A former student at Claremont High has a word for what Jeremy Iversen did to his classmates: “Creepy.”
It’s an interesting word to keep in mind as Iversen makes the TV talk show rounds this week in an effort to sell America on the notion that his book, “High School Confidential,” “blows the lid off” the so-called millennium generation’s ignorance and debauchery.
Here’s how I understand Iversen’s story: Just before graduating from Stanford a few years back, he had an identity crisis. The slam-dunk success track he’d been on long before his first day at pricey Phillips Exeter Academy didn’t seem as pleasing as the lives of the public high school students he recalled from John Hughes’ movies.
So, instead of assuming his assigned seat at some prestigious banking enterprise, he decided to follow the path of screenwriter Cameron Crowe and go back to high school “undercover” to crank out what would essentially be a high-minded remake of the hilarious “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Lots of high school administrators were reluctant to let the then-24-year-old assume a false identity and commingle with 14- to 18-year-old students. But he finally talked a clueless principal and superintendent in Claremont into giving him the OK by touting the project’s sociological importance.
In an introductory note, Iversen writes that his book, released last week, “is a true story -- within limits.” Because there is no way to know what those limits are, the book is worthless as journalism or scholarship. If it were pure fiction, it would be a lot like the town its characters describe: so dull that even vampire sex fantasies can’t relieve the tedium.
The more interesting story began about six months after Iversen joined in graduation ceremonies with Claremont High’s class of 2004. Adhering to the principle that it’s never too soon to start hyping a product, Iverson appeared on Fox TV’s “Good Day Live” to talk about his adventure.
Iversen didn’t name the school -- the book calls it “Mirador High” and relocates it to inland Orange County. Still, journalists at Claremont High’s Wolfpacket newspaper recognized him. Administrators stonewalled. With confirmation from an anonymous source in the school office, the paper ran a story that really did blow the lid off a sweet little scandal.
Future stories and a special edition layered on details and stirred outrage, probably helping push the superintendent out the door. In May, The Times handed the Wolfpacket staff a student journalism award.
The book finally appeared in bookstores last week, but former Claremont students had already been reading it online or in advance copies and tracking Iversen’s media appearances.
None of those I talked to dispute the fact that sex and drugs and the occasional lousy teacher are still a part of high school life. All but one, however, echoed the view of former Wolfpacket staffer Trilokesh Kidambi, now a second-year premed at Northwestern, who said Iversen “is exaggerating everything that happened and blatantly lying about his experience.”
When he arrived at the campus, the students immediately marked Iversen as a fake, they say. Students labeled him “a narc,” saddled him with the nickname “plastic face” -- because of the makeup they say he wore -- and spent the semester feeding him outrageous stories about, say, having sex with eight partners in a weekend.
Most of the people I talked to knew the author only in passing. Iversen steered me to Joseph Kelly, a former student who considered him a friend and with whom he has stayed in touch.
Kelly, now an 18-year-old actor on the Nickelodeon show “Unfabulous,” says he heard the narc rumors but quickly concluded that the new kid was the real thing. And although he’s still trying to piece together composite characters and unscramble the scenes Iversen camouflaged, he thinks that in many ways the book is “dead on.”
Learning Iversen’s true identity left him feeling “surreal,” but he doesn’t feel betrayed. “As far as who he was as a person, he was really consistent,” Kelly says. “We still talk about the same things -- politics, philosophy, religion.”
Iversen justifies his deceit by saying the book will serve as an invaluable clarion to awaken parents and educators from their denial. “This,” he says, “is the future of our country we’re dealing with here.”
Former students doubt his motives. A Wolfpacket editorial noted that Iversen told the “Good Day” hosts that friends his age envied him for getting to relive high school, as in the film “Never Been Kissed.”
“But unlike the movie,” the editorial concludes, “his attendance at CHS was not romantic -- it was creepy.”
Even now, Ellie Wolf, who wrote the first Wolfpacket story, sees no real point to his so-called research. “Going back to high school,” she says, “was very much for him.”
Iversen’s book could almost pass for a coming-of-age novel, except that his character doesn’t seem to change from page 1 to page 429.
When I ask him if he regrets lying to people who may have genuinely thought him a friend, he talks about degrees of honesty. When I ask how anyone can know if anything in his book is true, he says, “that’s what we’re warranting” and calls my question “epistemological ... how can we know anything?”
I doubt many adults will be shocked to learn that a public high school isn’t the same academically as a prep school that costs more than most universities; that some students insulate themselves with drugs, coarse language, petty crime and sexual promiscuity. What does surprise me is the behavior of the adults in the saga, from the administrators who let this dude weasel his way onto campus to the TV hosts who will fawn over him, to the Simon & Schuster editors who bought his tale.
Then there’s Iversen himself. While other 24-year-olds were taking on society’s tough tasks, leading troops in Iraq, say, or even teaching high school, this guy was Peter Panning his way back to adolescence.
Iversen has big hopes that the book will become a movie someday. But Hollywood would be better off buying the rights to the student journalists’ story. It’s a more dramatic yarn, and they told it without conning anyone or qualifying the word “true.”
To discuss this column or the question, “Should schools let adults go undercover on campus?” visit latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org