Originally created 08/15/04

Chronicle of high school year focuses on prom night



Memories of high school often include the angst and drama of broken hearts, peer pressure and the desire to move on to the Next Big Thing.

So when Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger walked into Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hill, Pa., in the fall of 2002, it would seem that a trove of stories would await him.

A year of wandering the halls and sitting in classes has led to "Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School," a breezy, somewhat wholesome view of modern American teenagers.

There is Alyssa Bergman, the young stunner who drives a Corvette and is so eager to get on with her life that she graduates early. And Bob Costa, the upwardly mobile junior who tries to get pop singer John Mayer ("Your Body Is a Wonderland") to perform at the prom. Then there are Rob Stephens and Stephanie Coyle, the teenage parents who struggle to raise a baby without sacrificing their adolescent rites of passage.

Pennsbury is a diverse school whose annual prom is a lavish affair that, contrary to modern custom, still takes place in the gymnasium. Students arrive in limos, on floats, and even in a FedEx truck and motor home. Parents and neighbors gather to see the display of gowns, tuxes and revelry.

Bamberger found a mix of students, from jocks to beauties to teenage parents, and chronicled their final year in high school, much like H.G. Bissinger did in his 1990 book, "Friday Night Lights."

However, while Bissinger had Permian High's 1988 football season to anchor his story, Bamberger has only the upcoming prom as a way to create plot, tension and interest in the students. He manages to tell some compelling stories about the school year and the students, but their portrayal seems a little sanitized at times.

Readers learn little about the social hierarchy of the school or about relationships among students and teachers. For instance, Bamberger spends plenty of time with quarterback Bobby Speer and field hockey star Lindsey Milroy, but we never see the two students interact. Lost also are the immature, petty spats that make high school - well, high school. Sex is discussed only in the abstract. Bamberger handles his characters with silk gloves, offering little insight or analysis into their behavior.

There are a few moments of truly high drama, such as one student's death and rumors about a young teacher carousing with a student, but even those are glossed over and watered down.

However, Bamberger keeps his focus on his core group of students and doesn't stray beyond explaining the history of Levittown, Pa., where many of them live. He also reminds readers often that some of the towns that feed into Pennsbury High were once populated largely by blue-collar factory workers and are now home to upscale families where parents work as far off as New York.

If his point was to show that Pennsbury is a different kind of school with a different kind of prom, then Bamberger succeeded. He makes the point at the end of "Wonderland" that the Pennsbury community is an iconoclast insofar as it is a school which still holds tradition sacred. Throughout the years, many Pennsbury prom couples have married.

But even though the traditions of the school have long survived, it is unlikely that its students and parents haven't changed since the 1950s, which is pretty much the version of the school and the town that readers see in "Wonderland."