DAVID OWEN did what everyone dreams of doing; at 24 he returned to high school and relived his senior year. Abandoning, at least during the day, the world of rent checks, tax returns, and responsibility, he commuted from New York City to homeroom at an undisclosed suburban high school. In his book, High School: Undercover with the Class of '80, he recounts his semester at "Bingham High," and relives that time before "the brain reasserts its predominance over the ductless glands."
His real life as a husband and writer runs through the book an underground stream of maturity. Occasionally, it bubbles up to remind us and him that he has almost a good decade on his new classmates. Some of High School's most amusing moments occur when the author's two worlds collide: a date with his wife for a sock hop causes their marriage to founder momentarily, and at dinner he finds himself regaling her with tales like: "In psychology today this guy I know cut a really tremendous fart. It was incredible!" Living with a man who sports a dayglo Led Zeppelin T-shirt and frets about volleyball intramurals does not sound easy.
Julia, Owen's literary agent, also takes part in the hoax. Attired in a black cocktail dress and sporting a junk store wedding band, she masquerades as his "mom" when he enrolls at Bingham. Their relationship become less professional and more maternal as the book progresses; she demands to know why her "son" wasn't invited to the Winter Cotillion, and asks in the concerned tones of every suburban mom whose child has a date: "How good a driver is this Amy Kendris person?"
Although his two worlds intersect, Owen's life at Bingham High becomes the more vital one. With laconic simplicity and understated wit, he conveys the pimple-inducing, palm-sweating anxiety of just being young. He understands that every teenager's dream is merely "fitting in": "When a kid in my class came to school one day in a funny-looking pair of shoes that one of his friends eventually laughed at, I could see by his face that he was thinking, Well, that does it, there goes the rest of my life." Convinced that adolescents today couple and uncouple with the crazed abandon of rabbits, purient-minded adults will be disappointed in Owen's book. For much of young America, self-consciousness is paralyzing: "A boy whose bowels unhinge at the thought of kissing a girl will not be overjoyed by the news that he is now allowed (or expected) to take her to bed." In terms of teenage sex, Owen notes, "The poor get poorer."
He meticulously chronicles his new peers' social order. The male hierarchy depends on one thing along -- size. The very big and the very small are hoods. With black leather jackets, seven-pound motorcycle boots, and Crisco-anointed hair, these "hard asses" are serving time till graduation when they begin factory work in "Realityville." While some weigh in at 220 pounds and have a frighteningly ample supply of testosterone, others get by in life with 27-inch waists and nary a bicep: "The large hoods tolerate the small ones with the same self-serving indifference that sharks extend to sucker fish." Hormones are indeed everything in high school.
Early on, Owen concedes defeat in trying to understand the mysterious hivelike universe of teenage girls. While bulk governs the male pecking order, prettiness, cattiness and a host of other "nesses" determine the feminine hierarchy. Since time immemorial however, cheerleaders have reigned as queen bees, making other girls miserable with envy and most boys fretful with frustration. From the latter category, football players are notably exempt. The hand that shakes the pom-pom rules the school, and clutching that precious little extremity is usually some massive fullback's paw. Like the other boys on the high school newspaper, Owen didn't relish being a drone bee. Their revenge upon Sheila McNichols, a.k.a. "McNipples," a "certified hot number" cheerleader with the obligatory "Neo-Revisionist Farrah Fawcett, blown dry and held together with static, spit and Final Net," will warm many hearts.
Perhaps a great administrator in the sky issues each school system an identical teaching staff because the one described by Owen bears an uncanny resemblance to the one I suffered under: the affable psychology teacher/baseball coach who looks upon the prom as "the high point of a girl's academic career as well as of her social life"; the martinet of a math teacher; the balding English teacher with the "haggard, preoccupied look of a man whose family is being held by kidnappers." With an anthropologist's precision, Owen records that distinctive flavor of speech adopted by pedagogues when addressing students: "I would like to remind you to please, after the assembly is over, exit the gymnasium in a mature and orderly manner."
In the last chapter however, the author drops his amusing flipness. While Owen finds that much of high school hasn't changed -- the acne, cheerleaders, cigarettes are still there -- he notes an alarming decline in academic standards. His classmates' militant ignorance and aggressive apathy frighten him. They do not read, and they cannot write. Moreover, their teachers bewail but do not remedy the situation. When asked to name the most important political event in the last 15 years, only the student council president ventures a guess; he suggests World War II. Beneath its wry humor, David Owen's High School presents a bleak view of American education.