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Excerpt of The Class of 2000

CBS News with Text by Carolyn Mackler
Preface by Dan Rather
Simon & Schuster
eBook, $9.95

By Dan Rather

"Our high school years tend to hold a special place in the storehouse of memory. It's small wonder why high school was, for so many of us, the crucible of our emerging selves, a time when we faced a future seemingly without horizon. We enter more children than adults and, a few short years later, leave more adults than children. In the time between, we take our first tentative steps down any number of paths and make the sorts of mistakes that teach life's most valuable lessons.

I got a chance, in 1996, to return to my old high school, in Houston, Texas, but not to revisit the past. CBS News and I traveled to John H. Reagan High School to gain a glimpse of the future through young eyes -- to look at the world as seen by those who would graduate into the new millennium. It was the first of a series of reports that would take me and my colleagues across the country to meet hundreds of the young men and women who make up the American class of 2000. We followed them through their four-year journey and visited them in the places where they live, study, play, and dream the dream of the future.

In my day, Reagan High was a pretty rough place. The neighborhood was transitional, which is to say it was tough and getting tougher. Fights were a fairly common occurrence, on and off the school grounds. Very few of my classmates looked forward to college, and most of their parents, like mine, had not even finished high school.

At midcentury, this was not so unusual. My generation went to high school at a time when families were just beginning to dream that a child of theirs would be the first among them to attend college. In practice, that child was usually a son.

Back then, most students still looked to graduation with thoughts of making a living. For boys, there was also military service. The draft was in effect, but amid the patriotism of that postwar era, serving one's country in uniform was considered not only an obligation, but an honor.

For girls, career options were few -- teaching, secretarial work, or waitressing. So young women, in my part of the country, at least, mostly looked forward to getting married after they graduated from high school.

And at Reagan High, the boys and the girls, regardless of their hopes and dreams and fears, were all white. My high school, like those throughout the South and in many other places, was racially segregated.

To say the least, a lot has changed since I graduated as part of the class of 1950.

The big changes were self-evident and hardly required any investigative reporting or even a visit. Reagan High has been desegregated since the early 1960s after all, and the aspirations available to the young women who study there have broadened steadily since I was a student. But we were after something more than the obvious picture. To borrow a term from painting, our aims were more pointillist -- we wanted to get in close to see, meet, and show our viewers the many colorful individuals who, taken together, would form a detailed portrait of the American high school student at century's end and century's dawn.

As I roamed the hallways I had walked down, books in hand, so many years ago, I wondered what we would find. The early signs were not particularly encouraging moments after we arrived, two students, T-shirts dripping with blood, were led away by the police for fighting on school grounds. Students at Reagan High still fought -- not much change there -- but now the cops stepped in.

Indeed, students had to pass through a gauntlet of armed security guards just to get into the building on the first day of classes. I had told some old friends that I was coming back to Reagan, and they had quietly warned me that it was rougher now than when I had been there. I was disappointed and saddened to see this seemingly borne out from the start.

But as is so often the case, this first impression obscured at least as much as it revealed. It was not long before I met the sorts of students who moved principal Monica Sandoval to tell me that she had decided to stay at her post because she "fell in love with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood." I had a chance to talk to bright, involved students like Lisa Rodriguez, who told me that she wanted to be a doctor -- in part to prove wrong all those people who say that "Hispanics don't end up being anything." Her expression as she told me of her plans revealed a thoughtfulness and determination beyond her years.

In many ways, my day back at Reagan High stands as metaphor for the whole of our experience with the class of 2000. This is a group of young people who are all too familiar with the way first impressions can cloud the truth. The headlines tell us that our schools have become killing zones, that the kids in high school today suffer from precocious ennui and a pervasive apathy. We adults too often accept the rough, unfamiliar surfaces we see in youth -- the unconventional haircuts and hair colors, the tattoos and baggy clothes, the piercings in places we never would have imagined -- for the deeper picture.

If we've learned anything over these past four years, it's that the individuals of the class of 2000 defy easy characterization, especially on the basis of looks. Story after story brought this lesson home to us, and perhaps none more simply and eloquently than our profile of Steve Pillsbury, a self-described "head banger" from Joppatowne High School in central Maryland.

Steve likes hard-driving music, "anything that's heavy and is rock and roll," and his appearance gives ready testimony to his musical preference when we met him in 1997, Steve was unusually tonsured, a shock of dark brown hair flopping down one side of his head contrasting with a hemisphere of shaved scalp. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and the obligatory black T-shirts bearing pictures of skulls and of his favorite band, the rock group Metallica.

To see Steve and to hear his music is to gain some insight into his tastes. But to really know him, you need to see Steve with his younger sister, Amber. Amber is mentally disabled and requires constant care. Like the other members of his family, Steve pitches in after school and amid the obligations of his own life to feed, tend to, and play with her. With his sister, Steve's tenderness completely belies his rough appearance. Taking care of a disabled family member may take "more time, more care, and more patience," he told us with a disarming smile, "but I don't mind." With the best of all possible attitudes, Steve views his time spent with Amber as a labor of love and a learning experience.

Lest we forget, kids like Steve reminded us to always look past the superficial. They also taught us that despite what you might hear or read, today's young people care. We met students involved in politics, in promoting racial harmony, in spreading the word about AIDS, young adults who contribute in innumerable ways large and small to make their school and their community a better place.

This is good news not just about our youth, but about America's future -- for they are one and the same.

This doesn't mean that the class of 2000 -- and those who will follow them -- aren't facing some very serious problems. In our school visits and through a series of polls, we learned that they have concerns that, in my day, we would hardly have imagined. These are kids who have grown up quickly. They are no strangers to violence, and many are the children of divorce. As they graduate this June, more than half of the class of 2000 have had sex, even though many of them feel that they are too young. Nearly all of them know a fellow student who has gotten pregnant, and one in five knows someone who has AIDS or is HIV- positive. Seventy percent know someone their age who has tried to commit suicide.

With today's relative peace and prosperity, there's a tendency for people my age to look at today's young people as coddled, even spoiled. But we conveniently forget that although they may not be graduating into world war or depression, they'll have to cope with a rapidly changing world that presents its own challenges and offers more and different ones every day. Our Class of 2000 series gave us, for a short time, the chance to see this world through their eyes. But we cannot know what those eyes will see after we have gone.

Going back to my old high school showed me that one thing hasn't changed -- like our class of 1950, the class of 2000 looks to the future with optimism. Once again most believe that their lives will be better than those of their parents. We parents can only hope that this will be so.

They graduate now, these guardians of the American dream. Soon they will confront jobs, college, careers, their own families. The time will come to put their dreams into action, but first, let them pause and appreciate what they have already accomplished. So to the class of 2000, congratulations and a tip of the Stetson. May all your best dreams be realized.

Copyright © 2000 by CBS Worldwide Inc."


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