A tribute to the Class of ’84

The following remarks were delivered at the Sheraton City Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on the occasion of the Davis High School (Kaysville) 1984 class reunion. The opening paragraph is in response to master of ceremonies Jodi Allison, my employment by the National Council on the Aging having prompted from her some mordant comment or another.

I'll tell you how I'm doing with that aging thing, Jodi. I'm still 36. At least until tomorrow.

I hope you'll forgive me if I read from my notes. I'm afraid if I wing it I'll start talking like a New Yorker from sheer nerves. Anyway, it's an honor and a humbling experience to stand before you on this beautiful Friday the 13th and remember the Davis High School Class of '84. Looking out over this crowd—man, a lot's changed since high school. Speaking for myself, I don't think I'd even fit in my locker anymore. But that's why we're here tonight—change. We've come together to celebrate not just old times but having survived all the changes between then and now. So when Cheri asked me to speak, I started thinking what it was like in that year George Orwell made ominous, 1984, and how different our world is two decades later from the one we knew then.

Let's go back to May of 1984 for a few minutes and try to remember what it was like. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and we didn't know for sure about the Alzheimer's yet, and Walter Mondale was shortly to chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first (and so far only) woman to run for vice-president on a major-party ticket. The Iran-Contra scandal was still two years from breaking, the Berlin Wall was five years from falling, and the Soviet Union, the only significant threat to world peace most of us could imagine, was seven years from collapsing under its own weight. The space shuttles Challenger and Columbia were both still flying, and the president would not use the term "AIDS" in public for another year. Closer to home, Scott Matheson was governor of the state. Today his son is running for the same office, against the son of chemical mogul Jon Huntsman. In sports, John Stockton had just been drafted from Gonzaga by the Utah Jazz. Karl Malone would be drafted from Louisiana Tech the following year.

The Billboard #1 hits so far that year were "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by Yes, "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, "Jump" by Van Halen, "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins, "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins, "Hello" by Lionel Richie, and, the week we graduated, "Let's Hear It for the Boy" by Deniece Williams. The Police were the most popular band in the world, Sting was still cool, and Darin Goff was the only one in the school who'd heard of R.E.M. (And Darin, you'll be pleased to hear my father still doesn't like me hanging out with you.) You could like new wave or hair metal but not both, and no one would ever have guessed that in 2004 you could put on your white socks and sandals and sign up for a week-long Caribbean cruise with Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. Oh, yeah, and we mostly listened to this stuff on cassette or LP. The compact disc had been around for a year or two, but most of what you could buy on CD was classical music.

In movies, the Star Wars saga had ended the year before—or so we thought. The top flicks the year so far had been Footloose, Police Academy ... One, Romancing the Stone, and the one I cut seminary to see, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Kaysville Theater was a year away from getting picketed when it showed its first R-rated movie, Beverly Hills Cop, and still to come that summer were Star Trek III, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, and Purple Rain. (Purple Rain. Man. Last month my wife and I had front row seats at Madison Square Garden to see Prince, together with Morris Day & The Time. What a show. It's funny how nostalgic we get for music we didn't even listen to when it was new.)

On television the top shows were Dallas, Dynasty, and The A-Team. M*A*S*H had been over for a year, and Cheers was only two years old. Seinfeld was still six years in the future, Friends ten, and The Sopranos was, you know, fuhgeddaboutit.

The state of the art in home computers was the Apple IIe, which had a ceiling of a whopping 128 kilobytes of memory. Today I carry one thousand times as much storage capacity on my wrist, in the form of a USB drive built into my watch, and at least fifty times as much as what existed in the entire computer lab at Davis High. And even that is just a tiny fraction of what comes today with the lowest-end home computer.

The Internet existed in 1984, but it linked only government, university, and research institutions. If you went online, you were probably dialing into a bulletin-board system somewhere. On today's Internet, it may indeed seem that Big Brother is watching far us more closely than in 1984, but on the other hand we have a much better view of him. The sum total of human knowledge is at our fingertips, just a Google search away, right alongside and sometimes indistinguishable from warnings about organ-harvesting rings in Cabo San Lucas, pleas for help getting money out of Nigeria, and lists of what kids in 2004 no longer know that kids from 1984 did. Back then the research for this little summation would have taken me half a day at a good library. Instead I did it at my kitchen table in less than an hour while my laptop computer played Beethoven sonatas over a wireless network connection to my desktop computer in the next room.

Okay, that's a little of what the world was like when we were in high school, but what about high school itself? In a way, every one of us went to a different high school, with different schedules and different teachers and different friends. That's one of the things that makes a reunion like this so interesting—comparing and contrasting our different memories to get a more complete picture of what that time was really like. So keeping in mind how subjective this is, I want to share some of the random things I remember from high school.

I remember the teachers. I remember English class with Mrs. Storey, who made discussing Faulkner fun, and who always had personalized suggestions of great books that weren't on the curriculum but which she was pretty sure we'd enjoy reading anyway.

I remember economics with Bryant Jensen, who made me feel as if I actually understood economics, at least for as long as he was explaining it, and who occasionally made me feel like the dumbest kid on the face of the earth, which was probably good for me.

I remember chemistry with Frank Stevens, who we convinced ourselves was the lost seventh member of Monty Python. And there was his stuffed mole, which we kidnapped as often as we could from behind his increasingly paranoid security measures and held for ransom.

I remember Lenzi Nelson, a great math teacher who always complained that in twenty years all we'd remember from his class was that he threw chalk. Well, I'm sure anyone who had him remembers the chalk, but he was my first computer teacher, and I'm still doing that today, so something else must have stuck from all those hours in his classes.

I remember Mrs. Hill, who was the advisor to the Dart staff, who let Matt Kimball paint a giant ska man on the back wall of the Dart staff room. I wasn't even sure exactly what "ska" was, but I liked having that big black silhouette gazing down on us as Emilie Bean and I laid out the paper every month.

I remember football games in the fall and winter, and how the social scene in the stands was almost as important as what was happening on the field. And then I remember the excitement of the state playoffs, going to see our team play at Rice Stadium, and showing up at those games in my black trenchcoat, long before black trenchcoats started becoming seen as a "danger sign." (Don't worry—there was no easy access to firearms at home.) But damn, that team was good, with Steve Sargent and Greg McNabb and everyone else, and not taking State was one of history's great tragedies.

I remember the marquee out in front of the school, and the little jolt of anticipation wondering what the thing was going to say this time. Often as not, it was a message from someone to someone else asking if they'd go with them to the next school dance. I mean, how could you say no to the Davis High marquee?

And that's another thing I remember—all the effort and elaborate planning that went into asking someone to a dance without actually walking up to them and doing it face-to-face. And every time, it had to be bigger and better than the time before. It was like Mutual Assured Destruction. The U.S. hires a skywriter, so Russia plans a fireworks display. Russia gets the Utah Jazz to deliver its message, so the U.S. gets the Utah Symphony. And the best part about it is the victim's reaction when the operation goes into effect. You come home and find that someone has brought in dump trucks to fill the entire basement of your house with Styrofoam packing peanuts, and the first thing out of your mouth, with genuine puzzlement, is, "Oh my heck! What's this?" So you spend the next three days cleaning it all out, and when you finally get that last final packing peanut out from under the couch and put it under your electron scanning microscope to find that someone has used a calligraphy brush made from the eyelash of a fruitfly to write "Will you go to Christmas Dance with me?" on it in ancient Chinese—then, then, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, "Oh, thank goodness. For a couple of days there I thought it might be Al Qaeda."

I tell you, we should have gotten graded on asking people to dances. We should have gotten credit toward graduation for it. There are Pentagon generals who've never done as much logistical planning as went into asking someone to a dance. But I digress.

There's more I remember, but most of all I remember people who are no longer with us. Who could forget, or hasn't tried to, the morning intercom announcements from Mr. Cook, which always wrapped up with a rundown of the lunch menu including that "one—half—pint—milk"? I remember hearing the news about Mr. Cook's passing many years ago, and I imagine he's now singing lustily with the heavenly choir—and goosing the other angels when no one's looking. ("What are you whining about, Chumley?")

And then there's Mrs. Beattie, one of the most influential and most frustrating teachers I ever had, who passed away just this spring. As far as I know she never moved to Florence after she retired, which she always said she intended to, but she lived quite a life nonetheless, and left her mark on countless students through the years.

There are no doubt others I don't know about, and there are classmates, too, who sadly are no longer with us, and who we miss. John Whicker, Kim Burton. Alan Rushforth, who's been gone for more than twenty years. If there are others, we're thinking of them all, and of the family and friends who no longer enjoy their company and presence.

Finally, one monumental part of the Class of 1984 is longer with us. I've just driven along Main Street in Kaysville for the first time in a couple of years, and I saw there's a new building that's gone up where our Davis High School stood for nearly a century. It's funny how there are some buildings you spend so much time in, whose corridors you scurry through for so many years, but you take them for granted, and it isn't until they come down that you realize what an important symbol and landmark they were in the community while they still existed, and what a long shadow they cast. I'm sure the new school will serve its students just as well, but it's still strange to think of the town without our dear old Davis High School

To close, I'd like to consider one of the great myths we tell ourselves about high school—that it's an either/or proposition, that it was either our glory days and the rest of life is all downhill, or it was hell on earth and we spend the remainder of life trying to recover from it. I think for most of us the truth is probably somewhere in between. I know it was for me, and I thank you, Class of '84, for helping to make my high school experience the good thing it was. I hope it was good for you, and that as the world has changed and our children have started taking our places, things have kept getting better from there.

The fact that so many of us actually showed up tonight would seem to indicate that this is, indeed, the case. Thank you.  

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill

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