Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Thinker Crowd

Elizabeth Zelvin

Somebody once said that writers are people who haven’t forgotten their childhood. I’ve never been quite sure what that meant or if it was necessarily true. Certainly, many fine writers have evoked the sense of wonder and the magical thinking associated with childhood, as well as its pain and powerlessness. I’ve read many books that portray kids—and groups of kids—as living in a world of their own that adults don’t even know exists, much less influence. For example, Lord of the Flies succeeded because the archetypal view of kids as pack animals in whom cruelty and the desire to scapegoat lie just beneath the surface must have struck a chord in many. In adolescence too, we have certain archetypes. A friend recently explained the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by saying the show’s simple premise was, “High school is hell.”

My problem with this is that high school wasn’t hell for me. Nor was it because of clothes or dates or popularity or stuff. I did have a crowd, a group of friends. But I’ve never seen anything like “the Thinker crowd” in a book or movie about teens. There were about 200 of us in a large high school in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. We were the intellectuals and radicals, the kids who ran the school newspaper and literary magazine, the kids who signed petitions and wouldn’t say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The boys wore black turtlenecks and blue denim work shirts, and I paid so little attention to fashion that I can’t even remember what the girls wore. We didn’t drink at our parties, and the only dancing we did was Israeli folk dancing. More often, we sat on the floor and sang folk songs. We brought our guitars to parties as a matter of course. Manhattan was our Mecca: we spent Saturday afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art (then gloriously free) and our Sunday afternoons hanging out in Washington Square Park. The musicians we came to hear played for the sheer love of it. They didn’t even pass a hat.

The “Thinker” that gave us our name was an illicit little journal we put out on topics of general interest, like nuclear weapons, the Chinese communes and Israeli kibbutzim, and the works of Aldous Huxley. The red diaper babies among us, kids whose fathers had fought romantically in the Spanish Civil War, gave it its tone. Looking back, I’m not convinced I understood half of what we said. But I had a great time thinking I did. We also had “Thinker parties” at which a topic would be chosen and hotly debated. This was the Fifties. We didn’t even do drugs. We called ourselves beatniks—the term “hippie” hadn’t been invented yet. And we lived in New York City, where the driving age was 18 and most graduated high school at 16 or 17. We knew a lot about politics and culture and nothing about sex and cars.

We had a Thinker party along with the formal 30th reunion of my class’s graduation. (The official reunion was fun too, since the “other crowd,” the conventional ones who ran for student government and joined fraternities and sororities, had turned into perfectly nice people.) About three dozen of us from the Thinker crowd showed up. We still had plenty to say to each other. We all agreed that the good time we’d had in high school was remarkable. Like me, many remembered the quality of friendships within the group and the relative absence of sexual rivalry, competitiveness, and malice. That was a number of years ago, and we’re beginning to hear about deaths. There were two this year, one a guy that everybody liked—genuine, decent, highly intelligent—the other a woman considered “a character”—intense, quirky, brilliant. I had seen neither in many years, but I remember them vividly. I won’t forget any of us.

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