You ever wonder what the characters from Fast Times at Ridgemont High were like in middle school? Was little Jeff Spicoli already stoned out of his mind in seventh grade? It looks like he was.
The middle school age group isn't as exciting to study as high school, so there tends to be very little record left in the public imagination, only personal memories. But suburban archaeologists can still re-visit the original scene of the crime and see if there are any traces left of what the kids were up to way back when.
I always keep my eyes peeled when strolling around trails for signs of the good ol' days, especially when they're near schools, where young people would have been hanging out. The good weather this afternoon brought me to a wooded area behind a middle school and adjacent to residential housing.
I've seen plenty of relics from the wild times when wondering around near high schools, but they could have been near the age of majority. Middle schoolers should have had a lot more difficulty getting their hands on beer, pot, and the like. Then again, times were different back then.
As it turned out, there were at least half a dozen beer cans lying around the middle-school hangout. Every time there's a brewery so old I've never even heard of it -- this time it was Ballantine ("premium lager beer"). It was a can with the old pull tab, so it must have been from the '70s, and this label from 1977 looks like the one it had:
There was a Budweiser can still in colorful condition nearby, also with the old pull tab. There were a few push-in type cans by Coors, Milwaukee's Best, and Red Bull, though they all had the narrow mouth opening and anti-litter warnings on the top like you would have seen in the later '70s and '80s. If you find ones with the narrow mouth but no anti-litter warnings, those are from the '80s and '90s. You may never have paid any mind to these details of beer can design, but when you're trying to date a hangout site, they can give you a very close estimate.
Atypically, there were no collections of cans of the same type, as though they had all come from the same six-pack. It's not uncommon to find the remnants of an entire six-pack behind a high school or off of a trail where older teenagers and young adults would have gone. Near the middle school, I didn't find two cans by the same maker. My hunch is that each of the kids lifted a single beer from their home's fridge, or shoplifted a single can, or found a sympathetic older person to get them "just one" can of beer. That would keep the pre-high-school drinkers under the radar and account for the mismatched assortment of cans.
As usual, there were tree carvings with initials, dates, etc. "PARTYED HERE," read one of them, with the misspelling being an honest sign of the barely maturing, and barely literate make-up of the site's habitual occupants. A large graphic carving showed a bong with a stylized plume of smoke wafting up.
Unusually for what I've seen around high schools, most of the dates were from a narrow range -- the mid-to-late '70s, whereas those near a high school would have gone into the '80s and early-mid '90s. One kid left his full name and the three academic years he was at the school. (I'm not sure just how academic those years were for him, given the big-ass pot leaf engraving that he also left.) He was there from, I think, '74 to '77.
Few or no dates from the '80s -- that really struck me. The middle school opened in 1965 and is still packed with students. There were signs that students still walk through and around the area -- a recent wide-mouth lemonade can, bags from Lays chips (chip bags degrade quickly and must be recent), a notice from the principal to parents dated December 2014, and so on.
This recent stuff looked like trash that somebody chucked to the side while walking straight through, though, not collections of cans or bottles that would have been left over from students hanging out for a little while before moving on.
The period when the middle schoolers actually made the site their own hangout area, drank beer, and occasionally got high, was a small blip in the 50-year history of the school. Who were those students? They would have been born mostly in the first half of the '60s -- the late Boomers who would go on to a Fast Times kind of high school.
Their wild upbringing shows up just about anywhere you look, and it has had lifelong effects: they have always been over-represented among the homeless, for example, whether it's at the beginning of the homelessness phenomenon in the '80s or today. Anecdotal reports from early Gen X-ers suggest that the late Boomers were way more heavily into drugs during college, when the two may have shared a fraternity.
And it's reflected in the pop cultural record, where teen movies of the mid-'80s portray high schoolers who are noticeably more introspective and wary of just doing whatever feels good, man, in contrast to the uninhibited teenagers of Fast Times earlier in the decade.*
Now it looks like that lack of inhibition began earlier than their high school years, at least by the start of adolescence. I wonder how their wild attitude showed up in elementary school, when they were still too young to score beer.
* This may be one pathway from the outgoing to the cocooning mindset. The first generation that's born and raised entirely within outgoing / rising-crime times is going to turn out a little too wild, so that the next cohort after them, when looking up to what the older kids are like, are going to decide that maybe that's too far, and we should dial it down just a bit ourselves. And to not take being cool as the be-all end-all of youth, if that pursuit could lead to disaster. Make fun of trying to act cool.
This more self-aware and ironic mindset and behavioral style is already evident by the late '80s in the quintessential mock-ethnography of Generation X, Heathers, whose characters would have felt out of place at Ridgemont High.