A reprint from SN&R’s 10th anniversary issue in 1999
I wasn’t the first person to do it. I probably won’t be the last. But the insight I gained from posing as a teenager to go back to high school—undercover—didn’t stop after the story “I was a teenage spy” first appeared in the News & Review nearly three-and-a-half years ago.
The idea had been percolating for years. From the story of the author who went undercover to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High to a few similar articles that had appeared in publications nationwide, I was intrigued with the idea revisiting one’s youth. The fascination was twofold: First, I was interested in examining teenage life in the ’90s. Increasingly in our culture, teenagers are maligned for a slew of societal woes. Using a variety of statistics and popular perceptions regarding violent crimes and drug use, sex, gangs and apathy, both media and pop culture have constructed an image of the modern teenager that’s at once titillating and enigmatic, frightening and sad. By integrating myself as a teenager into the teenage world, I hoped to both address and dispel those myths. In addition, however, I also wanted to write this story for more personal reasons. Remembering high school as a special kind of hell plagued by self-doubt and an uncertainty of the future, I was sure that the trip back would be easier than the first time around. “If I knew then what I know now … ” I theorized.
It wasn’t any easier. In fact, those three weeks spent at McClatchy in 1996 seemed just as hard as the four years I spent at Sacramento High School between 1984-1988. In addition to the routine upheaval in my personal life during this time, I experienced emotional upheaval as well. From sitting in a classroom to simply walking the hallways to find a bathroom, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss of control over my life. The freedoms we take for granted as an adult are notably curbed during one’s teen years.
The resulting story reflected that sense of loss and upheaval. Now, rereading “Teenage spy,” I am conscious of how time and experience have redefined those perceptions. To this day, people still recognize me when I’m buying groceries, renting videos or grabbing coffee on the way to work. I hardly recognize myself. I have to laugh when faced with the naive tone of particular passages in the story.
“This time I know what lies ahead, that life will never be the same. Friends will drift away and disintegrate, politics and convictions will shift and aspirations will solidify into something more tangible until finally you’re left with the person, the personality and character you’ve been struggling to discover all along.”
At the ripe old age of 26, I thought I had it all figured out. Now, after struggling through a divorce, several moves, job changes and significant shifts in personal ideology and goals, I realize, with no small degree of chagrin, that the process we go through in high school—a process of self-discovery, self-doubt and philosophy—are no less pronounced or infinite as adults. The major difference, I’ve learned, is that the freedoms we’re afforded as adults coupled with the layers of experience we gain through age work as powerful tools when facing new, life-altering challenges.
Shifting away from the personal, the biggest regret I have regarding “Teenage spy” is some of the language I used in writing the story. Although my intentions were sincere, I realize now that I let myself down—not to mention the McClatchy teens I wrote about—in my attempt to deconstruct various stereotypes and myths. Specifically, by referring to the kids in a particular classroom as “what appear to be a bunch of scruffy, lowlife hoodlums,” I failed as a writer. Instead of illustrating my point with detail and imagery, I resorted to a cliché and became guilty of the very media tactics I wished to decry.
Elsewhere, the focus placed on McClatchy High School’s shortcomings, while pertinent to the story, unfortunately overshadowed the extraordinary personalities and successes I encountered while at McClatchy. During the time I spent there, the students were enthusiastic and friendly, bright and ambitious. In the week’s following the story’s publication, McClatchy High School hosted two lunchtime forums that gave hundreds of students a chance to address concerns with myself and the paper’s editor and publishers. While the outside world’s reaction to the story was generally positive, a large number of McClatchy students were upset by how they felt their school was portrayed. Despite its faults, the students were proud of their school and protective of its reputation. I still stand by my observations, but I admire and respect the students’ esteem and conviction.
In retrospect, despite a few misgivings, I am satisfied with the story that unfolded in “Teenage spy.” For three weeks I had the chance to enter another world, observe, participate and learn—the sort of opportunity writers crave. The experience and lessons learned will remain with me for a lifetime.