Complete this sequence: poodle skirts, love beads, leisure suits, legwarmers, ________. Even those born between 1973 and 1979 would have a tough time with that one. And that includes Chris Colin, author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93: Start-Ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade, who learned that, only a decade on, an era’s not so easy to tag.
“Part of me bridles at the idea of ‘generations.’ I don’t really think it’s a useful way to look at people,” says the 28-year-old Alexandria native and Vassar College graduate, though he recognizes that his contemporaries encountered some particular potholes on the road to adulthood.
In the early ’90s, the recent wrap-up of the Gulf War, the end of a recession, and the birth of the Internet made the world seem full of possibilities. “We were told that we could be whatever we want, that the future was ours to create,” says Colin.
In his book, the former Salon.com writer and editor posits that the 10 years since the class of ’93 finished high school have left many with a different sense of the future. “The world became an unrecognizable place,” he says. “These are people who thought they could do anything and then grew up to see the world not cooperate.”
For the students who skulked with Colin through the halls of Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the disappointments stood out in bold relief. His class at the magnet school was full of the kind of high achievement and widespread political activism that are rare at the average suburban high school. But Colin doesn’t see his teenage years as having been different than those of the ordinary American.
“The school was unique, but you still had popular kids, shy kids, kids who thought the entire school establishment was conspiring against them,” he says. “You know, typical teenage drama.”
On the eve of his 10-year high-school reunion, Colin revisited that drama, traveling all over the country to track down former classmates and record their memories and the facts of their lives. The resulting book features 16 alumni from Thomas Jefferson’s class of ’93: from a weapons engineer to a Buddhist monk; from Colin’s first love, now married to another classmate, to his high-school nemesis.
One of Colin’s most startling, and satisfying, discoveries happened when he sat down for beers with that former adversary—a person whom many at Thomas Jefferson remembered as a racist and homophobe. “We used to argue about everything,” laughs the liberal-minded Colin. “Politics, the environment, and especially sexuality.” Colin was apprehensive about revisiting those heated issues but found that time and a tour in Kosovo had significantly mellowed his old antagonist.
“Not only is he a kind and thoughtful person,” says Colin, “but he’s reassessed a lot of his views. It’s really neat to see how people revise themselves.”
What began as a shock became a recurring theme: revision and acceptance. Whether they were known in high school as bullies, activists, or a loudmouths—and whether they are now thriving, faltering, or just plodding along—Colin’s subjects have all received a similar benefit from 10 years’ time: “I know it’s not a sexy answer,” he says, “but people are just nice.” —Anne Marson