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The Classmates: Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era

Read this web-exclusive book review by Janet Kinosian.

It’s hard to drum up sympathy for WASP trust-fund progeny, but Geoffrey Douglas does a fine job teaching us how in The Classmates: Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era.

His theory: the 1960s and its moral chaos helped free students at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, from following that long—and often unfulfilling—chain of simply replicating their father’s privileged lives. (St. Paul’s is a well-known boarding school where generations of boys from America’s upper crust were sent as a training ground for optimizing more inherited and unquestioned privilege.)

Douglas’s class, he writes, was the broken link to these types of boarding schools, coming of age during the cultural and political explosions of the times. From those shifts came—gasp—female students, ethnics, and the more compassionate “be-who-you-are” world of today’s academics. The wreckage wasn’t simple, but the tale is written with warm honesty and humor.

The book mainly follows six of Douglas’s class of 1962 (including himself), and is brought to us via e-mails and stories that began to swirl among the group in 2004 when one of their own class members, John Kerry, ran for president.

Soon the “sixty-odd late-middle-aged men in at least four different countries and something like twenty states, some not having talked to a classmate in decades,” started to exchange thoughts about what had happened to their lives when that trajectory arrow they were steadied for snapped soon after they had gone their separate ways post-graduation. Douglas found that his painful and confusing path was not singular.

We learn that one man works as a machine operator at a soap plant, another is a gay school teacher and artist in New York City, another is a Boston lawyer, and another is a Vietnam veteran and now successful architect. Douglas is a former editor and writer, and John Kerry, of course, is a senator who lost his bid for the presidency. All have various “stories of love, war, death, business, marriage, divorce, depression, sexual identity, alcoholism, abstinence, and a hundred other things,” in common.

Oddly, it is Kerry, the initial center of the story’s wheel, whose path is least exciting, likely because we know it and also because of Kerry’s formality in relating only surface parts of it. The other men are rewardingly honest in retelling their past and present and how the ’60s mucked up the clean line for which they were prepped. After all is said and done, it seems a 50-50 split between those who benefited from the sudden revamping of this narrow school structure and those who didn’t.

Doubly odd, the night before I wrote this review, a television show ran excerpts from the infamous 1970s debate between John Kerry, then an antiwar activist, and another young man on The Dick Cavett Show. Kerry argued the futility and wrongness of the war, winning by miles. It was obvious—to me, anyway—that he won, in part, because of his terrific education and debating strength.

Afterward, the audience heard phone excerpts from a furious President Richard Nixon talking to John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman the day after the original show asking, “Who is this Dick Cavett and [how] can we screw him?” with the additional vexed comment about where do these kind of kids come from anyhow.

Strange times, indeed.

Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications.

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