In the summer of 1984, I began inquiring about Beverly Hills High School, a place where the graduation rate was nearly 100 percent and the honor roll high and something was quite wrong. Within the previous year, three of the high school's students had committed suicide, and afterward I heard so many stories of excruciating academic pressure, cocaine abuse, and drifting children that I came to believe there was some news I was not getting from the local metropolitan dailies. Ultimately I decided to write a book about a year in the lives of six Beverly seniors, to follow them from the moment that they stepped onto the school's lush lawn, in September, until they departed as graduates, in June.
There are necessarily, in stories such as this one, the raw statistics and other undigested data of a city and its institutions to be understood. I kept looking for a revelatory point in these numbers, some clue to what was happening on the underside of Beverly Hills High School: student body: 2,452; 83.8 percent white; 6.2 percent Asian; 6 percent black; 3 percent Hispanic. Roughly 13 percent of the whites are classified as Persian. In recent years, a steady influx of wealthy expatriate Iranians into the city has altered the makeup of the student body until one in every eight students now speaks Farsi, which is second only to English as the most commonly spoken language at Beverly. An estimated 70 to 75 percent of the students are Jewish, a fact somewhat obscured by old TV series and other pieces of American pop mythology that would have outsiders believing the mostly blond Protestant offspring of actors roam the campus. A small percentage of the student body has parents in the entertainment industry, but, as has been the case for the last half century, a substantially larger contingent of Beverly students comes from the homes of attorneys, doctors, bankers, financiers, and business executives. Over the years, parental scrutiny of school operations has remained consistently intense.
It is difficult to imagine a public high school boasting of a more impressive academic record. In the 1983-1984 school year, slightly more that 20 percent of the students received a grade point average of 3.6 or higher, on a scale where 4.0 represents straight A's and 3.0 straight B's. Of the 586 graduates from the senior class, 90 percent went on to college, 35 percent to some branch of the prestigious University of California system, while, among the most illustrious achievers, four students went to Harvard, two to Yale, one to Princeton, four each to Brown and Stanford, three to M.I.T., and one to Cal Tech. The latest mean SAT score of Beverly Hills seniors -- 982 on a 1600 point scale -- runs 76 points higher than the national mean and 138 points above that of Los Angeles public high schools. While the annual per capita expenditure for American pupils is $3,449 nationally (Los Angeles can afford but a paltry $2,554), Beverly Hills spends a whopping $5,505 per student. Students' scores on tests given by California education officials routinely place Beverly in the top 1 percent, statewide, with its graduation rate of more than 98 percent dwarfing Los Angeles' (58 percent) and the national average (70.6 percent.)
Everything about Beverly Hills High School encourages its young inhabitants to believe that theirs is a world without limits. All the departments, from the sciences to the humanities, offer numerous Advanced Placement courses for accelerated learning and college credit. There are computer classes equipped with state-of-the-art technology and instruction, and professional internships available for students in areas ranging from business and public relations firms to hospitals and suicide hotlines. Organized programs, in fashion merchandising and accounting, rival those offered by small colleges. The school's media department, arguably its most glamorous and envied, offers classes fielding two teams of reporters and on-air anchorpersons for a regular thirty-minute cable news show that reaches more than twenty-five thousand cable television subscribers. Limited enrollment means a student must audition in order to have a chance at winning one of the fifteen or so broadcasting slots. Sixteen-year-olds somberly discuss what will happen to their "careers" if they don't make it. The schedule of programs for the school year of 1985-1986 included "How Hollywood Works," a discussion, hosted by a student moderator, with film and television producers, writers, and actors discussing the realities of their business; "Face to Face," an interview program with political and social leaders answering a student reporter's queries; "Careers," a largely informational program designed to satisfy the many questions of Beverly students about professional and entrepreneurial opportunities; and "After Prime Time," a series of comedic skits by students about life at Beverly. Nothing is denied the ambitious and talented. "Sometimes the place feels like a little college," one of the students says. "The competition is unreal. But, if you can make it here, you can take nearly any class you'd ever want. There are bucks here. You're never without anything, you know?"
In that respect, the school resembles those of many in highly affluent communities of the United States, dynamic institutions designed as spawning grounds for success, made golden by the good fortunes of the local citizenry. Beverly Hills bears striking similarities to big-city suburbs such as Grosse Pointe, Michigan and Glencoe, Illinois, both of which possess renowned area high schools with national reputations for excellence; the lessons being that no great school can exist in the absence of generous public or philanthropic outlays. Educational funds come, in part, from a lucrative property tax base, but these funds must be shared, according to state law, with poorer school districts in the area. Over the years, revenues have been supplemented by earnings from seventeen oil wells that stand on the high school's property and which the Beverly Hills School District leases to an oil company in exchange for royalties based on the company's profits. In the 1970s, when petroleum prices skyrocketed, the school district's annual earnings exceeded $1.5 million, helping Beverly Hills to pay its highly regarded faculty some of the most handsome teacher salaries in the country. But, in 1986, with the oil market slumping, the school's royalties dropped to $300,000 for the year, and mild concern arose. In the summer of 1987, the Beverly Hills Board of Education, searching for new sources of revenue, struck what may ultimately prove to be a lucrative deal with Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, which reportedly has considered plans to license out a new Beverly Hills High School logo -- a hot pink palm tree with books for leaves -- to manufacturers of clothing, cosmetics and notebooks. A joint announcement added that a television series based on life at the high school may be developed. The hunt for revenue seldom slows, with significant contributions coming from a wide variety of sources in the community. One week children arrive at their elementary school bearing the California state tax-rebate checks of their parents, who have signed the checks over to the school. "This school system always knows how to tap the dough," says a Beverly teacher. "The bottom line remains, we're never hurting."
Yet Beverly Hills is not Kuwait, not a land of limitless riches and profligacy, and, like other affluent American suburbs, must regularly refute the notion that it is a paradise of sybaritic millionaires. According to a revised 1980 census, only 28.8 percent of Beverly Hills households had an annual income of more than $50,000, with median family income standing at $40,300. Professionals made up only about a quarter of the city's population. High-profile political activists, especially those from the motion picture community, may leave the impression of a community more liberal and Democratic than the rest of affluent America, but, in 1980, Beverly Hills supported Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter along with nearly everyone else. "This is a place that doesn't want to see their boat rocked, just like most other places," says the teacher. "They want to make sure that they're going to stay financially comfortable and socially acceptable, and that their kids are going to sail along, just as they have. They don't want any social problems -- drugs, sexual complications, you name it -- interfering with their kids' drive for success."
For teenagers, Beverly Hills is no more a den of hedonism than any other major American city. Social attitudes and mores appear to be nearly identical to those found in the middle-class high schools of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley -- the evidence of drug and alcohol use no more or less high, the discussion of sex and birth control equally as obsessive. If Beverly has had its share of troubling teenage problems, so, too, have less privileged American communities like Omaha, Nebraska and Bergenfield, New Jersey been forced to confront the social traumas of teenage suicides, drug addiction and ennui. If there is any meaningful difference between high school students in a community such as Beverly Hills and teenagers from predominantly middle-class or blue-collar areas, it may be that wealth simply affords the Beverly teenager greater access to what other teens cannot readily obtain -- cars, clothes, tutors, credit cards, alcohol, drugs, and resources for dating and partying. This does not suggest that all Beverly students come from upper-income families, a point that the census data make clear. The locations and demographics of the four grammar schools in the Beverly Hills School District through which students are eventually funneled into the high school -- El Rodeo, Hawthorne, Beverly Vista, and Horace Mann -- reflect the contrasting economic strata of the city.
The progeny of the divergent groups come together at fourteen or fifteen as high school freshmen, all equals in the pursuit of success, or so the story goes. We tend to see teenagers like the seniors at Beverly Hills High School nearly always in this rosy egalitarian context, to believe that, irrespective of their families' incomes, stability, or emotional histories, the students are similarly gilded inhabitants of the same privileged school class. Indeed, we generally view students from largely middle-income area high schools in the same manner, proclaiming them the beneficiaries of America's limitless opportunities and promise, when the opportunities, in fact, may have dimmed and the promise replaced by a grim competitive struggle among the young to gain footholds for survival. It has always been the curse of youth to be labeled as privileged and indulged by their elders, of course; but what was once merely a difference in generational values now has become a disturbing blindness to the reality of teenage lives.
Revealingly, few Beverly students feel comfortable discussing their families' monetary or social positions, viewing such things as ephemeral. Talk of money and homes is perceived as tacky, a taboo. On the other hand, a wardrobe sufficiently attuned to the season's trendiest styles and a late model imported automobile appear to go a long way toward imbuing their owner with a stylish reputation. The wealthy and upper-class students seem keenly aware of their vast affluence, knowing a few middle-class kids well enough to realize that their own material status is unique, enviable, the product of their parents' brains, effort, and, in some cases, luck. Some admit to seeing their life's great task as simply holding on. They have come to embody the flip side of the classic American vision -- teenagers aware that an economic climb may not be in the cards for them, that they may be the first in their families to feel the slide of downward mobility. A troublingly large segment wonders whether they have the ability to achieve the immense success necessary to remain in Beverly Hills, most openly fearing a life without great advantages or opulence. Professional ambitions, therefore, generally tend to be higher among the young here.
With such urgent goals and expectations comes heightened academic pressure. Some seniors worry that they might not possess the hunger to make it, that growing up, say, with a housekeeper, large allowance, personal automobile, and tutor has left them a little soft, placed them at a disadvantage against those middle- and lower-class denizens, in patched jeans, who next year doubtlessly will be studying twelve hours a day, in college libraries, to beat them. A few seniors have already resigned themselves to futures of scaled-down existences, far outside Beverly Hills and the rest of upper-income West Los Angeles. A certain anomie has settled over them. "If it's going to happen when I get older -- like not being able to live here and having to live like some geek in the Valley -- then it's going to happen," says one girl. "Meantime, I'm going to party all I can. I'm going to go wild while I have something to do it with. Party, party, party. Then the world can collapse."
In the summer of 1984, these sentiments numbed me with the kind of profound disillusionment that strikes only when one's fundamental assumptions about life have been thrown into serious question. I realized that, behind the high school gates, lurked a subculture I no longer knew anything about. My own sheltered and staid high school career, a generally tolerable, breezy, and productive exercise in making the climb that ended with my graduation in 1971, could scarcely have been less instructive or relevant. There were no dance clubs open to teenagers on weekends then, in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where I lived. Most students considered drugs, aside from marijuana, to be dangerous, and resisted temptation in favor of six-packs. I cannot recall ever hearing of cocaine. A big Friday night would consist of a football game, followed by a ritual convoy ride to Shakey's Pizza for a large pepperoni and root beers. If all had gone well to that point, a couple might then have driven into the surrounding hills to stare at smog-covered skies, in search of passion. It was, on the whole, notwithstanding the Vietnam war and the social cataclysms of the era, a relatively innocent time. Most of us knew how to enjoy the moment. The moment meant everything then; we were not much for looking ahead. We were allowed to be kids for a long while.
But that was another era, long gone, never to return, I have realized, listening to voices of Beverly reveal the present. "They just do the best they can to make it here," said a teacher during the summer of 1985. "They are good kids. They are just facing things a high school kid of the early seventies and before that knew nothing about. Plus, the standards are different at Beverly today. The admired kid here is not necessarily the good-looking athlete. The possibility of success in the future is important to someone's overall attractiveness. Kids are already planning their law practices or where they might set up their businesses. Sometimes you can't see their problems through that act of maturity they put on for you. If they're not well adjusted, then that illusion can be a real problem, because some of them are facing pressures that they don't know how to cope with. Your whole worth here, in these kids' eyes, is determined by how well you're doing academically and socially. A 'C' is a horrible grade to them, a failing grade. Sometimes a 'B' is, too. There's been a lot of cheating. The anxiety is only growing worse."
I am a writer, not a psychologist or sociologist, and perhaps the most meaningful observation I can offer is the simple admonition that we seem to be confusing personal perceptions, culled from the briefest of glimpses of teenagers, with the not so visible truth. It did not take long during my conversations with Beverly students before I understood that their world was nothing like the one I had imagined from casually observing teenage behavior in malls and at rock concerts. After that initial shock, the task became to listen to students long and carefully enough until I adequately understood the panorama of life at Beverly.
The Beverly Pursuit is the path to success. . . . One wrong move, and the student could be traveling in endless circles. Sure, he will have a chance to roll again, but he will have to take advantage of every opportunity. Sometimes a student will land in the wrong square, but he must be patient. Someday he will be able to cash in all his chips and reach the center of attention. Of course, everyone wants a piece of the pie. If a student does not have the right moves, he will go hungry. . . .
-- Watchtower (the Beverly Hills High School Yearbook), 1985 Edition