The Warbabies’ Adult Rite of Passage

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Here’s an op-ed of mine from The Lakeville Journal. It was inspired by my, gulp, 50th reunion from high school, and many people have said that it touched a nerve ….

THE WARBABIES’ ADULT RITE OF PASSAGE

My high school class’s fiftieth reunion was this weekend. An older male friend laughed when I told him of the impending occasion, and called fiftieth high school reunions “the only adult rite of passage,” with the implication that the event was to be gotten through, endured rather than enjoyed.

Before attending, I agreed with him. As with most people, my time in high school had been intellectually and emotionally exhilarating and troubling in equal measure, and although I looked forward to renewing acquaintance with some childhood friends with whom I had lost touch, there were other classmates who I didn’t care if I ever saw again. And I’d have to see girls that I’d embarrassingly pined over and boys I’d secretly envied. Now they would all be thin, dark-haired, sexy, wealthy, and have incredible accomplishments to their names.

“Do you have your own hair and your own teeth?” a female friend asked me gently when I expressed my apprehension. “You do, so you’ll be fine.”

Our high school, on the South Shore of Long Island, was relatively small, 212 in our graduating class, and most of us classmates had been in school together since junior high. That middle school had been fed by three elementary schools, so we had known some of our classmates since we had been in second or third grade. On my block, seven of the eleven houses held children who were in my class in elementary school and who were my companions during a decade of schooling.

We were warbabies, born in 1941 or 1942; our parents had moved to this suburb, ten miles or so beyond the New York City limits, at the end of the 1940s or in the early 1950s, from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. They chose it because its public school system was very good, and New York City’s was not.

Our parents had come, that is to say, for us. They felt in their hearts that the most important thing they could give us was a good solid education, and they were determined that we should have it.

That conviction had been drummed into them by their life experience. Born in the Teens and Twenties, they had grown to adulthood in the Depression, which had seared many of them. A goodly proportion of them were children of immigrants. Their struggles had generated in their minds a version of the dream that John Adams had expressed at the time of the American Revolution: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” I now think of this as the germ of the great American immigrant dream: That the first generation does manual labor so that the second generation can be managers and entrepreneurs, and so that the third generation and beyond can become artists, professionals, do whatever they please and can imagine striving for.

I have long held the concomitant belief that my generation of middle-class Americans – we warbabies, we sons and daughters of the American suburbs who trooped off to college as the 1960s were a-borning – that we have been the most privileged and lucky generational cohort ever to have existed on earth. Our children may have it even better, but we were the first.

During 99 percent of the twenty thousand years of recorded human history, most people did drudge work, tilling farms and the like, all of their lives. This began to change with the industrial revolution and radically altered only in the last half of the 19th century, when big cities grew up and provided millions of non-farm jobs for the multitudes. But then came a series of debilitating wars and economic depressions that curtailed many dreams.

And then we warbabies arrived, billowed to suburbia on the wings of the three-generational dream to take advantage of a good educational system and to nurture great expectations. Unlike our grandparents and parents, who had a limited number of opportunities to seize, we had millions of them. And seize them we did. We were able to because we were so well equipped, having been stuffed full of good learning and a great work ethic during high school, and coached and groomed and sent through college on our parents’ nickels, and then out into the world, to do the one thing that our parents required of us: to truly fulfill our dreams, whatever they might be. Business success. Artistic success. Professional success. Familial success.

I had a wonderful time at my reunion, and so did everyone else. We were all friendly, geared to enjoy ourselves, and we did. It was lovely to see so many old comrades – who looked marvelous, by the way. I was thrilled to hear what each had to say as we each took the microphone for a minute or two and spun an incredible variety of stories of fulfillment, ninety of them, each different from the next. Oh, I’m sure there was some excess bragging, but in the speeches and in the answers to the questionnaires that were made into a commemorative booklet there was very little can-you-top-this, and a lot of it’s-been-a-hell-of-a-ride. We made lunch dates, reciprocal promises of visits, renewed acquaintance with a greater dollop of affection than we had allowed ourselves fifty years ago, when as teenagers we were all into expressing our individuality and differentness one from another.

As senior citizens this weekend, some of us were tickled pink by the extent of what we had in common, and our collegiality. Those who had hardly passed a word with one another fifty years ago, at the reunion were not only congenial but also interested in what the other person had to say.

Certainly that attitude is attributable to our having matured; but it is also, and more importantly, testament to our having gained a benevolent and grateful sense about the world, a sense pushed into full bloom by this once in a lifetime rite of passage. What a gift to have given ourselves!

— Tom Shachtman