Whatever happened to the class of ’71?

By PAULA DECARO
Posted 6/29/22

We were the largest graduating class in the history of Rhode Island – 721 proud graduates of Cranston High School East class of 1971… we were – and are forever – The Thunderbolts...

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Whatever happened to the class of ’71?

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We were the largest graduating class in the history of Rhode Island – 721 proud graduates of Cranston High School East class of 1971… we were – and are forever – The Thunderbolts! We were the Boomer generation of kids who hid under school desks and sat against brick walls in the school basement in the early 60s during the nuclear bomb drills when the Cold War was in full bloom; who witnessed the assassination of a president and the person who allegedly killed him; who grew up during Vietnam; felt the horror of Kent state and who worried about SAT scores. We ate a polio vaccine that was in a sugar cube; made copies on a mimeograph machine; had party line phones used by several families; who survived without fax machines, cell phones, answering machines, ATMs, electric car windows, computers, tablets, the internet, email and 24/7 everything.

We watched the moon landing, strikes on college campuses against the Vietnam War and streaking. We listened to “45s” on a record player; we wore bell bottoms and pea coats, miniskirts, go-go boots and Nehru jackets. Boys had hair as long as the girls’ shag haircuts. We had the amazing choice of three TV stations and something called UHF. TV was not 24/7 like today, but you could look at a test pattern all night if you wanted to.

We sensed something important was going on in the 1960s because our parents spoke in whispers about something called the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement. We wondered out loud and were scared the night of the great Northeast blackout; we read in history class about the British Invasion of 1775 and lived and loved the British Invasion of 1962, especially the Beatles. We couldn’t believe they broke up within a few years. We danced to the Beach Boys and did the bump, the jerk, the pony…then something called disco.

Imagine…none of our toys needed batteries! We hula hooped, played with jacks and yoyos, put baseball cards in our bicycle spokes with clothespins; watched as Slinky “walked” down the stairs; made model airplanes with a glue whose smell could knock you out and used a key to tighten our roller skates. We watched Salty Brine and his Collie, Jeff, on TV and Salty told us to “Brush your teeth and say your prayers.” We also waited with breathless anticipation for Salty to say in the winter, “No school in Foster Glocester.” We also waited impatiently for Jiffy Pop to finish popping. We heard about Woodstock and saw hippies and flower children.

We were the original POW! BAM! WHAM! lovers of Batman and Robin and Superman…on TV, well before they became international movie blockbusters. We knew about the Superman building in downtown Providence. We watched westerns on Saturdays – Sky King, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, The Three Stooges and Star Trek. We went to the Park Theatre and saw double features for 50 cents!

Even in high school, we still held allegiance to something called junior high school. Did you go to Bain or Park View? Proms, dating and sports occupied our interests.

We were the Thunderbolts and at football games we would shout, “You can't jolt the Bolt.” And of course, we always knew we were better than the Cranston West Falcons…or, God forbid, you transferred to La Salle!

At East, we found first loves. And some did find that forever love – the high school sweetheart. Some teachers were mentors who we never forgot and some were forgettable.

We were a class that broke traditions at East. Being the largest class was certainly a big deal and we had 16 sets of twins in the class. But even better was when we won the homecoming cheering contest as juniors. Homecoming was a proud tradition. We would march to Cranston Stadium by class, sophomores, juniors then seniors would enter the stadium and sit in different sections. The cheerleaders led each class in a cheer and whoever cheered the loudest was the winner. By amazing coincidence, seniors would win every year...but not in 1969! We, the junior class, cheered louder than the seniors...no other class had done that! We beat the senior class! We beat the senior class!

And for the students everywhere reading this, you are going to think we went to school when dinosaurs roamed the earth…can you believe the dress code said girls could not wear pants or jeans? Cranston East consisted of two buildings with Cranston City Hall in the middle. In the winter, it was cold wearing skirts and dresses going from the main building to the Briggs building. But remember, we were the class of 1971, so we petitioned the school administration to let girls wear pants and jeans and we won! I bet a lot of my female classmates can still remember the first time they wore pants or jeans to school! A classmate said, “We were women with a cause even back then!”

We had the first ever seniors only dance in the gym in the Fall of 1970...no other class had done that, and our prom had to be held in the Rocky Point ballroom because there were so many of us. Then we had Rocky Point Park all to ourselves after the dance. At our graduation, the principal said we didn't sing our school anthem loud or well enough and made us sing it again under threat of not graduating! And all 721 kids received our diplomas in one hour. Two of our classmates wrote and sang a graduation song based on the title of our senior prom, "Tears, 12 years and Last Goodbyes." No other class had done that. (Full disclosure, I won the prom-naming contest and won a pair of tickets to the senior prom. The cost was $11 per couple!) We were excited to go to whatever after high school offered. We held so much promise, we were so innocent...so whatever happened to the case class of 1971? Were our dreams realized?

In anticipation of our 50th high school reunion, delayed until this year, I asked the reunion committee what they thought about doing a questionnaire to find out what happened to the class of ’71. They all liked the idea, so I submitted a draft questionnaire to them. Armed with their feedback, a questionnaire was sent to classmates whose email or home addresses were on file – 246 in total. Classmates were asked to complete 12 questions if they felt so inclined. I couldn’t wait to read the responses. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had hoped everyone’s high school experience was as great as mine. I never expected this to be such an emotional journey brought about by the responses of 36 classmates.

I read each and every one of them – multiple times. Some answered all the questions and some skipped many questions, but I can’t figure out why. I will tell you that reading all the questionnaires made me feel very nostalgic for the high school days. I laughed and cried reading them, and I was stunned at how visceral my reaction had been to each and every one that I read. I did, I actually cried. I remembered most of the kids who sent in their response. I really miss those days, more than I ever thought I would. It made me think of some of the lyrics in the song sung by Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney called, “Half of my Hometown.”

Half of my high school got too drunk

Half of my high school fell in love with the girl next door

Half of my hometown's still hangin' around

Still talkin' about that one touchdown

…while the other half Of my hometown, they all got out

Some went north, some went south

They're still lookin' for a feelin', half of us ain't found

So stay or leave, part of me will always be Half of my hometown

Back roads raised us Highways, they take us

Memories make us Wanna go back

And all I wanna do is make them proud

'Cause half of me will always be, Knoxville, Tennessee

My ultimate opinion is that the answers that were sent could describe high schoolers in 1971 and in 2022 because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We are a microcosm of society. So here is what happened to the class of 1971.

The first question really affected me the most because I loved everything about high school and thought everyone else did too. The question was, “What word or phrase describes your high school years?” Some classmates felt as I did and wrote:

“Fun; creative; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; learned how to work and study; good memories; wonderful experience and fond memories; learned so much about myself; I was book smart but such a Pollyanna; amazing; the best years of my life; happy and busy.”

However, some of the answers really were a gut punch to me, and I wondered why back then I didn’t see these things that they felt:

“Highs and lows; okay; not ready for Prime Time; depressing old buildings; builds character I guess; trying to fit in; painful and lost; period of transition; high; confusing; confused; a time of tremendous transition; tons of fun and tons of stress; fraught; wallflower; invisible…I wanted to be invisible; I never felt like I belonged anywhere.”

Wow, I never saw that coming…remember, I loved high school. I cried and ached for that classmate…

Some classmates have been married for 40+ years; some are divorced, some never married, some married multiple times. A few married their high school sweethearts; some didn’t but keep in touch; some did and it didn’t work out. Some married right after college and one person (OK it was me) married 23 years after high school.

Most haven’t stayed in contact with their classmates. In the questionnaire, classmates listed their favorite teachers, their work and personal accomplishments, how many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren they have.

We have an Olympian who has participated in many opening games ceremonies; an inductee into the Cranston Hall of Fame, teachers, artists, a rabbi, PhDs, nurses, a Wheel of Fortune contestant who made it to the bonus round; a pilot, some were Presidents, CFOs and Vice Presidents of companies, widows and widowers; college professor; some never left Cranston; some never left Rhode Island; some lived all over the world. There are classmates who have lived in eight states, and many still live somewhere in Rhode Island, having never lived outside the state and one classmate lives in New Zealand. One classmate has been to 75 countries and to Europe more than 200 times! They have traveled all over the world for work and pleasure. Most are retired or semi-retired and there are many classmates who are volunteers.

The last of 12 questions was, looking back, what advice would you give to your 18 year old self? Here is a sample of answers that I offer, on behalf of my classmates, to all high schoolers dealing with teen year’s angst:

Don’t major in liberal arts; don’t be afraid to take chances to get what you want; you can’t get what you want until you know what you want; you are better than you think you are; believe in yourself, always try new things and never stop learning; have fun and don’t sweat the small stuff because life is too short; don’t give up; relax; don’t waste time; follow your passion; be who you were meant to be; don’t follow the pack; this too shall pass; don’t worry about what others think; have a sense of humor; have fun and laugh out loud a lot; lighten; take a chance; make the impossible possible; stay the course you were raised to follow; keep the faith; work hard, have some fun, be kind, family first.

So that was my class, Cranston High School East, Class of 1971. What about your classmates? What do you think they would say? And you, what would you tell your 18 year old self?

“'Cause half of me will always be”…CHSE.

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  • Gailmars

    Absolutely perfect article about our class of 1971...I always felt my years at Cranston East were the best years of my teenage life...and I still have my yearbook and diploma.. memories to last a lifetime....

    Thursday, June 30 Report this