What was being proposed was a whole new kind of High School Confidential. Hollywood—in the form of the New Screen Concepts production company—wanted to cast its all-seeing eye on the entire Class of ’91 at Glenbard West High School in suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill. New Screen had even riskier business in mind: For half a year their cameras would attend the 68-year-old redbrick school (previously the setting for the 1986 film Lucas) and poke into every aspect of student activity. The result—a zits-and-all view of contemporary high school life-would then air as a weekly half-hour Fox network TV series.
To Glenbard”s plucky principal, Susan Bridge, 44, the show—titled Yearbook and airing Saturday nights (8:30 P.M. ET) on the Fox network—promised a valuable lesson. “If we can get TV to convey the right message,” she says, “that kids are alive and well in America, that the future of the nation is not in the hands of drug-crazed idiots as other TV series and Hollywood movies suggest—then it’s exploitation, but we’ve used the producers].” (And the school system has received a $20,000 honorarium.)
If 1,631-student (11 percent minority) Glenbard West, located in a middle-to upper-middle-class area 25 miles west of Chicago, wasn’t the typical American high school to start with, it is now. Thanks to Yearbook, millions of Americans have shared the rocketing emotions of Kelly Ruff, whose Homecoming Queen victory is marred by her father’s hospitalization with a stroke. They are also in the huddle with star quarterback Mark Huske, who has an A-plus average and is anxiously awaiting his interviews with Ivy League schools. And they are privy to the agonies of unmarried parents-to-be Tim Dodaro and Donna Michalski, struggling to do right by themselves and their then-unborn child (Donna had a girl, Danielle, in November).
Although ratings so far have not been nearly as bright as Mark Huske’s academic record, supporting player Bridge hasn’t regretted her education degree. The first time she saw herself on video, she reports, “All I could think was, ‘Why are they shooting up my nostrils?’ ” But behind the scenes. Bridge was the project’s guiding spirit. She views the series as a taped valedictory to her seniors. “I knew if I could get this opportunity for them,” she says, “when they had children and grandchildren, they could look back and say. ‘That was my life.’ ”
So far the students aren’t worried about posterity’s judgment. “I wasn’t exploited,” says ice-hockey goalie Heidi McDaniel, 18, who in the series pursues her personal goal of an athletic scholarship. “I just wanted to share my story with others.” Todd Myra. 19. a Marine Corps reservist who will hit boot camp this summer, thinks his segment—in which the kids discuss the war in the Persian Gulf—has more than transient appeal. “It’ll be interesting for people to look at years from now and see what teenagers were thinking,” he says.
Relieved by such assurances, Bridge sees no danger to her $78,500-a-year position, which she has held happily since 1989. “Eve been in this school district 21 years, and I still pinch myself,” she says. In a particularly pinch-worthy moment, she may even improvise a dance in the corridors. “I have this one waltz partner, my friend Jason,” says the Isadora Duncan of secondary education. “We started with the tango. I tell him that before he graduates, we will get to the fox-trot.”
Such unbureaucratic conduct doesn’t bother administrators. “We just admire her energy, flamboyance…and her ability to speak with the kids,” says assistant principal Bruce Viernow. “But we are concerned that she takes on too much sometimes.” In addition to working on her doctorate, Bridge also runs three miles a day and has been known to iron while pedaling an exercise bike in the three-bedroom Cape Cod-style home she shares with her artist husband, Nick, 44, and son, Nick Jr., 8, in Glen Ellyn. “Sue’s a very driven person,” says Nick.
Born in Chicago, Bridge, the daughter of a products-engineer father and English-teacher mother, moved to suburban Elmhurst when she was 3. In high school she made good grades and gave herself the mock yearbook blurb “Most Likely to Spend Saturday Night in the Library.” In college she was less prone to spending Saturday nights that way. She met Nick when both were juniors at the University of Illinois under what he calls “elevated circumstances.” Explains Sue: “I was dancing on a tabletop”—part of a sorority show rehearsal at his frat house. Before marrying Nick in 1970. Bridge got her master’s in education at the University of Virginia and started teaching English at Glenbard East High. “I feel like I’ve never left high school.” she says.
And how does Bridge feel now that she’s at Fishbowl High? Better than she expected. “I was braced for meeting someone in the supermarket who would say, ‘How could you do it?’ ” she says. “But so far parent and student reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had letters from parents nationwide thanking me for being willing to do it.”
It may take one more school term before Yearbook’s stars offer their own anthem of gratitude. “It’s a wonderful memoir,” says Heidi McDaniel. “But I don’t want to see it until after I graduate.”
Tim Allis, Barbara Kleban Mills in Glen Ellyn