No deep intellectual currents flowed through the Hillsdale High School class of 1963. We were 380 children from fairly comfortable suburban homes. We devoted our time to sports, music, television and avoiding homework whenever possible, nothing more substantial than that.

So I was shocked when I learned, years later, that we and the other seniors who graduated across the country that year had established an academic milestone.

Seniors taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the fall and winter of 1962-63 produced an average score of 478 on the verbal section and 502 on the mathematical section, for a total of 980. That national average has been falling ever since, except for a mild rebound in the last year or so that still leaves the total about 90 points below 1963's.

There are many reasons for this two-decade decline, but one of the principal ones cited in newspaper stories is that of the ravages of unsuccessful educational reform in the late 1960s: less homework, "pass-fail" grading, less emphasis on discipline and memorization, fewer graduation requirements.

As a parent and as someone secretly, perhaps perversely, proud of the scores of my generation, a lot of the changes appalled me. When the Hillsdale High class of '63 announced a reunion, I quickly signed up, expecting to enjoy an evening of mutual dismay over kids today and their soft-headed teachers.

Five minutes into the hand-shaking, hugging and careful inspection of the old yearbook photos pinned to each lapel, I discovered to my wonderment just who those supposedly soft-headed teachers were: the brightest and best of the class of '63. There were times when I found myself surrounded by grade school, high school and college faculty, perfectly willing to explain themselves in ways that became more and more intriguing.

The evening was, in many ways, a celebration of teaching. The organizers had invited some of the best instructors of our day, many still active, including my favorite, Al Ladendorff, a hard-nosed U.S. history and government teacher.. He had been the first to reveal to me the delights of political argument and contrary thinking.

A typical portion of a Ladendorff examination was, "Fair trade laws are unfair. Disagree." He had let his crew cut grow out, but otherwise he appeared unchanged. Many of speechmakers that night insisted that Ladendorff had flunked them at one time or another, enough supposed academic martyrs to have filled two football teams. Knowing the uses of legend in politics and teaching, Ladendorff chose not to disagree with them.

In California our legislature recently passed a "master teacher" or "mentor" law, which will pay an extra $4,000 a year to the "best" teachers so they may pass on their secrets to new recruits. Florida has passed a similar law, although it has not decided how to select the master teachers or how much to pay them. It seemed to me to be an idea whose time had come.

My classmates in the teaching profession, although not entirely opposed to the notion, gently introduced some doubts. Our high school hero had been Don Leydig, the best open-field running back I had ever seen and a straight-A student. Noticeably shy in high school, he emerged that night as the master of ceremonies, witty and direct. I was not surprised that he recently had been promoted to vice principal at a nearby high school.

But he was not happy about the way politicians and the press had been treating his profession. If the schools were going to work, everyone in them had to be proud of what they were doing, and able to afford to keep doing it, he said. Incentive schemes will not cure a nation bent on dumping its fear of the future, and distress at higher taxes, on teachers.

Leydig told me of a cartoon on a faculty bulletin board. A skeleton dressed in a suit was slumped at a teacher's desk. One onlooker said to another, "Too bad about Jones. He would have been up for a raise this year if he hadn't starved to death."

As we talked about our younger selves, I began to see what really drew the best of '63 to this much-maligned occupation. It was a mix of good memories, delight in the young, fascination with books and perhaps a bit of pre-Vietnam patriotism. Although all needed and deserved more money, even a $4,000 bonus would not stack up against the real rewards of such a life.

"We're not producing toothbrushes and toothpaste," Ladendorff said when I asked about the master-teacher plan. He said he takes his pay in a different way, from people, such as a former student he saw at a shopping center. "I hated your guts when I took your class," the young man told him, "and I hate your guts now. But," he added, "I learned something."