Today is my 20-year high school reunion.
When I graduated high school in 1994, I thought that graduation night would be the last time I’d see most of the people I’d met during my 18 years in the Fairfield City School District.
I was fortunate enough to be the one to give our Commencement speech. Of course, I threw in a lot of comedy. But I also took the responsibility very seriously, trying to drop as much knowledge as I could, only to be mostly outdone by my own fumbling over the word “success,” thereby advising my 488 classmates “be gracious in your sex” (the loudest cheers of the night) and the din of the plethora of Snapple caps smuggled in by some of the more seedy (and fun) element of our class.
As we flung our caps (hats, not Snapple lids) into the air, I was overcome by the feeling that this was truly the end. (Well, besides a super-fun after-party at Thomm Long’s house.)
When I think of my own personal “good ol’ days,” I think of May through November of 1994. That six-month period was pure bliss. In May, I wrapped up the Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the natural apathy of Senioritis set in. The summer was spent in a haze, the most vivid memories (if remembered) spent on the back patio of Micah Willbrand’s house. Oh, and working the eight-hour shifts of my very first job — merchandising at the amusement park, Kings Island — for minimum wage, then an oh-so-generous $4.25/hour.
As I went off to college in Cleveland, we were struck by this weird thing called “the Internet.” We used Gopher and TCP/IP to send something called electronic mail to one another on campus. Then lo and behold, we soon discovered that we could “e-mail” (yes, rocking the hyphen just like Jay Z used to) anyone with an address. Seemingly each day, I’d hear from a new friend from Fairfield High School, scattered at universities far and wide, from the Naval Academy to Valparaiso to Bowling Green to Clemson.
This was incredible — making a whole new set of friends in Northeast Ohio — and reconnecting with my old buds from Southwest Ohio. After November, reality set in, mostly in the form of the Cleveland winter, but that half-year is something I’ll always fondly remember.
Is it me or was 1994 truly special? I’ve long been fascinated with the year, not surprisingly since we’d been scribbling “’94 or Bust” since elementary school on everything from yearbooks to lockers to book covers (Remember those?). I know years like 1980 and 2000 are special, the former because everything in this country changed — politically, socially, culturally… which is a subject of a future blog post. And the latter because, well, it was the end of the millennium.
But am/was I clinging to 1994 like Uncle Rico does to 1982?
Perhaps. But I don’t think so. 1994 was special. Ironically, the reason I may be nostalgic about 1994 is because 1994 itself was a nostalgic year. It was a time the country paused and gazed inward.
The year’s Best Picture was Forrest Gump, which I went to see with my good friend, Amy Tischler. The film was an epic look back at Americana. The Oscar often either goes to a movie that’s either timely or timeless — and this was both.
Woodstock did a reprisal of the classic 1969 concert. The Beatles released their first material in 25 years. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin got back together. The Rolling Stones dropped an album. And because both Jackie O. and Richard Nixon expired that year, the news was packed with retrospectives.
Moreover, one could honestly make an argument that 1994 was the best in our nation’s history. A bold statement, I realize, and one that met with skeptical laughter as I uttered it aloud at Jeff Rennekamp’s house last night in sort of a mini-reunion of our calculus study group (but this time with alcohol replacing Coca-Cola).
However, consider this…
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For all disenfranchised communities, things have only improved year-on-year, so I’d imagine that if you asked a minority or woman or gay person what the best year is for the country, s/he (or s+he) might answer, “Whatever year it is now.”
As such, it’s sometime in the recent past. It certainly isn’t before 1964 with the passage of The Civil Rights Act. In fact, it’s much after that because it took so long for African-Americans, the largest minority group, to attain any degree of equality.
So, for the most part, things improved from 1964. But when did they stop? 2001 is an obvious answer due to 9/11. We’ve certainly had our moments — and the ’00s saw two dreams and two nightmares — the rise of Web 2.0, the election of a black President, 9/11, and the near-collapse of our financial system. But this country hasn’t quite been itself ever since that tragic day. It illustrated in no uncertain terms that things were “better back then.”
If you’ve bought this line of crap up to this point… or more eloquently put from Andy to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.”
… then we’re on the same page that it’s sometime between 1964 and 2001, with each year getting better. So, then, smart boy, if the answer is that it’s sometime after 1964 but before 2001, with each year getting better in-between, then why isn’t it 2000?
Because it isn’t. 2000 was a massive disappointment for us, mostly because of the implosion of Web 1.0. It isn’t 1999 or 1998, either, because of the Monica Lewinsky Scandal, which was the first major event to divide the country into red and blue states. Political discourse died in 1998 and never quite returned. Up till that point, government actually got things done. And after this, the air of the country was poisoned. It was the beginning of the end of a system that had worked for 200+ years.
The 1990s were legit — they were like the 1950s (“peace, progress, and prosperity”) but liberated. A lot of the years were great, though 1995′s main storyline eliminates it from contention — the tragic OKC (Oklahoma City, not to be confused with OkCupid) bombing. So, why isn’t it 1997 or 1996? In all honesty, it could be.
1997 saw the Dow Jones climb past 7,000 and then 8,000 points for the first time. Unemployment fell below 5%. Steve Jobs returned to Apple. But Biggie Smalls died, yo!
And since I’m focusing on the USA here, this was when Dolly was cloned — the first time a major scientific discovery/invention took place outside the States in a very long time.
Besides, that whole weird Heaven’s Gate thing happened. And Princess Diana and Gianni Versace were killed. OK, they’re not Uh-mur-ican, but those events were sad and scary.
1996 was pretty sweet, too. The Olympics took place in Atlanta, but there was a bombing. Michael Jordan won again, after his comeback in 1995. The World Series was boss, with the New York Yankees coming from two games down to beat the Atlanta Braves. But Tupac died, yo!
On the contrary, 1994 was a peaceful year: there was a peace treaty in the Middle East and one in Northern Ireland. The US and former USSR collaborated on the Kremlin Accords to disarm. The World Cup was on — and in the USA. And any of the negative news stories only served to show how small our problems as a nation truly were: the OJ chase! Nancy Kerrigan hobbled by Tonya Harding! No World Series! Even the death of Kurt Cobain, while certainly tragic, underscored that ours was a country with first-world problems.
Besides, can you think of a year that produced better pop culture? Seinfeld, Friends, and Saturday Night Live were all in their prime. The songs were dope…
… and the movies were off-the-chain. The Best Picture nominees were eclectic and daring and amazing: Forrest Gump (covered above), Pulp Fiction (which, for a generation, rewired how we told stories), The Shawshank Redemption (arguably the most watchable movie ever — try turning this off when it comes on TBS on a Sunday afternoon), Quiz Show (perhaps the most underrated drama in 20 years), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (OK, fine, this kinda sucked).
Oh, and what won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes? The Lion King, the last great non-Pixar Disney movie ever. So, again, was 1994 the greatest year this country has known? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But I now know why I hold it in such high regard… granted, a lot of it is personal. However, there was something there in the zeitgeist. The entire nation stopped and stared — at the past through art and into the future though technology — the impending explosion of the World Wide Web. And it was like a box of chocolates — we didn’t know what we were gonna get.
And so it goes tonight… I cannot wait to reconnect with some of my old (yes, I’ll use the word now) friends. It was an honor, as your Class President, to speak to all of you graduation night. And it’s been an honor to plan each reunion thus far — the 5, the 10, the 15, and now the 20. (A special shout-out to Jeff Rennekamp for all of his hard work being my man on the ground here in Fairfield). I’m proud to say that our class expects a great turnout tonight. Leave the Snapple caps at home. But bring your dancing shoes and let’s party like it’s 1994.
Rajiv Satyal is a standup comedian, originally from Fairfield, Ohio, where he was Class President of the 1994 Graduating Class.
Originally published at www.rajivsatyal.com on July 19, 2014.