Fast Times Redux

We’re coming into a weekend, my own kids are finishing high school this month. And I made a Fast Times At Ridgemont High reference the other day. So here we go.

Along with books like Patricia Hersch’s Tribe Apart, Fast Times is, in my view, essential to understanding 1980s suburban culture. But where Hersch, and others, documented what was happening or had happened, Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book really anticipated the direction things were going. The movie, directed by Amy Heckerling, while not a favorite of critics, was important as a cultural marker and stands up for capturing a moment in real time. More on that in a second. 

Today, my kids and kids in California follow the same trends on TikTok and the same fashions and trends in the real world. Gather round kids and I’ll tell you about a time before social media, when trends largely moved west to east. When youth culture was transmitted by magazines, what you saw in the real world, and word of mouth. A time when you didn’t have a lot of knowledge about what was happening far away. A kid at your school would come back from California with new clothes, a year later most everyone would have them. 

Anyhow, on Tuesday I posted about our new analysis at Bellwether on the lack of clarity between and within states around the age a young person should be to do various things or make various decisions. It’s a fascinating issue and one that squarely intersects with schools.

I also posted a picture from Fast Times, with Spicoli (Sean Penn) and Jefferson’s brother (Stanley Davis Jr.). It had little to do with the analysis but the post needed art. A certain kind of person hears, “Fast Times” and immediately jumps to ‘that movie is problematic.’ Sometimes they reach out to tell me that. Thanks. I had no idea…Actually, I have some troubling news for you: The ‘80s were problematic. 

What picture did you think I was going to use? This is a family friendly publication. 

The movie captured things that were going on. Cameron Crowe’s job wasn’t to make us better, it was to document and Heckerling’s to entertain. They masterfully did both and the project behind Fast Times is something that should be better known in the education world. Embedding as a student today would likely get you arrested, when Crowe pulled it off things were different. 

A decade ago I was writing a daily “on this day” kind of thing for an education newsletter for RealClear Education with the fantastic Emmeline Zhao. On Judge Reinhold’s birthday, which it turns out is this week, I wrote about Fast Times and why it matters and why high school is still pretty screwed up. Being an adolescent is, too, as our report shows.

Apparently it was OK. Here it is again reprinted below. Enjoy the weekend.

May 21, 2014
It’s Judge Reinhold’s birthday today. The actor was born on this date in 1957 in Delaware. He spent some of his childhood in Virginia and was a student at Mary Washington College for a while. Reinhold’s known for leading roles in Beverly Hills Cop and an acclaimed role as the “close talker” on Seinfeld. But for Americans of a certain age he’ll always be best recalled as high school senior Brad Hamilton in Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

That film had a who’s who of future movie talent in addition to Reinhold: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forrest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Nicholas Cage (who appeared under his true name, Nicholas Coppola), and, of course, Phoebe Cates. Ray Watson, who perhaps is best known as a Broadway song and dance performer, is unforgettable as Mr. Hand. “What are you, people? On dope?” The film was based on Cameron Crowe’s book, which he wrote while posing undercover as a student at a California high school in 1979.

Fast Times works because it’s at once ridiculous and also a dead-on encapsulation of high school angst. It veers between the absurd, Sean Penn’s over-the-top Jeff Spicoli who lives only for “tasty waves” and “a cool buzz” to the serious, sexual pressure and teenage pregnancy. Hanging over it all is the palpable sense that despite the pressure and immediacy, real responsibility and stakes lie in wait just around the corner. Crowe stirred that mix just right and the film is as much sociology as it is entertainment. That’s why young people responded to the film even if critics didn’t.

The American high school experience is many things to different people. For some it truly is glory days, for others an important formative period, and for some a period of alienation and difficulty. It’s why we would do well to remember that the stereotypical experience at the comprehensive high school is foreign to many kids. The isolation can be particularly acute in rural communities where a single high school is the focus of so much. With some notable exceptions, overall school systems in all communities generally do a lousy job for the students who need or want something else besides the mainstream. High schools are a part of the American education experience long overdue for more customization.

Technology provides some avenues. Badging and competency-based education can make the high school experience more flexible. But fundamentally, policymakers and educators have to adopt a mindset that there is nothing sacred about the four-year traditional high school experience and students can succeed and thrive with different models.

We’re supposed to reinvent ourselves anyway. As Jeff Spicoli said in Fast Times,

What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves – pronto – we’ll just be bogus too! Get it?

If you want to get in your inbox when it’s published  you can sign up for free here.