Outside, it is raw. Cold, cloudy and windy. Reluctant students groan; some roll their eyes. "This is so stupid," says one, loitering in the halls. ''What's the point?" asks another.
"I guess someone thought this would be groovy," a third says, sparking giggles.
From the outside, Wissahickon High School looks as if it hasn't changed since it opened its doors in 1962 to usher in the Baby Boomers.
But there's a new generation inside this and all high schools across the nation.
It's the Fast Forward generation. Raised on CNN, DOS and MTV. Schooled in limits by recession, AIDS and ozone holes. Hardened by parents' divorces. Impatient with unfulfilled ideals. A generation both enraged about the mess its elders have made and pragmatically determined to deal with it.
These are the babies of the Boomers, a new set of rebels with no cause but survival.
They have left their parents scratching their heads in confusion and uncomfortable in the role of The Establishment that they themselves once vowed never to trust.
The Boomers, as their children are sick to death of being reminded, were once famed for wearing love beads, dropping out, and listening for Bob Dylan's answer blowin' in the wind.
Today, the Fast Forward generation dresses "grunge," worries about dropping into a shrunken job market, and blasts out rap songs about urban violence and lost causes.
Free love, the Great Society and Morning in America all turned out to have a high price.
Today's teenagers sense they are the ones who will pay it.
That has produced a new alienation, a generation gap that some experts see as the first major friction between young and old since the late '60s.
To try to measure this gap, The Inquirer has spent the school year inside Wissahickon High School, observing classes, listening in on lunch-time chatter, and talking with the Class of 1993, their parents and teachers.
When Wissahickon's seniors ponder what the world seems to have in store for them, they speak in voices edged with skepticism, seasoned with just a splash of hope.
"I want to be able to live better than my parents, but that doesn't mean I'll be able to," said senior Robert Jara. His father was laid off from his construction job last summer and hasn't found steady work for nine months. ''It makes me think that I want to get into a stable field, something that's always needed."
Senior Chris Eschbach summarized his class' attitude: "We are more about reality than anything."
Such words and concerns are echoed by young people around the nation, according to authors Neil Howe and William Strauss. Howe and Strauss warn in their new book, 13th GEN: Abort, Delete, Retry, Fail?, that the growing generational clash will become as hot as the Vietnam-era skirmishes between Baby Boomers and their parents.
Certainly, as the children of the Age of Aquarius stand, bemused, on the ''wrong" side of this demographic divide, the catcalls about complacency and phoniness they hear from the other side have a vaguely familiar ring.
Ask a teenager what he thinks of the 1960s and you're likely to get a derisive scoff.
"The Baby Boomers, they didn't stick with anything," Eschbach said. ''Like, weren't they going to stop pollution and stuff? They started all these causes and then they saw that nothing was going right, so they gave up."
Wissahickon senior Stephanie Golden added: "There have been many ages. The Middle Ages, the '60s. Why do we want to stay in the '60s and not move on? That was an irresponsible time."
Young people, said Christina Kelly, 31, editor of Sassy magazine, "are so sick of the Baby Boomers talking about the '60s and how rad it was. They are into having their own culture, not their parents' culture. They are cynical and are sick of people saying, 'I was there in 1968.' "
Wissahickon High School, serving Ambler, Blue Bell, Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain in Montgomery County, is culturally and economically diverse. The school district includes an established black community that helped settle Ambler and a fast-growing Asian population that followed high-tech development into the area. After leaving the school in the afternoon, students are equally likely to head home to a struggling working-class neighborhood in Ambler or a rambling estate in exclusive Blue Bell.
According to district statistics, the school's student body of 979 is 77 percent Anglo, 11 percent African American, 10 percent Asian, 1.3 percent Latino and 0.2 percent American Indian.
As a window into the school, The Inquirer closely observed a group of seniors enrolled in Social Lab, a program that allowed them to work half the day and spend the other half in a combined social studies and English class. The 53 students in the Social Lab program ranged from honor students to those just scraping by.
First week of October:
In Social Lab class, English teacher Guy Fiorentino is leading a discussion about symbolism in the Richard Bach novel "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," a parable about nonconformity and the spiritual rewards of individualism.
"This book was very popular in the early 1970s," Fiorentino tells the class. "It was a big national bestseller. Why do you suppose that was?"
"People were drugged out anyway," one student answers.
"It was all hippies and stuff," says another.
"They were all that way," adds a third.
Historians agree that Baby Boomers became a generation of change in part
because of the events that dominated their young lives and influenced their values and behavior.
Consider the events that people born in 1950 lived through by the time they became adults.
While they were in grade school, the civil rights movement began to swell and the Cold War loomed like a thunder cloud. As they moved into The Wonder Years, NASA reached toward the stars, but Soviet missiles in Cuba threatened apocalypse.
John F. Kennedy was murdered, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Woodstock. Kent State.
But the Fast Forward generation can match the Boomers, trauma for trauma.
"If you want to understand this (teenage) generation, trace back their life cycle," author Strauss said in an interview at his home near Washington.
The majority of today's high school seniors were born in 1975, the year Saigon fell. They toddled through the years of Jimmy Carter malaise, of OPEC and America held hostage.
Then, like their Boomer parents, they spent their childhoods in an era of complacency. Ronald Reagan's Morning in America rhetoric and his philosophy of No Government Is Good Government ruled political debate for most of their lives.
But the ills that now haunt their dreams began to surface while they were in elementary school.
They turned 7 when scientists discovered AIDS, the disease destined to stack the deck of their sexual exploration with a deadly trump card.
Instead of watching Apollo astronauts skip on the moon's surface, these youngsters watched teacher Christa McAuliffe die, live on television, in a cartwheeling rocket explosion in the Florida sky.
The stock market crashed, and Wall Street's young guns of greed were indicted for insider trading.
During their high school years, David Duke showed racism still could attract votes, Madonna led an assault on the boundaries of public sexuality, blue-chip corporations laid off tens of thousands, Anita Hill confronted Clarence Thomas, and South Central Los Angeles ignited in a fire of racial frustration.
And all the while, their parents divorced and remarried at an unrelenting pace.
"For them," Strauss said, "the crumbling of family life is a constant, a given. And the anxiety of America's future, the disappearance of Tomorrowland, is not a change. It would have been there from the very beginning."
Second week of December:
A group of seniors gathers to teach sixth graders the art of formal debate. The topic: the death penalty.
The team opposing capital punishment argues its cruelty. The students defending the death penalty spend little time on moral or legal issues. Their pragmatic counterattack, delivered with emotion by a senior:
"There's been a 150 percent growth in prison population over the last 10 years, which cost the taxpayer $10 billion a year. With the debt in this country and this recession, we simply can't afford to keep these prisoners alive on death row until they die."
Henry VandeWater, principal of Wissahickon High, has been an educator for 31 years. He likes teenagers, believes in them, and aches for this generation's wilting idealism, its long-ago-lost innocence.
These kids, he says, seem different even from their older siblings who passed through the school's hallways four or five years ago.
"I hate to generalize . . . but I think that what is a bit tarnished is their joy of living. The cynicism is there, and there is a lot of anger," VandeWater said near the end of the first semester.
The second generation born and raised largely in suburbia, the Fast Forwards have nervously watched the comfortable way of life that once seemed their birthright begin to fray in the clutches of recession.
"It's going to be hard for us to find jobs because older people are out of work and they are taking our jobs," senior Cori Baker said. "I know people with engineering degrees working at 7-Eleven. All the college kids who graduated in 1992 . . . they don't have jobs. My parents are going to spend thousands of dollars to send me to college for four years. I'll graduate, and I won't have a job."
VandeWater summarized the difference in the generations he has watched pass through Wissahickon High in his 20 years there: "Kids back in the 1960s knew the opportunities were limitless. Now kids see the future as nebulous."
Many teachers, parents and school counselors - adults who see and work with the Fast Forward generation every day - agree: These youngsters are serious - and scared.
"The kids seem to be more in tune with everything in the real world a lot earlier than we were," said Carol Liberto, the mother of senior Christine Liberto. "They are getting so much of the real world that the kids aren't kids anymore."
Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which conducted surveys for MTV's Rock the Vote campaign last year, said the polls had found that 67 percent of young Americans considered the economy "the biggest obstacle facing the generation."
Garin suggested that the Fast Forwards might try to do something about what scares them.
"I think this may be the first generation that will be socially involved since the 1960s, but the involvement will be very different," Garin said. ''It's going to be much more economic and less cultural."
Instead of "Make love, not war," the '90s slogan of youthful protest might be: "Less greed, less waste."
The political complacency of the suburban teenagers at Wissahickon was definitely shaken by the recession, said Paula McLaughlin, who teaches political science there:
"Before, I think lots of kids thought the poor and homeless were that way
because they were lazy. But now the kids wonder: How close am I or are you
from homelessness? I think they see a lot of things that they feel are out of their control."
Third week of October:
Social studies teacher Jeff Madden stands at the chalkboard explaining various theories of sociology and psychology. He explains Freud's idea of the Oedipus complex, saying that a young boy's competition with his father for his mother's attention is considered a healthy, normal stage of development.
A student raises his hand to ask a question:
"What if you don't have a father?"
In 1985, when today's high school seniors were 10 years old, the nation's divorce rate hit its peak, with 51.6 percent of marriages begun in that year expected to fail, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
By contrast, in 1955, in the middle of the Baby Boom, only 34.4 percent of those who got married were likely to get divorced.
Students say divorce has shaped their generation.
"A lot of us say we're never getting married. I don't want to get married if it's not going to last," said Colleen Riley, a senior whose parents have been married for 25 years.
Riley's parents may be the exception. Fast Forwards have learned to live with mix-and-match families - a bewildering array of stepfathers and stepmothers, half-brothers and stepsisters, and single parents' live-in lovers. Some deal with parents who are at war with each other. Some live without either biological parent.
"Sometimes when there is a problem at school, we don't know who to call," said assistant principal Priscilla Linden.
Asked about divorce, senior Emilia Ventresca quipped: "What they say now is the first marriage is for love, the second is for money and the third is for sex."
Teenagers may joke about it, but "they hate divorce," said author Strauss. "That's why generational history goes in cycles. People grow up filling the voids that were left to them by their elders. Today's kids feel that their family life was splintered."
Marriage may be frightening to this generation, but sex isn't, AIDS notwithstanding.
Statistics compiled by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States show that 51.5 percent of girls between 15 and 19 have had premarital sex. One out of four reported having sex for the first time at age 15.
Compare that with statistics from 1970, during the heat of the sexual revolution - when 29 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 reported having had premarital sex, according to research by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
"There's a lot of peer pressure for sex," said Kim Killaly, who usually is quiet in class. "It's like part of dating or something."
"I'd say about 60 or 70 percent of kids have sex" by their senior year, said senior Mike Basara. "But people respect your privacy about it. It's, like, no big deal."
Students, especially boys, said AIDS had influenced their sexual habits at least a little bit.
"It's a lot different now than in the 1960s," said senior Tom Koste. ''. . . It's not like you meet someone at Woodstock and do it behind the Porta-Potty. You have to be a lot more careful now."
Parents said they knew their children were having sex as young as 14 or 15. Although they don't like it, they try to deal with it.
"When they hit eighth grade, it's like something changes," said Carol Liberto, mother of two Wissahickon girls, a junior and a senior. "It's surprising what comes out of their mouths about sex."
"We as parents have said to our kids, 'Speak to me,' and now they're giving it to us and we don't really like what we're hearing," said Pat Blassingale, whose daughters are in ninth and 11th grade.
When Sassy magazine polled 19,958 teenagers last year about their sexual experiences, many said they usually had sex at the boy's home. In other studies, teenagers have said they usually do it when parents are at work.
From 3 to 6 p.m. could be the sexiest hours in America.
"We still think that 'it' happens on Saturday night, and we're very aware of that," said Blassingale, a member of the school's Parent Council. "But I was shocked to learn (from the magazine) that it happens in the daylight, in the middle of the week. We aren't even equipped to deal with it because we don't know when it's happening."
Students are fairly open about their sexuality, among themselves and with adults, said VandeWater, the principal. While he said he thought that was probably healthy, he finds early sexual activity dismaying.
"What it does in terms of their self-worth probably won't be known for years," he said.
The fifth week of the school year:
A black girl eating lunch with white friends discusses race relations at Wissahickon.
"A lot of the black and white kids grew up together, so we know each other, but the Asians, they just don't want to associate with us. They think we are being racist with them, but we're not."
The girl is asked whether that sort of argument couldn't have been made about black students 20 years ago.
"Yeah, I guess," she says. "But with the Asians, it's true."
On the front page of the Trojan Times, the Wissahickon school newspaper, news about homecoming, the yearbook and the prom had to compete for space this year with stories about sexual harassment and racism.
"The way I see it is that racial relations have not improved all that much," senior Paul Oh, a Korean American, wrote for the paper. "The difference is that a decade back, people said it; now people only think it."
An editorial in the paper read: "Clothing items that say 'black power' are ridiculous. Do white people wear shirts that say 'white power'? If they did, they would never hear the end of it and be considered racists. When blacks wear the phrase 'black power' all over their clothes, why aren't they considered racists?"
National census statistics show that the Fast Forward generation is the most ethnically integrated teenage generation in American history.
Black, white, brown, they go to school together. They live in the same neighborhoods. They date interracially.
And yet, according to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission's first official report about hate crime, young people (under age 21) committed 64 percent of the hate crimes reported statewide in 1990-91. And 62 percent of the victims were under 21.
"There is a sense that we may have skipped a generation in formal education about diversity and sensitivity," said Howard Ehrlich, director of research for the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence in Baltimore. "The last 16 years have been very conservative years as far as civil rights in general. That is almost the entire lifespan of these teens."
Students express confusion about affirmative action, desegregation and other social programs introduced a generation ago.
"People say we're all equal, but I'm a white person and I don't stand as good of a chance of getting into college as a black person," said one boy at Wissahickon who asked that his name not be used. "The government promotes racism."
Author Strauss theorizes that the tension is rooted in economics.
"When you ask questions about how they feel about having a black teacher, or dating a person of a different race, (young people) rank high in tolerance," he said.
"But look at their life cycle and consider the economics they're facing. Jobs are scarce and competition is steep. The only King they know is Rodney King, not Martin Luther."
Last school year, VandeWater said, Wissahickon High experienced vandalism
from a secret society called SWAT - Superior White Attack Team - made up of ''a very small group of kids."
He said that overt racism at the school had seemed to have hit a low point in the late 1970s and early 1980s but that tension began to rise again as the decade closed.
VandeWater said he had striven not to blow SWAT's actions out of proportion. But racial slurs painted on lockers and swastikas soaped onto cars shook up the entire school.
So, over the summer, a group of about 24 students met with assistant principal Linden and convinced her that the school should devote one week this year to activities making Wissahickon more racially tolerant.
The highlight of the October program was "sensitivity day," when the 24 students performed skits depicting forms of racial insensitivity sometimes encountered in school. The skits dealt with racial slurs toward blacks and Asians; one was about white supremacists.
After the dramas, the students discussed racism at Wissahickon for more than an hour.
"Everybody is sitting here saying 'I'm not racist,' but behind closed doors it's all different," one black student said during the assembly. ''Everybody is hiding."
Come on people now, smile on your brother.
Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.
- The Youngbloods, 1967
Look in the doubt we've wallowed.
Look at the leaders we've followed.
Look at the lies we've swallowed.
And I don't want to hear no more.
- Guns N' Roses, 1991
"We're not cynical. We're realistic," said senior Jennifer Kraus, talking about her generation.
That's the word students used over and over to describe themselves. No nonsense. Informed about the harshness of the real world. Optimistic, but within reason.
Talk about politics and they'll talk about crooked congressmen. Talk about
college, and they'll talk about the cost of tuition and the job market.
But dig deeper, said VandeWater, and youthful optimism is still there, inside, trying to grow from a spark into a flame.
"They are perceptive, and they see a lot of phoniness, and that's why they're angry and cynical. You can't blame them," he said. "But, I see some idealism, some optimism."
The environment has become a focal point for youthful activism.
"Every generation has the thing that they want to fix, and ours is the environment," said senior Alanna Weaver.
"We have to do something, or by the time we get to be the parents of the world, there's not going to be much left," said senior Joe Bradley.
Strauss said these teens had focused on environmental issues because recycling and other earth-friendly actions are easy to initiate without approval by the establishment.
The students agreed.
"The environment is something you can control. You can't stop companies
from laying off people or the government from doing things," said Reide Lesse, a senior. "It (environmental awareness) is something we can do to feel good about ourselves."
"Part of the desire," said Strauss, "is to keep the world from getting worse. This is a generation looking to cut through the complexity and find a quick route to something that will work."
Some who have studied the Fast Forward generation said that Baby Boomers, still nostalgic for their long-lost days of visionary idealism, tended to give short shrift to the new generation's pragmatic approach.
They fail to see its idealistic roots or its value as a survival tool for the next century.
"I think there is a conscious reaction (among young people) to the values of the 1980s," said Garin, who headed up MTV's Rock the Vote research. "They have a sense of right and wrong and the way things ought to be. I think they have a rejection of the anything-for-a-buck mentality."
Strauss fiercely defends today's teenagers:
"You're seeing a different kind of smarts than adults were familiar with in their time.
"Today's high school junior cannot do Palmer penmanship, or write an elegant Victorian letter, but they sure know how to program DOS and they know how to use audio and video technology to communicate.
"Many of the experts who downgrade these kids would be hard-pressed to match them in computer literacy.
"These kids personify our fears about the future. But the flip side is that they have a lot of skills that older people don't have. They may be able to teach our country a few necessary survival lessons."