Bob Greene’s Be True to Your School

Exhuming the Past: Be True to Your School: A Diary of 1964

I received a copy of Bob Greene’s Be True to Your School for my 21st birthday. At the time, I had been living in Florida for over a year and was making my first trip back to Northeast Ohio to visit my family and attend my sister’s wedding. I saw my best friend while on that trip, and he gave me a used paperback copy of the book. Since that time, it has had a profound affect on me.

Florida, and Central Florida in particular, is a transient community. Most everyone there is from somewhere else. And while was I happy to be living on my own, every fall when the leaves should have been changing and the nights should have been growing colder, I found myself missing the familiarity of my home state. Greene’s ode to small town Ohio was how I got through the annual waves of nostalgic longing.

The gift-giver, John, is also a writer, and he had stumbled on the book earlier that year and it moved him. The copy I received in the fall of 1991 was a first paperback printing from 1988; its cover of a pair of high school lockers agape, disgorging their contents — including a Dr. No movie poster and the first two Beatles albums — was an immediate throwback to my own high school friends and the things that made being a teenager fun for us.

Referenced book:
Be True to Your School
by Bob Greene

Ballantine Books
May 1988 (reprint), 352 pages

The once-lauded and now-disgraced Chicago Tribune columnist wrote Be True to Your School based on a diary he kept in 1964, the year he turned 17. How much of the book, first published in 1987, has been enhanced and how much actually happened as Greene describes it is debatable, but regardless of any embellishments, the contents effectively stir up the feelings of high school in upper-middle class, white suburban, Midwest America.

I went through high school twenty years after Greene, but the exploits and emotions the book captures resonate with a universality that I can identify with directly. The ground Greene treads here is familiar to the point where the recounted events sometimes mix a little too easily with my personal memories — creating confusing moments where I actually have to stop and consciously sort out what is my actual memory and what is from the book’s pages: like four friends getting into a minor car accident in a bad snowstorm they didn’t have permission to be out driving in, or friends drag racing on homecoming night down deserted roads, scaring themselves and their dates with the thrill of teenage immortality. Incidentally, the former is from Greene’s book (February 15, 1964); the latter is from my life (circa 1988).

I suppose I began reading Be True to Your School with a bit of apprehension. Given how much cultural upheaval took place between the mid-’60s and the ’80s — the Vietnam Conflict, the Kent State shootings, the musical and sexual revolution, and the urban race riots — would I really be able to identify with the 16-year-old Greene? Surprisingly, it seems more may have changed between my father’s high school experiences in the 1950s and Greene’s less than a decade later, than between Greene’s high school years in the 1960s and my own in the 1980s, because I lent the book to my dad, who read it and unexpectedly reported Greene’s teenage tales did not strike a chord with him.

Of course, cultural touchstones of any era are ignored by the book. The book is, after all, based on the diary of a teenage boy in the middle of America. The world Greene shares is one centered on the expected teenage pursuits: trying to win the girl, trying to lose your virginity, drinking, goofing on friends. The closest we get to national events are the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (February 9: “The Beatles were on ‘Ed Sullivan.’ They are simply the greatest thing ever to hit America… Right after the show ended, my phone started ringing… It was as if everyone had to call their friends to talk about what they’d just seen on TV.”) and a subplot about an essay Greene wrote marking the one year anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Greene introduces Be True to Your School with the following explanation: He attended a high school journalism convention and was told the best way to prepare to be a writer is to train oneself to write every day, so he kept this journal for one year beginning January 1, 1964. He claims in the preface that “all of the characters and events and quotations were in the original 1964 diary, but they were not in narrative form” and that he used the details in the diary as notes to build the book. Chapters are broken down by month, and months are further broken down by date. This format lends itself to not only quick, pithy reads, but also accommodates long stretches of engaging storylines set in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Bexley.

More than anything else, though, Be True to Your School is about friends growing up in the middle of America. Greene ran with five buddies in high school, and refers to the group as ABCDJ, taking the first letter of everyone’s name (Allen, Bob, Chuck, Dan, and Jack). This relationship is the core of Be True to Your School. Like Greene, I ran with a group of five guys through high school. Some of us had known each other since childhood, others came together only a few years before, but we created our own clique. It is these relationships that transcend the difference of settings and generations, and enabled me to relate to the book.

On the pages, Greene opens himself up to the painful and embarrassing moments teenage life brings with it. There is the younger ex-girlfriend for whom he still carries a torch (May 15: “We all went up to Lindy’s room. I had never seen it before. There was a poster that she made by cutting letters out of headlines in magazines — it spelled out ‘Chet Crosby.’ I pretended like I didn’t notice.”), awkward attempts at losing his virginity (August 15: “After a few minutes I reached under the night table. The Fourexes were in a cardboard box; I opened it and pulled one of the little blue capsules out. You’re supposed to snap the capsule open and take out the rubber. I tried to snap the capsule, and I couldn’t do it… So finally I put the capsule in my mouth and bit down real hard… It snapped open, but the lubricating solution got into my mouth, and it tasted terrible.”), the fight with the bully (April 3: “It was strange; it didn’t hurt very much, and even though Brown is bigger than I am, I didn’t feel like I was being swarmed over. We kept hitting each other, and I got him good once — his nose started bleeding, too, and pretty soon both of our shirts were covered with blood.”), the first illicit taste of beer (March 14: “It didn’t taste all that bad, but it was kind of hard to swallow all at once; Chuck and Dan were trying to tip it right back into their throats, but Jack and I were going more slowly. It was mostly hard to get used to; I can’t really believe that so many people think it tastes great.”).

The only area where Greene’s words lack a direct parallel to my own experience is when he talks about high school fraternities and his membership in Epsilons. They simply didn’t exist in my time or in my part of Ohio, but the events framed within the high school fraternity stories still translate. According to Greene, his principal was against high school fraternities and had been known to review the senior sketches in the yearbook and remove any fraternity references before publishing. Because of this, a lot of thought is put into how to subversively allude to the fraternity in their senior sketches in the yearbook. (December 1: “Finally, we decided on something: ’51 Men.’ There are fifty-one members of Epsilons, counting all four classes, and maybe that phrase sounds innocent enough that C.W. [the principal] will overlook it.”) Similarly, my buddies and I took out a senior ad in our high school yearbook and, by cramming it full of as many inside jokes as possible, we were able to sneak in some rather off-color comments that were not caught prior to print. Of course, it helped that the co-editor of the yearbook was a part of my own version of ABCDJ.

The most titillating passages are also the most credibility-stretching ones: like the mini-vacation Greene and his buddies took to Cedar Point (about a two and a half hour drive north from Columbus) at the end of that summer. Greene describes a sexual encounter with a married twenty-seven year old woman that took place on that trip. Is it entertaining reading? Sure. Is it every teenage boy’s fantasy to be with a woman ten years his senior? Probably. Is it true? Well, that’s open for debate.

This entire subplot becomes all the more disturbing when viewed through the prism of Greene’s very real fall from grace in September 2002. Bill Zehme chronicled the turn of events in Esquire seven months after the fact:

The girl was of consenting age and one week away from going off to college. And, as the Tribune reported on Tuesday the seventeenth [of September 2002], the incident had been a “sexual encounter that stopped short of intercourse.” Several months before said incident, on April 5, 1988, Greene had written a puckish column about a senior from a local Catholic girls’ high school who had been assigned to do an interview for her journalism class and had chosen him as her quarry. She showed up at his office with her parents in tow, his column revealed, and he submitted to her questions… Weeks later, the girl graduated and secured a summer job downtown, maintaining convivial contact with Greene, who eventually invited her out to dinners and then, at one point, to a hotel room, where whatever happened apparently didn’t quite happen the way most people had first imagined. “You should wait to do this with someone you love,” he says he told her at the time.

Like the incident that destroyed Greene’s career, the teenaged encounter in the book stops short of actually having sex, but advantages are taken nonetheless. In both scenarios, it’s hard to know which participant to feel more sorry for — the older woman/adult Greene for the state of their marriages and lives that led them there, or the teenaged Greene/high school girl for the betrayal of trust they allow themselves with their authority figures.

What makes the revelation even more difficult to stomach is the image the adult Greene had so carefully crafted of himself as a sentimental chronicler of America’s lost innocence. When taking into account Greene’s equally admired and derided folksy approach and the way he would latch onto a crusade, Greene’s betrayal of both his public’s and his prey’s trust is all the more damning.

Fifteen years after first receiving Be True to Your School, I no longer trust Greene. I view his personal behavior with disgust and his work with skepticism. But like fans who continue to cheer professional athletes who fall from grace, I continue to enjoy the book and allow myself to become wrapped up in its familiarity. I read the book every fall for eight years straight, and three more times since leaving the Sunshine State six years ago. It has always been a comfort and a friend.

When I picked up and left Ohio in 1990, I thought I would never move back. It seemed too confining for me, and there was too much else waiting for me out in the world. While living in Florida, Be True to Your School became a very real link between my past and my then-present. Growing through young adulthood so geographically removed from my family and childhood friends, the book anchored me to my past and helped me appreciate where I came from. Ultimately, it prepared me to move back home with my wife to raise our son there.

My wife and I grew up in the same area, had the same points of reference, knew many of the same people from back in the day, listened to the same music, attended the same shows — but met a thousand miles away while we were both living in Florida through a mutual friend ten years after the fact. Yet, because of that shared history, my wife and I have the ability to reminisce about a show that we attended separately, or talk about a long gone punk friend who we both knew once upon a time.

My relationship with Be True to Your School is very similar. Sure, it’s set in an upper-middle class Ohio suburb, but it’s more than that for me. Contained in the pages are a shared history connecting Greene’s 1964 and my memories of the late 1980s.