The Class of 1983

What you are about to read was first written in July 2008, which was Reunion Month at the Prestegard household — my high school’s 25th class reunion, followed two weeks later by my wife’s 25th class reunion.

That makes us two of the older members of Generation X, which means we supposedly are slackersunhappy at workseeking balance between work and lifewanting independence to do our worktech-savvy, blunt, independent, skeptical, knowledge-seeking, and so on. And, according to this, we Gen Xers believe Generation Y suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (Damn kids.)

I am skeptical about generational attributes, although some are probably valid since people of similar age have common experiences. My personality wasn’t changed by Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, although my worldview was. Unlike many of the people with whom I graduated from college (23 years ago this year, the year I turned 23 — yes, my college graduation was half my life ago), I had a job lined up almost two months before I graduated. Is the fact I didn’t get married until I was 27 an attribute of my generation, the result of my exciting single social life, or merely due to the fact that my wife-to-be took her own sweet time returning from her Peace Corps service in Guatemala? (As if she was supposed to know about a timetable that didn’t exist.)

La Follette High School in Madison is certainly not the same place I went to high school (nice to see, though, that the principal and other administrators are alumni; the current prinicipal, who replaced another alumnus, was a sophomore my senior year), and it’s not the same high school whose athletes I covered for a weekly newspaper while I was in college. (I figured that out the first time I read about drive-by shootings at La Follette.) There are four public high schools in Madison, and when I was in high school, West was where the university professors’ children went, Memorial was for the West Side snobs, East was for the blue-collar families (although Maple Bluff residents also went there), and La Follette was the high school of the East Side white-collar families. (The demographics at La Follette have changed substantially since my days there.) Our biggest rival was East, as demonstrated by the police presence at La Follette–East hockey games — common today, but not in those days. (And speaking of hockey, my class provided Madison’s, and perhaps Wisconsin’s, first female varsity hockey player, Sue Mussey, who went on to play at Providence.)

Four years ago, after my aunt’s funeral, I drove past La Follette, since the mausoleum my aunt chose as her final resting place is in the neighborhood, to show our children where I went to high school. Out front, I saw a Madison police car and a Madison TV reporter doing a story about some kind of incident there. In the four years I went to La Follette, the only incident worth a TV story that I recall was a large underage drinking party outside of Madison put on by the class of 1982 on Senior Skip Day. (The biggest incident involving our class, about which speculation still occurs, was an epic food fight at lunch outside one day. It probably is a Rashomon-like experience for those who witnessed it or participated in it.)

La Follette was a good place to go to high school, although with more than 2,000 students, it’s not as if I knew that many people with whom I graduated. As with attending large colleges, you’re better off joining groups of people with whom you have common interests. In my case, that was the La Follette bands (directed for two years by an alumnus of and assistant for the world famous University of Wisconsin Marching Band) and the student newspaper, The Lance. (Not named for someone named Lance, but a short version of the athletic nickname, “Lancers.”) My first big journalism moment was covering a controversy that took place over a group of cheerleaders who quit due to some kind of conflict with the athletic director. (And that’s all the details I remember after more than 25 years.)

Those kinds of student groups, though, mean that you spend less time with your own classmates, since groups like those include students your age, older than you, and younger than you. (My first girlfriend, who I met in the band, was in the aforementioned Class of 1982, although she was not present at the epic drinking party.) Until I joined Facebook, there wasn’t anyone from the Class of 1983 with whom I’ve kept in even semi-regular touch since graduation. It’s not as if I deliberately shunned my classmates (a group of us attended the same schools from first grade to graduation), although I didn’t pine for my high school days after graduation either. Our paths simply went in different directions after graduation.

Our class’ biggest accomplishment (other than winning the Homecoming class competition three years in a row, which is not something most people put on their résumé) was our contribution to La Follette’s state championship in Class A boys basketball in 1982, our junior year. La Follette’s team included one starter who went on to become the University of Wisconsin’s fifth leading men’s basketball scorer, another (a classmate of mine) who also played Division I basketball at Western Michigan, and another starter who played football at Wisconsin and with the New England Patriots. And yet La Follette, with five regular-season losses, was the underdog in the Class A championship game against Stevens Point, which was undefeated going into the title game … but not undefeated afterward. (As it happens, Stevens Point’s leading scorer played for Wisconsin, where he was a teammate of his state championship game rival. Also as it happens, his sister opened a PR firm in Appleton; her reaction to the state title game was different from mine.) My contribution to the state championship was in the band.

(Watching the game 25 years later, I was struck by (1) the quality of that game, final score 62–61 in a game played years before the three-point shot came to high school; (2) the amazing free throw shooting (one miss in the entire game … by the losing team); and (3) how free-flowing the game was, even though neither team would be considered an up-tempo team. In contrast, the style of Wisconsin high school basketball these days is much lower-scoring, much more defense-oriented, and not particularly fun to watch if you have no rooting interest.)

After attending my 10th class reunion (also the same month as hers), my wife noted that she had more in common with my classmates than with hers. That’s probably the difference of going to a suburban high school with expectations that graduates would go to college, vs. going to a rural high school where more people didn’t go on to college than did. (One result: Her class has a larger proportion of grandparents than mine.) I think she is the only member of her class who graduated from college and then went to the Peace Corps.

The La Follette Class of 1983 graduated at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse June 4, 1983. (One of the speeches can be read here.) With more than 500 graduates, it’s pretty remarkable to note that everyone who was there for day one in August 1979 and didn’t drop out or move away was still there for graduation. In other words, none of my classmates died while I was in high school; there were no memorial pages for seniors in the La Follette 1983 yearbook.

Of course, that wasn’t the case for long. Since graduation, 15 have died (and possibly more since the whereabouts of 145 of us can’t be found). The deaths I’m familiar with include car crashes, a racing accident, and a heart attack (someone with Down Syndrome or something like it). For a while, every time I picked up a Sunday Wisconsin State Journal, I read an obituary of someone I knew.

Unless you had a miserable high school experience, class reunions are a choice between dread at going and regret that you didn’t. The former is in the inevitable comparisons between yourself and your classmates — who has aged better than you have, who is more successful than you are, who has experienced more horizontal growth (in my case, about 60 pounds of horizontal growth), who has become follically challenged, will your ex-girlfriend be there, etc.

The latter comes after you find out that you actually get along with your classmates better now (at least for one weekend every five years) than you did when you were in high school. In the hormonally and emotionally supercharged environment of high school, if you are not a loner, you’re competing for, among other things, grades, athletic-team playing time, opportunities for what our student handbook called “Inappropriate Displays of Affection,” placement in band, and favored jobs. Since high school is not a place where emotional maturity can usually be found, slights occur, feelings get hurt, and grudges build. (That’s my experience as a male; for females, take this paragraph and multiply by 50.) After a while, though, for those who attend, the negatives don’t matter; those for whom the negatives matter simply don’t go to their reunions.

Class reunions also are a reminder of the march of time. La Follette opened in 1963, and if you do the math, you’ll discover that the Class of 1983 went to La Follette during the first half of the school’s existence to date. (Sigh.) I notice that “oldies” radio stations such as WOGB (103.1 FM) and WVBO (103.9 FM) have now decided that ’80s music fits into their programming. Yes, we are the generation that foisted Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Twisted Sister and heavy metal upon the world. Judge the music of 1979198019811982 and 1983 for yourself.

(Before any snide comments from you Baby Boomers out there: May I point out that the Four Seasons’ 1975 hit “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” depicts an event that occurred nearly 50 years ago. Moreover, disco is your fault. You’re welcome.)

It’s odd to suddenly be in a favored retail demographic. Almost as odd as having music you listened to in high school be on an oldies radio station. Or realizing that everyone with whom you graduated from high school is now between 45 and 47.

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