Rearview reflections: THS grads talk changes after 40 years

The summer after high school graduation is a period that most people remember for the rest of their lives.

At the transitory intersection between four non-stop years of social and academic anxiety and whatever the next stage may be in an individual’s journey, lies a future full of hope and a moment to slow down the clock — to reflect, even if for just one moment, on what it feels like to be young and carefree.

Six members of the Trumbull High School Class of 1976 went back in the time machine this past week, sharing with The Times some of the trends and influences from when they were high school seniors four decades earlier.

“There was a lot less to do at Trumbull High back then,” said Kate Hampford-Donahue, who’s helping organizing her class’ 40-year reunion later this year. “There were few academic teams. We still had chorus and band and DECA, but there was no We the People; there was no mock trial. No debate team and none of the science programs. And there were literally half of the sports teams because Title IX was just put into law…

“Now, they have so much more on their resumes.”

“We barely had anything,” added Mary Beth Danielak-Thornton.

“That’s because you weren’t encouraged to do anything,” Donahue chimed back in. “They didn’t expect you to have done anything by then — you were in high school!”

Familiar first chapter

Fast forward 40 years, from America’s bicentennial to the “age of the millennial,” and a lot has changed, even though Trumbull remains pretty much the same.  

But now, things have came pretty full circle for the Class of 1976 after having spent last Wednesday watching their children walk across the same stage they once crossed and enter the first chapter of their young adult lives.

For Thornton, that means preparing to say goodbye to her daughter Sara in the fall when she departs for College of Charleston.

“It was very bittersweet,” she said of the ceremony.

Sara, a member of the Class of 2016, played varsity lacrosse at Trumbull High — a sport that didn’t exist back when her mom went there — in addition to a bevy of other extracurricular activities.

“It’s nice to have a break,” she told The Times Monday, less than a week after receiving her diploma. “It’s kind of surreal because there are no projects; nothing else left to be done.”

“It hit me during the ceremony that we’ll never have to walk in those hallways with backpacks,” added Jimmy Donahue, who will be attending San Diego State in the fall after playing on the school’s volleyball and swim and dive teams. “That was a strange feeling.”

Diversity and stress

In addition to the Thorntons and the Donahues, Charlie and Janet (Picarazzi) DeBennedetto, Pat Dizney-Tivadar, Ilene Katz-Feuerberg and Sue Sabo-Neil reflected on the generational divide of 40 years after watching their kids — Christina, Joseph, Daniel, and Eric — graduate as members of the Class of 2016 last week.

One thing that the graduates believe made their class stand out against past decades of Trumbull students is their ability to accept all kinds of people and to be social chameleons who can bounce around from group to group with ease.

“I hear our parents talking about the cliques they used to have when they were in high school — the jocks, the band kids — and we don’t have that,” said Christina, who was this year’s Valedictorian and will be attending UCLA in the fall. “That just speaks to how accepting our generation is: we don’t have labels. You’re who you are and that’s all that really matters.”

“I feel like as we went on the cliques meshed a little bit more and connected with one another towards our senior year,” Daniel added in. “Towards the end, it all gels.”

“You know most of the people and you can have friends in different groups which might not always have been the same in the past,” the Valedictorian said.

Besides diversity, the one distinctive character trait of the Class of 2016 — really of any modern day high schooler — is the stress level that can be found pulsating from class to class or from filling out college application after college application.

“Once they made our grades available online that became a factor and everyone started to go crazy constantly checking to see if their grade was posted,” said Jimmy.

The compulsive habit of grade-checking on one’s cell phone is certainly unique to Trumbull students of today, and something that their parents couldn’t comprehend four decades ago.

“Back in the day, my mom would always tell me they didn’t always care about school — there wasn’t as much pressure to do well, but nowadays you have kids who check every grade and are doing all this extra stuff,” Sara said.

Unfortunately, the result has been students observing their peers losing track of the moment.

“They’re looking at their phone impulsively,” Jimmy said.

“It’s not making that much of a difference — it’s just a small percentage or a point or two,” added Sara. “But they’re not seeing the bigger picture.”

As for those pesky college applications, one graduate said that filling them out this fall was worse than any class he took over the last four year.

“It’s just so much more stress; so much more competitive,” said Daniel, who will be attending Towson University. “It’s the worst thing ever.”

That kind of perception is unrecognizable amongst the parents.

“I don’t remember us being as stressed out,” said Donahue.  

“You had to write the essay by hand,” said Tivadar, a THS science teacher. “One sheet, everything done by pen.

However, the stress is not totally unfounded with all the options available to today’s students.

Look no further than Christina, who is a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, as well as Mu Alpha Theta (Mathematics National Honor Society). She contributed to the student publication, The Eagle’s Eye, and garnered all-FCIAC honorable honors as a member of Trumbull High School’s Varsity Tennis team and was voted captain this past spring.

“There are all these other teams and competitions they can participate in,” said Donahue. “You can try a lot of different things and hopefully they give you an insight into what you want to do, whether it’s Model UN or the CSI Forensic Science team.”

Privacy and social media

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with a half dozen parents who graduated in 1976 and five students who are embarking on a college journey in 2016 without talking about technology and how it’s splintered the two generations.

Similar to the grade checking, technology and social media has spurned an era of instant gratification and a voraciousness to one-up fellow classmates both in and outside of the classroom.

“Social media has already installed in our brains that if you click this button or send that snap or open that snap, then it’s this instant gratification,” Jimmy said. “It’s kind of like your brain is rewarding itself…

“That’s just how it is now,” he added. “Everyone has a phone and everyone had one out when we graduated.”

When asked about the emergence of today’s cell phone culture, the Class of 1976 graduates recalled the lack of privacy they had to overcome in their youth.

“Parents didn’t even think we deserve to have it,” said Donahue, highlighting a major difference.

“Nonetheless, when you were littler, they didn’t know where we half of the time,” she added. “We were home for breakfast, lunch and dinner and gone the rest of the time.”

Perhaps the best memory to encapsulate the infringement of privacy they faced back in the 1970s was going to gym class to swim and having to take a shower afterwards.

“The gym teacher would come by and make sure we were showering,” Donahue recaled.

“We would have to stick out our feet,” said Feuerberg. “It was torturous.”

Dive bars and smoking lounges

When they weren’t visiting local dive bars like the Huntington Inn or taking a breaking in the the Trumbull High School smoking lounge, members of the Class of 1976 were busy decorating the cafeteria in preparation for prom.

“We had the prom right there in the commons,” recalled Feuerberg.

“We decorated it ourselves — we knew exactly what to expect when we walked in,” Thornton added.

But, wait, let’s go back a second. What about that smoking lounge?

“You were allowed to go smoke cigarettes whenever you had a free period,” Feuerberg said. “It was right there where the senior commons is today.

“The teachers smoked right there at their desks,” Thornton added.

“And the teacher’s lounge was just one big cloud of smoke,” Feuerberg joked.

Besides differences in smoking habits and the change in drinking age, the Trumbull parents said some other changes over the last 40 years include the removal of sweets from the school store and the decline of school dances.

The shape and size of classrooms have also changed. Chemistry classes used to be in lecture halls that had to be broken into separate labs. There were no study hall room and freshmen were quarantined to junior high school with seventh and eighth grade students.

Most notably, the evolution of media — forget about social media — hadn’t arrived.

“There were no TV clickers, no channels like MTV and ESPN,” said Charlie DeBennedetto. “You went outside and you played.”

Into the great unknown

While the members of the Class of 1976 don’t recall the exact messages conveyed during the speeches at their graduation ceremony, they can recall the exact number of classmates they had (732), the date they graduated (June 26) and how they felt to be about finally leaving the halls of Trumbull High School.

“We were there because we wanted to get out of that school that’s all we wanted to do,” said Charlie. “That’s all we wanted to do.”

To contrast this year’s graduates, who Thornton called “more sophisticated” than her fellow peers from 40 years ago, the now-Trumbull parents were a “very captive audience” strictly because they had nowhere else to go.

“Whatever they said, we listened,” she said.

“It’s set up a lot more efficiently today,” she added. “When we graduated, the kids went up one by one. It was a very long day.”

Undoubtedly, the Class of 1976 graduated with the better music — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix Bob Marley; however, they were fortunate for another distinguished reason.

“We were just coming out of Vietnam era,” Charlie recalled. “Our class, I can remember, we were fortunate that when we graduated that the war had just ended. If the war had gone any longer, we would have had to go over there.”

Compared to their parent’s generation, the Class of 2016 leaves Trumbull without the pressures of an international conflict.

However, there is some overlap in how each group approached the summer after senior year.

“It was very happy and sad,” said Sara, fresh off her graduation. “But I think we’re all excited to be moving on.”