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Down and Out at Beverly Hills High : HARD LESSONS : Senior Year at Beverly Hills High School <i> by Michael Leahy (Little, Brown: $16.95; 320 pp.; 0-316-51515-8) </i>

<i> Hailey is the author of the recently published "The Day I Became an Autodidact" (Delacorte), an account of her struggle to educate herself while her classmates were attending college</i>

For someone who reached high school’s end without experimenting with drugs, sex or Cliff’s Notes, reading what one’s peers were up to can be a bit of a shock.

Michael Leahy’s “Hard Lessons: Senior Year at Beverly Hills High School” traces the last year in the high school careers of six very different seniors. Extensive interviews were conducted with many Beverly Hills High School seniors, and all the book derives from real-life experience. However, for anonymity’s sake, the six seniors we follow are all composite characters, and the book reads like a novel. Quite a trick considering the author had to work exclusively with the truth. As Evelyn Waugh said: “A writer has to modify truth to make it plausible.”

But truth though it may be, it is plausible, and, even better than that, readable. Leahy does not just give us a surface view of drug and alcohol abuse, neglectful parents and lonely, lost children. Instead, he presents a world where the reasons for divorce and failing grades and college panic are as well documented as the results.

Beverly Hills High School is a place where, “If you feel average, you feel like a loser.” To quote a slightly pudgy C-student, there are “too many beautiful people with thin thighs and big brains here.” It is a privileged world, but perhaps privileged only for the moment. In general, the wealth is not inherited money or family businesses to be passed down, but rather fortunes made (and spent) in a lifetime. The students at Beverly Hills High School “have come to embody the flip side of the classic American vision--teen-agers aware that an economic climb may not be in the cards for them, that they may be the first in their families to feel the slide of downward mobility.”

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The six seniors we follow through this world range from a straight-A Young Republican volunteer to a beginning model who is more concerned with her body than her transcript. But as the narrator says, “to classify them is to miss the real story.” All I know is when I can share the feelings of--and am touched by--someone who treats cocaine the way I treat chocolate chip cookies, the author is doing something right.

It is also very heartening to see the adults in the story treated with the same density and originality as the students: i.e. the cliche alarm did not go off. One of the best elements in the book is the counterpointing between the pressured, confused lives of children and parents alike. As young boys ogle young girls, so do their fathers. Thinks a son at one point, “It is a little embarrassing, having such lechers as role models.” As young girls search for boyfriends, so do divorced mothers. And advice flows in both directions between the generations. Says a daughter to her mother, who is busy worrying over dinner for her current beau, “Just don’t be a desperado, Mom.”

The family portraits range from harmony to a feeling of living as “amiable boarders.” But, perhaps because the book is blessed by an objective narrator, none is tinged with bitterness. And each relationship shows the trying along with the succeeding or failing. As well as being full of recognizable feelings and moments. After a mother makes a slightly risque remark, her son’s thoughts are described indirectly: “Since when did his mom get so gross? He likes ribald and coarse adults actually; just doesn’t need to see these qualities in his parents, who, if he had his way, would be asexual.”

Ultimately the book portrays a world that has lost its larger vision. Full of pressure to get into the right college, which will lead to the important job, which will lead to the “serious bucks.” But in between all the hard lessons, the beautiful one they were never taught is to always remember to have a dream. By the end, I had grown so fond of the characters that I wanted to tell them.

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However, “Hard Lessons” is not attempting to change their world, it is simply showing it as it is. This book may make a lot of teen-agers feel a lot less alone. And in a pre-college time of isolation and depression and suicide, that is an incalculable gift.


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