Before Drew Barrymore did it in Never Been Kissed, before Cameron Crowe did it for-reals for (the book) Fast Times at Ridgemont High, freelance journalist Lyn Tornabene, “cute and 33”, left New York and went undercover as a teenager in a gigantic suburban high school in an unnamed city “west of the Rockies”, ostensibly to write a series of articles for an editor looking for a new angle on this whole teenager thing that seems to be all the rage. Will she discover that teens of the mid-1960s are a new, dangerous breed that is completely indecipherable to the adults around them? Or will she confirm her suspicions that life is pretty much the same as it was when she was a high school student in the 1940s? Spoilers: yes. Only it’s more like IT IS EXACTLY THE SAME WHY OH WHY GOD IS IT EXACTLY THE SAME??? Frankly, if you swap out some of the slang and pop cultural references, it pretty much matches my recollections of being a high school student in the 1990s, and I would bet that the average 16 year old in the 21st century would say the same.
The Plot: With the encouragement of both her editor and her husband, Lyn gets a terrible haircut that makes her look like Prince Valiant and has a teenage relative take her shopping for a back-to- school wardrobe before heading west, where her friend Bess (a childless divorcee) has agreed to help her enroll in the local high school and pretend to be a distant cousin who is looking after her while her imaginary mother goes to Reno to divorce her imaginary father. She finds that it is relatively easy to enroll in the school that she dubs Urban High, as the administration is trying to deal with twice the capacity of students that it was designed to hold. Thanks, Baby Boom! Within her first day at Urban, she realizes that convincing the teachers that she’s 16 isn’t going to be a problem, since no adult ever looks her in the face, and constantly speak about her in the third person unless it’s to order her to stop slouching or “speak up”. Between that and Bess being a little too game for the project is how she ends up enrolled in Public Speaking as her elective.
Her classmates are marginally more aware that there is something off about Lyn, as they comment that she has “a young body, but an old face”. Also her clothes are too hip: The Sixties haven’t quite reached west of the Rockies yet, so the most of the teens are still wearing bobby socks and circle skirts; Lyn comments that the boys’ pompadours look “anachronistic”.
Which raises a question: when exactly did all of this happen? The original copyright on the book is 1967, but it was adapted from a series of magazine articles that were previously published. Some cultural detective work leads me to believe that she enrolled in the fall of 1964: it postdates the Kennedy assassination, but the Beatles are still new enough that the girls who are “into” them are viewed as slightly odd (plus one of the school’s resident Beatlemaniacs asks Lyn if she’s seen “their movie”; it seems like if it was any later they would have specified between A Hard Day’s Night and Help!). Additionally, we hear about the looming election, for which one of the students is supporting “a third-party candidate, a well-publicized far-right extremist.” We’ll get to Gretel and her issues in a minute…. But any Baby Boomers want to take a stab at whom she referring to? My money is on John Kasper of the National States’ Rights Party, who basically meets the definition of “domestic terrorist”.
During her first day, Lyn is made to attend many assemblies in lieu of classes because there are not enough teachers to go around, manages to get on the shit lists (her words) of both her homeroom teacher and her Public Speaking teacher (who is described is being young and sexy “a la Johnny Carson” which made me guffaw) and falls in with Gretel and Cooky, the two ringleaders of (they claim) the second-most popular clique at Urban. And at the end of the day Bess receives a call from Lyn’s guidance counselor informing her that her young ward “is a very disturbed child” whom she is personally going to keep an eye on. Great.
We are next introduced to the second-coolest Juniors at Urban, which include Roxanne and Kelley, the “Beatle nuts” who went to meet the Fab Four’s plane when they arrived on the local stop of their concert tour and got close enough to ALMOST TOUCH RINGO; Avis, the pathetic hanger-on who has bribed her way in with a mountain of fan magazines; Cooky, who must have surely been John Waters’ inspiration for Tracy Turnblad; and my personal favorite, Billie, who is described as being “notable for her vocabulary, which came straight out of the foxholes of World War II” (we learn that “guys only like Billie as friends”) . And finally, Lyn’s temporary BFF Gretel, who is constantly warning Lyn to be on the lookout for roaming Negro girl-gangs who will attempt to incite a race riot.
Thankfully, the rest of the gang is both much more progressive in their own attitudes and critical of Gretel’s (the same cannot be said of the teaching staff). One is almost inclined to feel sorry for Gretel, since she has a crazy oft-remarried mother who is constantly passive-aggressively manipulating her daughter; Lyn notes that Gretel “used her mother when she needed a quotable authority to avoid doing something she didn’t want to do anyway.” Lyn is slightly heartbroken when Gretel returns a pair of kicky tights to the store after she explained that her mother convinced her that she didn’t really want them in the first place. Like I said, one almost feels bad for her. Then in the next breath Gretel is warning Lyn about the hundreds of lesbians who attend Urban. Oh Gretel, I hope you grew up to not be as huge an asshole as your teenaged self would lead people to expect!
Lyn realizes that the main arena of teen life that she is missing out on is BOYS because all of her newfound friends have broken up with their boyfriends over the summer. So, she makes arrangements to be introduced to the 15 year old son of one of Bess’s friends. David is extremely suspicious of Lyn’s motives (he’s concerned that she is going to reveal teenaged secrets or make them sound like idiots), as are his parents who are concerned that she is going to Mrs. Robinson their son. Lyn and David have two chaste dates, one to a football game (David attends the roomy new School Of The Future) and the other to a house party. David is pretty boring and square as far as representing his generation goes. His sole attempt at rebellion is insisting that his Perry Como sweater is actually an Andy Williams sweater.
It’s unclear how long Lyn keeps up the charade; possibly only a few weeks. She decides to bring the assignment to an end when she realizes that she is regressing back into actual teendom, complete with test anxiety and acne. Similarly, Bess is also getting a little too into the masquerade, and begins treating Lyn like an actual sixteen year old, at one point expressing concern, that her 33-year old friend is going to end up an unwed teenage mother.
In conclusion: teenagers have been into sex, drugs, profanity and toilet humor since the dawn of time. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the Urban football game when the gang spots a studly recent graduate who has grown a beard. The girls first come to the consensus that it makes him look like Jesus, then have a long, extremely sacrilegious conversation about what they would like to do to him.
Lyn ends the book with an impassioned plea for adults to treat teenagers like human beings: “STOP THREATENING ME! That’s what I wanted to shout in my classrooms, If you don’t cover your book by Wednesday, if you don’t have your homework written on lined paper, if you don’t bring your dollar for student government, if you don’t keep quiet, if you don’t stop, if you don’t start, you will be punished.” Truly spoken by someone who was reminded that high school is (thankfully) not the best years of your life!
Sign it was Written in 1960-something Department: In her thanks and acknowledgements she urges David to let his hair grow out while he can, because he will eventually get drafted and have to get a crew cut.
Vocabulary Lesson Department: in a footnote she explains that both “bitchin’” and “tough” mean “great, gorgeous, terrific”. Devotees of S.E. Hinton know that in this context the latter is spelled “tuff”.
Conversation With the Ring of Authenticity Department:
“Have you ever tried marijuana?”
“Unh-unh. I’d like to try it someday.”
“Where can you get it?”
“In Greenwich Village”
“You mean in New York?”
“Where in Greenwich Village?”
“Oh, anyplace. You just get out of a bus and ask somebody. Or you ask a cabdriver.”
Postscript: Sadly, there is skimpy information available online about whatever happened to Lyn Tornabene, and if there was ever any reason to suspect that her undercover assignment did not go down as described. It looks like she is best known for writing a definitive biography of Clark Gable in the mid-1970s.