IN THE TOWN where I grew up, it seemed to take children an unusually long time to become adults. Some of us are still working on it and some are clearly never going to make it.
Is this true everywhere in America or peculiar to my hometown? I have just returned from the 25th reunion of my high school, the class of '54 of Wyoming, Ohio, so naturally I am bubbling with amazing insights, also nostalgia. Wyoming, Ohio, is one of the virtuous places in America, confortable and stable and confining only in its own illusions, the suburban idyll of happy endings.
My old girl friend, G., is now a church activist campaigning for Palestinian human rights. This is statling only because 25 years ago, cloistered in that verdant village, we barely knew about the oppression of Jews, much less Arabs.
E., who is divorced, has a new social contract with her 17-year-old son, something a counselor helped them work out, delineating rights and responsibilities. It makes sense the way she describes it.
P., who is drinking too much beer, puts his hand on a classmate's chest and observes that her boobs seem bigger than they were in high school. Through the evening, he propositions all the women, which is more flattering than it would have seemed when we were young.
L., looks strikingly identical to the way his father looked 25 years ago. I assume he is tired of hearing this, but I tell him anyway. Then I babble on about what a wonderful person his father is and his mother too. L. says he has more hair than his father.
The warmth of reunions is predicably trite, I know, and also deceiving. People whose lives are shattered or bitter tend not to come back to high school reunions. Why post your disappointments on the class bulletin boards? So our party was attended mostly by people who are mostly happy. We are still unusually intimate because the class was so small - only 67 boys and girls, most of whom knew each other throughout childhood. For one evening together, we were much nicer to each other than we were as children.
At reunions, one expects a certain amount of mid-life preening, statements of status and acquisition. Conquests, arrivals, success. My class, instead, talked mostly about struggle. Earnest, precise conversations on self-discovery, dishonest goals, family structures, retreat and revival. Growing up takes longer than we thought.For children of affluence, the triumph is not in getting there - since most of us were already there as children, as a matter of blind luck. For us, the triumph seems to be finding the right struggle.
We grew up inside the sururban dream before anyone announced that it was flawed. When I tell people I am from the village of Wyoming, Ohio, it sounds like a rustic backwater in the cornbelt, a small town out of Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis. For my own twisted reasons, I usually allow that impression to stand. This village outside Cincinnati is very small and cozy, but it is socially closer to the Class A network of professional-managerial suburbs, the Bethesda-Winnetka-Grosse Pointe-Scrasdale nexus.
These are the fashionable places developers tried to imitate the last 30 years, building subdivisions in empty pastures and applying antique names to them.
This is the place most Americans strive to get to. But I think it works better for children as a distant aspiration than it does as a reality. Many of my classmates will not agree with that; some do. Nearly half of the class still lives in the Cincinnati area, many of them in Wyoming, where they grew up. It is not a point we would argue over now, as a matter of mutual respect and affection. But some of us talked through the night about the confusions and pain and false signals that we associate with that artificial world.
Oh, poor babies. Yes, one can say that about us. Children who grow up having everything they need have to scrape around a bit to discover what they really want. When we come upon a scrap of indignation in our lives, we tend to magnify it. Our problems sound emphemeral, indulgent, even silly; alongside the desperate struggles that dominate so many American lives. A surprising number of us recognize that, though few of us did as children. We believe in blind luck because we know we have been lucky.
So our struggles tend to be introspective and intangible, trips of discovery rather than accumulation. The women from my high school class are more interesting, therefore, than the men. They had much more to learn about themselves - more powerful illusions to overcome - so their lives have been more dramatic, though not necessarily triumphant.
C., who was so precocious as a child, tells us with astonishing clarity of her retreat from life's possibilities and her eventural rediscovery. She was an A student, always, but when she got a B in college chemistry she wilted, withdrew from challenges. She is back in the world now, 25 years later, perhpas not where she might have been but at least understanding deeply what happened to her.
Another classmate became a lawyer, after her first marriage. She told us this and we recognized in an instant that she is a different person from the little girl we know. We all drank to that, she especially. Many of us are different people now. Our sympathy is extended to those who seem frozen in high school.
K. is a television producer. In our shared past, we would have clucked sympathetically because she is not married. Today she is the object of admiration and honest envy."We were on the edge of something," K. said, "and we knew it was out there but we didn't know what it was."
On the edge of feminism, certainly, but I think she means more than that. While it is in vogue to mock the feminist pretensions of upper-middle-class women, the fact is that these women - the girls I grew up with - experienced the inequalities of sex more starkly than most others. They were smart as hell, on the whole, and feverishly competitive and, at maturity, they were told to quit, to withdraw from the world and stay home and tend to the suburban dream.
Keepers of the flame, that was supposed to be their role in life. From our conversations, I gather that many of these women rebelled against the role, not merely for self-discovery and personal reward, but because they no longer believe in the flame. We talked a lot about what one learns, implicitly, growing up in a place like Wyoming.
The psychiatrist Robert Coles has described an aura of "entitlement" which he observes in children of affluence, a brilliant summary of these complicated feelings. These children do feel "entitled" in the world, which after all has taken care of them very nicely. An affluent suburban village becomes the center of the earth, into which abundant goods and services magically flow. Work is not a living process but a distant place where fathers go and now sometimes mothers.
"Entitlement" is positive and negative. The good side is self-confidence, a feeling that one can expect much from life and go after it. The dark side, of course, is opaque arrogance, blind to competing realities, cloistered from the world's brutal contradictions. Where is the line between confidence and arrogance? Wherever it is, I'm sure many of us stumbled blindly across it many times.
An affluent suburb does not provide a satisfying drama, at least not for many of us. Its story is static, a plot without tangible conflict. Its goal is to sustain, not to create. Children growing up in suburbs, I believe, thirst for real work and real challenges in their lives, but much of what they get is transparently artificial. A suburb promises peace, but human nature seeks struggle. We need it to survive, even if we have everything else.
For the idyllic suburb is a kind of cloister, a haven for values and comfort, a tranquil place for permanent and thorough relationships. All this, one values. But the cloister teachers misleading messages about the world outside (for one thing, it really doesn't revolve around Wyoming, Ohio). The surrounding world is seen as different, alien, complicated and threatening. A suburban child can feel caged by this illusion, much like the wealthy child who feels obligated to his money.
Some of us discovered, early on, that the world is infinitely more interesting than a suburban childhood led us to believe. We did not find the world hositle or threatening, but remarkably open for our exploration. So we roamed, rather chaotically, indulging childish delight, probably over-indulged. Perhaps that is another expression of our "entitlement," this audacious feeling that we can go anywhere in America and belong there.
Even home again. Wyoming, Ohio, today seems more interesting than it was when I grew up. It is slightly larger and less insular, dramatically more diverse in its population, a more serious place, I think. Many of my old classmates live there still today. Others of us live on other tree-lined streets, creating other illusions. If our children are lucky, they will be able to convert these, too, into worthy struggles of their own.