Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Class of 1971 reunion recalls abolishing prom

It was entirely typical that my Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School class held our reunion last weekend in the 42nd year since graduating rather than on some boring, traditional anniversary like the 40th or 45th.

After all, we were the ones who scrapped the prom in favor of a “Senior Bash” picnic. Abolished the National Honor Society on grounds it was elitist. Canceled regular classes for a week to study macrame and “The Lord of the Rings” in an “Experiment in Free Form Education.”

(Courtesy of Robert McCartney) - The columnist’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior yearbook photo — class of 1971.

A Christian worshippers re-enacts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ along a street in Kenya's capital Nairobi April 18, 2014. This long standing tradition is celebrated by a large majority of Roman Catholic Christians from the Orthodox Church, along with Catholic believers. REUTERS/Noor Khamis (KENYA - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)

Photos of the day

Scenes from Holy Week events, South Korean ferry search efforts, macaw conservation and more.

As juniors, many of us were among the 500 B-CC students who walked out of school after first period on a Friday in May 1970 for a silent march through downtown Bethesda to protest the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University.

We of the B-CC Class of 1971 still cherish the common memory of coming of age during a brief, topsy-turvy period when every institution and convention was open to challenge.

Back then, we agonized over whether we would ultimately “sell out.” Indeed, the overwhelming majority of us ended up as cogs in the establishment we professed to despise.

But classmates’ comments also made clear that we still strived to live by the ideals we embraced in high school: Welcome diversity. Help the disadvantaged. Protect the environment. Be skeptical of authority.

“It is likely that ‘protesting’ is embedded in our High School DNA and ready to come out at any moment,” wrote Jeff Hulbert, now a disc jockey in Kent Island, Md., in one of dozens of e-mails sent out to the class this month in anticipation of the reunion.

Sure enough, Hulbert took the lead in organizing a demonstration of about 40 people on Oct. 3 against the closure of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the federal government’s shutdown.

Isn’t this just boomer nostalgia? Guilty as charged.

Still, it was striking to be reminded of a few years when we took for granted that dramatic social change was needed, that it was happening all around us, and that we were directly involved.

What a contrast with the paralysis still gripping Congress a week ago while our reunion was underway.

In most ways, our reunion was similar to anyone’s. We showed photos of our kids, joked about turning 60 and shared recollections of losing the Maryland state basketball championship by one point in double overtime. (It still hurts.)

Despite our self-perception as rebels, the event took place at the venerable Chevy Chase Women’s Club.

What stood out were the strong recollections of the counterculture and of political activism. It led us by turns to be amused, wistful and proud.

“I’m often asked what my prom was like and happily tell folks that we had a picnic bash. No fancy dresses, no flowers, no limos — just a collective fun time at a public park,” said Jay Prensky, now a retinal surgeon in Pennsylvania.

The upheaval all seemed perfectly natural at the time.

“We never realized it was abnormal. It just evolved that way,” said Diane Sterman, a sculptor and design consultant in Bethesda. “What’s interesting is all these people turned out to be nice, substantial citizens. Real contributors, with a conscience.”

A high number of classmates made careers in government or nonprofit work, or in helping professions such as health care and education.

The historical moment didn’t last long. The prom returned in time for my sister’s Class of 1974. The National Honor Society was revived in the 1990s.

Jeff Van Grack, who played end on the football team and is now a lawyer in Bethesda, has volunteered as an assistant football coach at B-CC for the past four years.

He says it’s hard to explain to students today why we didn’t have a prom.

“They look at me like I’m a Martian. It was a different time,” Van Grack said.

Like other classmates, he said the activism helped promote racial and gender equality but fell short elsewhere.

“I guess we didn’t have much impact on not going to war. But on some of the social issues, I think we hit it out of the park,” Van Grack said.

After doing the normal thing of celebrating our 10th reunion, the Class of 1971 has held reunions on our 21st, 26th and 36th anniversaries, as well as the 42nd.

By that standard, our next should be the 51st or 52nd.

But now that the off-year “tradition” is established, I think it’s time to rebel once more. See you at the 50th, everyone.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
Read what others are saying