I look back on growing up in West Los Angeles – Brentwood, to be precise – attending a private high school, and then going on to Stanford in the 1950s, with nostalgia, criticism, and a peculiar kind of gratitude – along with deep ambivalence. My father and mother and their social circle were pretty much oblivious to the lower and even middle class deprivations; they were mostly apolitical except for the knee-jerk grousing about taxes, the ghost of FDR, and any perceived traces of liberal thought. Mostly the men made money, talked about making and spending money, and sports, and the women played cards, shopped, some did a day’s work for this or that charity a la e.e. cummings’s “Cambridge Ladies,” and they all gathered together at one or more of the acceptable social clubs – the Beach Club, the Los Angeles Country Club, the Bel Air Bay Club. All were mostly “exclusive” – the common euphemism then for “no Jews, Blacks, Latinos, et al… allowed.” In fact, in my 1955 senior class of 48 students at Harvard School, there was only one Jew and one wealthy Mexican exchange student. All the rest of us were pure white bread (bred).
Yet I look back on these days of “The Fifties” with certain ambivalence. It is easy to denigrate the exclusivity, the anti-intellectualism, the culturally sterile social circles, the narrow-minded-reactionary politics, the assumption that servants were the God-given due of whites, and the overall materialistic self-absorption of these upper class folks who were my parents’ world as I grew up. Yet they were devoted to their children, insisted upon politeness towards one’s elders, and often – as in the case of my parents – provided a stable, secure, and supportive family structure with most meals, particularly dinner, being spent together.
High school, Harvard School – then a boys’ military school – was pretty much an extension of my parent’s social world as were the girls’ school equivalents – Marlborough, in Hancock Park, where my sister attended (1951), and Westlake, located in Bel Air. We boys and girls dated each other, attended the various social clubs along with our parents, and, in some cases, went to the same colleges and even married later on. It was a time of relative innocence and even a certain oblivious sweetness. I have often thought that, in particular, I was blessed by the 50s. For I have, in retrospect, come to see that I embodied three characteristics which, in the 50s, were not harmful to my development, while they would be devastating if I were growing up today.
You see, I realize now that I was a slow learner, a late-bloomer, and, ultimately, an over-achiever. But I eventually did achieve because I was given the time and space to learn slowly and to bloom later in the game. Today – doom! Today my mediocre grades and abysmal SAT scores would have removed Stanford from the realm of the possible, and the whole sequence which led to teaching and even thinking I could be a teacher, given my grades and scores, may well have been prematurely erased.
I got into Stanford at a relatively non-competitive time and entered with a perhaps unrealistic, but nevertheless genuine, sense of confidence that eventually I could succeed. In high school, working my way up from 9th grade “C” basketball to the 10th grade “B” team, to the 11th and 12th Varsity in basketball and similarly in football, also gave me the sense that with hard work you could, in time, climb whatever ladders were there. And while Harvard sports were not big time and, hence, ill-prepared me for college sports, it did give me the opportunity to grow and to learn how to achieve.
The social scene for my classmates and me was also relatively benign. Sex was mostly “making out” and not intercourse; parties were mostly beer and not grass or heavy drugs. Los Angeles was a safer place to drive in – there were no freeways, and there were few gang-dominated areas that were totally unsafe for non-gang members. You could, for example, drive down to the beach at 11:00 p.m. or midnight and take a swim with your girlfriend or lie on the beach together “necking” – as it was called then. You could do this and feel safe – not worrying about gangs, derelicts, or thieves.
It was a time not only of innocence but relative security in which to grow up, make your mistakes, and move on. Would that all of our children today had at least that.