Read an Excerpt
By Dan Rather
Our high school years tend to hold a special place in the storehouse of memory. It's small wonder why: high school was, for so many of us, the crucible of our emerging selves, a time when we faced a future seemingly without horizon. We enter more children than adults and, a few short years later, leave more adults than children. In the time between, we take our first tentative steps down any number of paths and make the sorts of mistakes that teach life's most valuable lessons.
I got a chance, in 1996, to return to my old high school, in Houston, Texas, but not to revisit the past. CBS News and I traveled to John H. Reagan High School to gain a glimpse of the future through young eyes -- to look at the world as seen by those who would graduate into the new millennium. It was the first of a series of reports that would take me and my colleagues across the country to meet hundreds of the young men and women who make up the American class of 2000. We followed them through their four-year journey and visited them in the places where they live, study, play, and dream the dream of the future.
In my day, Reagan High was a pretty rough place. The neighborhood was transitional, which is to say it was tough and getting tougher. Fights were a fairly common occurrence, on and off the school grounds. Very few of my classmates looked forward to college, and most of their parents, like mine, had not even finished high school.
At midcentury, this was not so unusual. My generation went to high school at a time when families were just beginning to dream that a child of theirs would be the first among them to attend college. In practice, that child was usually a son.
Back then, most students still looked to graduation with thoughts of making a living. For boys, there was also military service. The draft was in effect, but amid the patriotism of that postwar era, serving one's country in uniform was considered not only an obligation, but an honor.
For girls, career options were few -- teaching, secretarial work, or waitressing. So young women, in my part of the country, at least, mostly looked forward to getting married after they graduated from high school.
And at Reagan High, the boys and the girls, regardless of their hopes and dreams and fears, were all white. My high school, like those throughout the South and in many other places, was racially segregated.
To say the least, a lot has changed since I graduated as part of the class of 1950.
The big changes were self-evident and hardly required any investigative reporting or even a visit. Reagan High has been desegregated since the early 1960s after all, and the aspirations available to the young women who study there have broadened steadily since I was a student. But we were after something more than the obvious picture. To borrow a term from painting, our aims were more pointillist -- we wanted to get in close to see, meet, and show our viewers the many colorful individuals who, taken together, would form a detailed portrait of the American high school student at century's end and century's dawn.
As I roamed the hallways I had walked down, books in hand, so many years ago, I wondered what we would find. The early signs were not particularly encouraging: moments after we arrived, two students, T-shirts dripping with blood, were led away by the police for fighting on school grounds. Students at Reagan High still fought -- not much change there -- but now the cops stepped in.
Indeed, students had to pass through a gauntlet of armed security guards just to get into the building on the first day of classes. I had told some old friends that I was coming back to Reagan, and they had quietly warned me that it was rougher now than when I had been there. I was disappointed and saddened to see this seemingly borne out from the start.
But as is so often the case, this first impression obscured at least as much as it revealed. It was not long before I met the sorts of students who moved principal Monica Sandoval to tell me that she had decided to stay at her post because she "fell in love with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood." I had a chance to talk to bright, involved students like Lisa Rodriguez, who told me that she wanted to be a doctor -- in part to prove wrong all those people who say that "Hispanics don't end up being anything." Her expression as she told me of her plans revealed a thoughtfulness and determination beyond her years.
In many ways, my day back at Reagan High stands as metaphor for the whole of our experience with the class of 2000. This is a group of young people who are all too familiar with the way first impressions can cloud the truth. The headlines tell us that our schools have become killing zones, that the kids in high school today suffer from precocious ennui and a pervasive apathy. We adults too often accept the rough, unfamiliar surfaces we see in youth -- the unconventional haircuts and hair colors, the tattoos and baggy clothes, the piercings in places we never would have imagined -- for the deeper picture.
If we've learned anything over these past four years, it's that the individuals of the class of 2000 defy easy characterization, especially on the basis of looks. Story after story brought this lesson home to us, and perhaps none more simply and eloquently than our profile of Steve Pillsbury, a self-described "head banger" from Joppatowne High School in central Maryland.
Steve likes hard-driving music, "anything that's heavy and is rock and roll," and his appearance gives ready testimony to his musical preference: when we met him in 1997, Steve was unusually tonsured, a shock of dark brown hair flopping down one side of his head contrasting with a hemisphere of shaved scalp. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and the obligatory black T-shirts bearing pictures of skulls and of his favorite band, the rock group Metallica.
To see Steve and to hear his music is to gain some insight into his tastes. But to really know him, you need to see Steve with his younger sister, Amber. Amber is mentally disabled and requires constant care. Like the other members of his family, Steve pitches in after school and amid the obligations of his own life to feed, tend to, and play with her. With his sister, Steve's tenderness completely belies his rough appearance. Taking care of a disabled family member may take "more time, more care, and more patience," he told us with a disarming smile, "but I don't mind." With the best of all possible attitudes, Steve views his time spent with Amber as a labor of love and a learning experience.
Lest we forget, kids like Steve reminded us to always look past the superficial. They also taught us that despite what you might hear or read, today's young people care. We met students involved in politics, in promoting racial harmony, in spreading the word about AIDS, young adults who contribute in innumerable ways large and small to make their school and their community a better place.
This is good news not just about our youth, but about America's future -- for they are one and the same.
This doesn't mean that the class of 2000 -- and those who will follow them -- aren't facing some very serious problems. In our school visits and through a series of polls, we learned that they have concerns that, in my day, we would hardly have imagined. These are kids who have grown up quickly. They are no strangers to violence, and many are the children of divorce. As they graduate this June, more than half of the class of 2000 have had sex, even though many of them feel that they are too young. Nearly all of them know a fellow student who has gotten pregnant, and one in five knows someone who has AIDS or is HIV- positive. Seventy percent know someone their age who has tried to commit suicide.
With today's relative peace and prosperity, there's a tendency for people my age to look at today's young people as coddled, even spoiled. But we conveniently forget that although they may not be graduating into world war or depression, they'll have to cope with a rapidly changing world that presents its own challenges and offers more and different ones every day. Our Class of 2000 series gave us, for a short time, the chance to see this world through their eyes. But we cannot know what those eyes will see after we have gone.
Going back to my old high school showed me that one thing hasn't changed -- like our class of 1950, the class of 2000 looks to the future with optimism. Once again most believe that their lives will be better than those of their parents. We parents can only hope that this will be so.
They graduate now, these guardians of the American dream. Soon they will confront jobs, college, careers, their own families. The time will come to put their dreams into action, but first, let them pause and appreciate what they have already accomplished. So to the class of 2000, congratulations and a tip of the Stetson. May all your best dreams be realized.
Copyright © 2000 by CBS Worldwide Inc.
Chapter 2: Hopes and Dreams
Marcus Streater seemed to have enough energy to fuel a spaceship. And even though aeronautics was not this science buff's primary passion, it very well could be someday. Streater lived with his mom near downtown Orlando. She held two jobs, one as a waitress, the other as a night manager at a grocery store. Her son -- who volunteered at his neighborhood community center and was trucking through an honors program at school -- started frequenting the Orlando Science Center when he was a freshman. Whether it was discussing centers of gravity, lava, or the diet of snakes, Streater wanted to learn it all. It wasn't long before the science center invited the teen on board, as a paid tour guide. Soon after, he was asked to join a society of black engineers, where he "got to do some really neat things, as far as engineering, building...hands-on stuff." About his future, Streater said with unparalleled enthusiasm: "Everything in my life right now is preparing me for something bigger and greater."
Like Streater, many members of the class of 2000 forecast a bright future. Nearly two-thirds of seniors predict that their lives will be better than their progenitors', while 30% think it will be about the same. A mere 4% have already resigned themselves to a worse existence. These teens have gotten slightly more optimistic over time: as freshmen 56% thought their lives held more promise than their parents'.
HOW WILL THEIR LIVES COMPARE WITH THOSE OF THEIR PARENTS?
Better -- 65%
Worse -- 4
Same -- 30
Better -- 60%
Worse -- 5
Same -- 34
Better -- 58%
Worse -- 7
Same -- 35
Better -- 58%
Worse -- 5
Same -- 36
Better -- 56%
Worse -- 8
Same -- 35
Like Streater, teens with the most optimistic outlooks emerged from lower-income households and were minority students. Seventy-five percent of students from households with annual incomes under $15,000 say their lives will be better than their parents', as do 79% of African-American students and 76% of Hispanic students.
This sanguinity is not unanimous, however. Students who are shuttling straight into the workforce after high school, rather than attending college or joining the military, are divided over their prospects for a better future. Only 48% of these students think their lives will be an improvement over their folks', and 45% think it will be about the same.
Jemel Davila has a shot at an auspicious future. As a ninth-grader at Miami Senior High, this Latino teenager was practicing basketball for four hours a day, and his mailbox was already stuffed with recruitment letters from colleges. By the end of his sophomore year his team had won the Florida State Championship, and Davila exclaimed, "I'm excited to see what the future holds in store for me." His ultimate aspiration: to play hoops for the Lakers.
Many in the millennial class exhibit a healthy belief in the American dream. In November 1999, 89% of the seniors -- including large majorities of whites and blacks, the rich and the poor -- felt that it was still possible to start out destitute in this country and wind up with some big bucks.
IS IT STILL POSSIBLE TO START POOR AND BECOME RICH?
Davila's mother is thoroughly supportive of his hoop dreams. "The kind of pressure on him, it's good. It's healthy," she says. "He's got goals to achieve, something to look forward to."
But not everyone can be a proud basketball mom. While most adults' expectations for the class of 2000 have improved over time, a significant number of adults remain less optimistic than the students. In a May 2000 CBS News/New York Times poll, only 29% of grown-ups predict a better life for graduating seniors, while 32% foresee a dismal future, and 36% think it's going to be more of the same. Better than 1996, though, when 49% of adults said life would be worse for (the then) freshmen and only 14% thought it would be better.
STUDENTS' FUTURE LIVES COMPARED WITH ADULTS' LIVES -- Among Adults 5/00 / 7/96
Better-- 29% / 14%
Worse-- 32 / 49
Same-- 36 / 33
For all their doomsaying, adults, curiously, still believe in the American dream. In February 2000, 84% of all adults said it was still possible to start out with an empty wallet and become prosperous -- almost equal to the proportion of graduating seniors who say so.
What the Future Holds
Thomas Gifford, from Nashville, Tennessee, breathed a liberating sigh of relief during his sophomore year: he got his driver's license. This right of passage suddenly afforded him independence from his parents and boundless dating possibilities. "It's the start of a whole new age," he said smugly as he pranced out of the DMV clutching that coveted rectangle of plastic.
Like Gifford, many in the class of 2000 are chomping at the bit for their much-awaited autonomy, with one-quarter of graduating seniors mentioning independence as what they anticipate most eagerly. Twenty-two percent were enthusiastic about future jobs and careers, and 17% expressed keen interest in starting families.
WHAT DO STUDENTS LOOK FORWARD TO THE MOST? -- Now / 11/99
Independence -- 26% / 13%
Job or career -- 22 / 27
Starting a family -- 17 / 21
Being successful -- 11 / 9
College -- 9 / 9
While students' priorities shifted subtly throughout their high school years, by the time they were getting fitted for caps and gowns, the need for independence increased dramatically. Last November they were looking most forward to jobs and careers (27%), followed by starting a family (21%). Independence hovered in a distant third place, cashing in at only 13%.
Maryland native Olivia Smith remarked about her future: "Goals change the more you grow up. When I was nine, I wanted to be a doctor. But when I went into fifth grade, I wanted to be a marine biologist. A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to have nine kids. Today I don't want to have any kids. I basically just want to grow up safe and luxurious and have lots of money."
Breaking gender stereotypes, girls and boys reported different priorities for their future. Girls are divided between careers (26%) and independence (25%). Boys, on the other hand, cite independence and marriage as most important, at 26% and 18%, respectively.
WHAT DO STUDENTS LOOK FORWARD TO THE MOST? -- Boys / Girls
Independence -- 26% / 25%
Starting a family -- 18 / 15
Job or career -- 17 / 26
Being successful -- 13 / 9
College -- 8 / 9
Reared on PlayStations and the Internet -- and undoubtedly more adept than their parents at programming the clock on a VCR -- graduating seniors believe that their generation will offer society advancements in technology and science. One-quarter cite this as their age's most likely long-term contribution. Another 11% believe that their contemporaries will bring forth innovative ideas, and 8% say they will create a safer society and a better-educated populace.
WHAT WILL BE THE CLASS OF 2000'S BIGGEST FUTURE CONTRIBUTION? -- Now / 1/97
Technology -- 24% / 14%
New ideas -- 11 / 6
Safer world -- 8 / 9
Better educated -- 8 / 7
This has changed over time. As freshmen, when asked what their contemporaries would contribute to society in the long run, 41% could not give an answer; now only 25% don't know. In 1997 the top answer given was also science and technology, mentioned by 14%. Bad news for tree huggers, though. Both in 1997 and now, only 3% of the millennial class thought that their generation's greatest contribution would be to improve the environment.
Copyright © 2000 by CBS Worldwide Inc.