A few weeks ago, a long-lost elementary school classmate scanned our entire sixth-grade yearbook from May 1981 and posted the contents on Facebook. In addition to the usual goofy photos, we all contributed brief notes for our “20th reunion,” describing our lives as we imagined they would be in 2001.
The reunion notes were good for a lot of laughs. Then, like the geek I always have been, I decided to take a closer look at how my sixth-grade classmates envisioned our futures. What I found is after the jump.
A note on demographics: this sample of 76 children is in no way representative of American eleven- and twelve-year-olds in 1981. The three classrooms of sixth-graders at my school included 73 Caucasians, 2 Asians and one African-American. We lived in middle-class or upper middle-class neighborhoods in the Des Moines suburbs. Almost everyone was Christian; mostly Protestant, I think, with more mainline Protestants than evangelicals. There were also quite a few Catholics and four Jews.
More than two-thirds of the kids (57) indicated that they would be living outside the state of Iowa in 2001. The most popular destinations were California (12), Colorado (9), Florida (4), New York City (3), Texas (3), Hawaii (2), Wisconsin (2), and Kansas City (2). Many other states were mentioned once: Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana. I was surprised that so few people mentioned Midwestern cities. It seems that in my day, if you dreamed of leaving Iowa, you planned on moving far away.
Only seven kids predicted that they would be living in Iowa in 2001 (not everyone mentioned a place of residence). I haven’t followed up on everyone who was in this yearbook, but based on conversations I had at my 20th high school reunion, I bet more than 10 percent of my sixth-grade class did settle down in Iowa eventually.
Five kids predicted that they would be living outside the United States: in Paris, Switzerland, Canada, Iwo Jima, and the planet Mercury. As it happens, I was living abroad in 2001, but at age 12 that wasn’t my plan.
A number of classmates mentioned being educated at out-of-state universities. Several of us, myself included, named schools our parents or older siblings had attended.
Family was a central feature of our future imagined lives. Almost two-thirds of my classmates wrote that they were married with children in 2001. Of these, some merely mentioned how many kids they had, while others specified their children’s names, gender and/or ages. Only two kids mentioned being married without children. Quite a few people volunteered that their spouses were handsome or beautiful.
Several boys went out of their way to note that they were not married, but had girlfriends. With a ring of “stuff I’ve heard grown-ups say,” one of those also wrote, “I have no pets, they get in the way if you know what I mean.”
Many children predicted having pets in their families: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds, and even a skunk and a jaguar. Some had already picked out names for their pets or knew which breed of dog they wanted.
We were living in a material world. Judging from this yearbook, it’s no wonder that my cohort grew up to be the most Republican-voting age group. About half the kids said they would be wealthy in 2001, including 11 who mentioned having multiple homes and 14 who mentioned specific brands of luxury car they would own (Cadillacs and Porsches were popular). The over-the-top conspicuous consumption included owning a private beach, living in a diamond house and for a few kids, multiple swimming pools. (In the Des Moines area, very few homes have a swimming pool.)
No one predicted being poor or struggling to get by, and no one predicted being of average wealth. As a rule, if my classmates didn’t say they were rich, they didn’t mention money at all in their reunion notes. However, I was intrigued by this entry from a boy I barely remember:
I’m 32 years old and I am a 9 year veteran basketball player for the Celtics. I don’t ask for a lot of money because I want to lead a normal life instead of being so rich. If I got into trouble for something, all I’d do is give them money and get out of it. I think that you should face problems, not money.
I assume he was echoing values he’d learned at home, though he may have been rebelling against behavior he’d seen or some scandal that was in the news in 1981.
Speaking of buying your way out of a jam, this entry amused me:
I, [child’s name], have just formed a new company. The 1001st of my empire. I have mines and mines of gold and silver and etc., in Africa. A few days ago, I got into trouble with the Navy. I bought them a battleship to make up for it. They made me an honorary admiral.
We were an optimistic bunch. One boy and one girl said that they had been elected president by 2001. More than a dozen predicted being professional athletes, including four NFL stars, four NBA players, a golfer, a tennis player who had won the Grand Slam 12 times, a soccer player, a baseball player, and a professional horseback rider. Other glamorous careers included singer (1), actress (1), clothing or fashion designer (3), horse breeder (3) and astronaut (2).
There was some overlap in these fantasies, because quite a few children imagined pursuing more than one career. For instance, one boy said he would work at his mechanic shop when he wasn’t playing football for the New England Patriots. Here are a couple of my favorites:
I have just achieved my goal!! I was elected head spy for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) I was a former car repossesor. I guess I just like exciting jobs!
I have been elected President of the United States. I am also the world’s best football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I live in Wyoming and have a part-time job as a truck driver for Halls Trucking Company, (which I plan to buy later on).
White-collar careers dominated the fantasy futures of my classmates. Nine people predicted that they would own one or more companies in 2001. Six said they were teachers, and we also had five doctors, five veterinarians, four lawyers, two nurses, a computer programmer, an architect, and an archeologist.
Girls who mentioned their husband’s careers tended to be married to doctors, lawyers or successful businessmen. That was true for those who envisioned themselves working as well as for those who planned to be homemakers. (Many children at my elementary school had stay-at-home moms, and consequently a fair number of my female classmates predicted that they would not be working outside the home in 2001.)
In addition to the two kids who predicted being elected president of the U.S., two girls saw politics in their future. One said she would be “a politician working up to run for governor of Texas” in 2001, having previously been named Miss Texas, Miss USA and Miss Universe. The other said she would be a successful writer and psychiatrist in the Des Moines suburbs, adding that she had “been nominated, not elected, governor.”
She wrote those words a year before Roxanne Conlin was nominated, not elected, governor of Iowa, and 13 years before Bonnie Campbell was nominated, not elected, governor of Iowa.
Technological innovations featured in many of the reunion notes. One person predicted living in a solar-powered home, while two kids said they owned robots that did all their work for them. Eight children mentioned space travel as part of their lives, and two alluded to colonies existing on the moon by 2001. Several hoped to be astronauts who visited other planets, or in one case a different galaxy. One boy put a futuristic spin on business ownership: “Two weeks ago I got back from piloting one of my space shuttles from one of my nitrogen mines in space.”
Several of my classmates predicted that they would do ground-breaking work in their fields. One boy said he had “made a great discovery in the field of orthodontia.” Another planned to be an architect “designing a bridge that will connect Germany with Florida.” (He estimated the cost of that bridge at “twenty quadrillion dollars.”) One girl described life as a famous archeologist, whose finds were displayed in her own New York City museum. I was also impressed by the boy who envisioned a future as a zoologist, “most noted for my discovery and translation, with a computer, the language of big cats, such as: jaguars, leopards, lions & etc.”
One of the ambitious boys wrote, “I am a millionaire, and am working on a time machine. I have every part except one piece. I went into the future and came back to tell my wife all about it. She gave me a big, big kiss and five kids for it.”
Another kid showed some potential as a sci-fi writer:
I am just leaving for an Inter-Stellar meeting of Crackulation (Crackulation is the dividing of a planet to steal power and minerals) and other such subjects on the planet of Klepulat, the ninth planet of Merculeep. Our goal is to stop Crackulation on the dead planet of Earth, of which I am from. My wife, Alesla and two children, Meck and Hillery, are coming with me on this very important trip. We are leaving now from our spectrobe house on Mercury at 7306 Amoco Drive.
For the most part, the reunion notes were upbeat. However, some kids seemed to reflect anxiety that was present in their lives. Very few of us mentioned our parents in our reunion notes, but one boy who did wrote, “My parents are alive but divorced.” He was also one of the boys who predicted that he would not be married in 2001.
Only one person mentioned any of our sixth-grade teachers in our yearbook. Reading part of her paragraph, I wondered if she had observed a grandparent or other elderly relative in decline: “I have visited Mrs. [teacher’s name] in her electric wheelchair. In a way she is doing just fine, but in another ….. (never mind).”
Unemployment was high and rising in 1981, and this boy may have absorbed the job insecurity and stress of adults around him:
The year is 2001. I’m 31 years old going on 32. I just got a job at Eastern Spacelines as a pilot. It pays pretty good, but I could have gotten it better. I live in Ottawa, Canada. I have a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. I just got back from the Columbia (or space shuttle) to the moon. I visited my mother who lives on one of the moon colonies. I just hope that I can keep this job.
One of my lifelong friends wrote this entry, obviously influenced by the 1970s oil shocks, the U.S./USSR superpower rivalry, and media coverage of pollution:
It’s the year 2001, I am 32. Gas is extinct and everyone rides bicycles. I have a Cadillac and a Mercedes bike, which I ride with my fur coat. I am married to a rich doctor. My aunt died and I inherited $80,000,000. I own six news stations and four parts of Russia. (In the war of 1995, between the U.S.A. and Russia, we divided up Russia after our victory.) I live in beautiful, smoggy, radiation affected L.A.
One other classmate also alluded to the U.S. and Russia having gone to war at some point before 2001.
My own 20th reunion note was way off, envisioning a future as an attorney working for a large New York law firm. A fifth-grade essay I came across a couple years back was closer to the mark, for some reason.
Can you recall what you wanted to be when you were in sixth grade? Share your own hopes, dreams and memories in this thread.