. Then Chris mumbled, I never have to wait for a table when Im with my dad. We went back and changed the name to Sununu and got right in -- though maybe they were going to let us in then anyway.
John Helmantoler: I really liked Chris. He was a great guy Politically, his reputation was that of a Rush Limbaugh/Fox News type. That was definitely an accurate portrayal of him. He was definitely of that intolerant camp -- I suppose I was, too -- though its a bad word. He was of that party line -- What the hells going on? Were making these people heroes and martyrs for coming out of the closet! In our defense, we hadnt seen this before. Its usually not until college that you start seeing this stuff, and for us it was happening in high school.
Conlins school was a specialized one located just outside of Washington, D.C, and its students were, for the most part, bright and gifted, with unlimited potential. Among his classmates were Karen, a rebel who walked out of her LSAT exam and became an inner-city teacher; Ryan, who drifted to Buddhism after giving up his dream of being a doctor; and Lesley. We also meet the homecoming queen who morphed into Fair Trade activist, the transgendered Matthew/Anne, and others, whose stories touch on the war in Kosovo, being an unwed mother, leftist politics and a love of weaponry, to name just a few.
For the most part, they are all compelling stories, and Conlin is a skilled enough writer to dig for texture in his portraits of the class nerd, prom queen and local nympho, but the greater question is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Do we as a society, or for that matter, does Conlin have enough perspective to be able to wax nostalgically about a time period just 10-years-old? Do the people represented here really speak for that era and define a generation in the way the author wishes them to?
In some ways, what really emerges here is a picture of a period in time, perhaps more so than of a group of individuals, but however one interprets what Conlin presents, his book is candid and generally engaging. In some ways, theres a part of each one of us that will always be steeped in our high school lore, and theres a timelessness in that thought that will resonate with readers and carry us back to a time when innocence, and yes, optimism, didnt seem so far away.