A lot of growing up takes place on the way to the prom

When Michael Bamberger glimpsed a TV news segment on the Pennsbury High School prom a few years ago, he was fascinated by what he saw.

Since the 1970s, students at Pennsbury High in Pennsylvania have held to certain fixed traditions for their prom. Instead of the upscale party venues and luxury limo rides that many of today's high school students prefer, Pennsbury students arrive at their prom in ice cream and US mail trucks, police cars and motor homes.

The venue is the school gym, dressed up for the occasion in handmade signs and decorations. When the students arrive, they are greeted by their parents and siblings, who line up to watch the formal procession.

The whole spectacle got Mr. Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, thinking about the importance of the annual ritual. So he called up Pennsbury's principal one day and asked if he could spend a year at his school.

"He opened up his arms to me," says Bamberger. "He showed an unusual understanding of what a writer needs: untethered access."

What started out as a story about the school's prom tradition turned into something much bigger.

For his book "Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School," Bamberger hung out with students during the 2002-2003 school year at the cafeteria, at the mall, and Starbucks. He instant-messaged them and chatted with them over the phone.

After spending a year at Pennsbury High School, Bamberger came to feel that what his book was really about was the endurance of these kids, the fact that - despite the perils of adolescence, and the many ups and downs teenagers experience on a daily basis - for the most part these students would succeed in entering the adult world as reasonably well-formed individuals with good life prospects.

The prom, Bamberger says, became simply "an exclamation mark to the year and way to organize the story."

What the book really is about, he says, is "what happens along the way to the prom."

The story of student Bob Costa, the book's main character, is intertwined with the ongoing theme of the prom.

As junior class president, Bob doggedly tracks down singer John Mayer to play at the prom, at first failing but eventually achieving his goal. (John Mayer showed up at the Pennsbury prom this year and played three songs.)

But some students whose stories Bamberger featured weren't involved with the prom at all.

Bobby Speer, the good-looking quarterback and football captain, appeared to have a perfect life, but few classmates knew of his devotion to his younger brother, Danny, whom he had to lift out of his wheelchair and into bed every night.

High school sweethearts Rob and Stephanie talked to each other about everything and eagerly awaited the end of the school day so they could be together.

Then 16-year-old Stephanie became pregnant. She decided to keep the baby and both Stephanie and Rob attended parenting classes. But they didn't let the baby prevent them from attending the prom.

There were unforeseen tragedies along the way, too. Star student and computer whiz Mike Kosmin planned to attend either Stanford or MIT after graduation. But during a visit to his father in Florida over winter break, he was killed while crossing a busy highway.

"Wonderland" has been optioned by Paramount and if things go smoothly, its characters could end up on the big screen.

Recently Bamberger answered some questions about his book in an interview with the Monitor.

What was it like going back to high school 25 years later?

It felt like time had stopped. In the most fundamental way, everything is the same. The way kids group and pair off in the cafeteria, the way they linger at their locker, the way they share notes and telephone calls. All those things are universal and from my era to this era, they're largely unchanged. All these other things, the navel rings, the tattoos, and rap music, they're just superficial momentary things that have nothing to do with the core experience of what it means to be a teenager.

Was it difficult for the teens to open up and for you to gain their trust? It came over time. If a reporter from a newspaper wanted to do a story about a week at Pennsbury, you'd have five days there and you wouldn't have enough time to hang out after school, go to school plays, go to Starbucks, share telephone conversations, IMs, and the rest. I had the advantage of the whole year. Like a new kid coming into a school, I could work my way in slowly.

What did they think about a reporter hanging out with them at the mall?

There was always an element of, "Is this fortysomething-year-old guy who writes for Sports Illustrated really writing a book, or is this a joke?" It was always in the back of their minds.

Why are we so fascinated with teens and high school?

You have a glimpse into your adult life, yet you're still young enough to dream that you can achieve anything. You sort of know what your limitations are, but you don't know how far your strengths can take you. You think they can take you anywhere. That makes it a very optimistic time.

One of your characters in the book is nicknamed "Corvette Girl." Why did you choose to include her in your book?

She's so typical because you pass her in the mall or on the street with her top down and you think you know that girl. And you don't. Her personality type is shy, which would surprise people. She dresses very stunning, she drives a Corvette, and she's the prom queen, so you wouldn't think that shy would go with all those traits. It took a long time to get to know her and open up.

Do you think these students will miss high school?

Yes. People always have that [attitude] "Oh, I've outgrown this place." And then, three months later when they're in college, they [look back fondly], "Oh, high school." In fact, [one member of the class of 2003] came to the school's assembly last week and stood on the stage and said, "All I wanted to do was get out of here and now that I'm out of here, all I want to do is come back. Enjoy it while you can." Look at how Alyssa Bergman's attitude changed from "I want to get out of this school - I'm going to be an early graduate" to "I'm the homecoming queen; I'm the star of my own school. Why am I leaving?"

In the book, you include Jim Cunningham, the veteran teacher who touched hundreds of students. You say, "If you're lucky, you had such a teacher, his or her strong personality lingering in your mind still." Why was it important to include him in the story?

He represents the veteran lifelong teacher who goes into teaching out of love of his subject matter and kids and expressing material to them. He gets beat up along the way. I'm sure there are a lot of teachers out there like him. It's a very demanding, unrewarding profession, where society doesn't give the rewards it deserves. You spend your life in one building and they make you watch the clock click away on your final day. The best teachers, like Jim Cunningham, their lives become constrained by ridiculous demands and rules.

Were students ever stressed out about tests?

No, the more common question was 'Where am I going to college?" There was a crowd at this school... called the Math crowd, taking every AP class, taking the standard Kaplan course to get higher SAT scores. None of the kids in my book are in the Math Crowd. I feel like that story has been told and it was a tiny percentage of the school. Out of 750 seniors, it might be 25 kids. The rest of the school was probably like I was - "Oh, there's a test on Thursday? Well, I better start studying for it Wednesday night at about 11 o'clock."

Most important thing on these kids minds?

In the most general way, they want to enjoy their lives. There's a lot in life telling them that they shouldn't be enjoying their lives and there's war, money pressures, anxieties. But that's their goal, to enjoy their life. It's a lot easier said than done.

After spending a year in this high school, what did you come away with?

The main thing is that kids are going to be all right. Any of us can [reach our goals] and likely will as long as we're not sitting on the sofa watching TV all day. That's one of the beauties of high school. They make you be there at 7 o'clock in the morning. It takes a lot of motivation just to get yourself there. And once you're there, it's up to you whether you're going to do something.

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