Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


A Year in the Life of an American High School

by Michael Bamberger

“Bamberger spends a year learning the individual stories that make up a senior class, weaving them together for a composite portrait that, we hope, will give us a clear vision of a changing America. . . . For most of the students Bamberger introduces to us, it seems likely that the realities of adulthood will never be able to measure up–but Bamberger’s carefully drawn portraits seem strangely optimistic nonetheless. Perhaps, he appears to suggest, students who can construct such a virtual world for themselves are indeed capable of reshaping their own lives to match their dreams.” –Rachel Elson, San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date April 20, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4197-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

From an acclaimed Sports Illustrated journalist, the all-American story of a high school and its larger-than-life prom

Pennsbury High School would be like any other were it not for one thing: its prom. Its spring dance is considered by Reader’s Digest to be one of “America’s best legacies.” Wonderland is the true story of a dance floor and the kids who fill it: a tale of hope, sex, love, and loss. For one year, the students, parents, and teachers of Pennsbury invited Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, into their classrooms, their homes, their parties, and their dreams. He discovered an extraordinary and disparate group of everyday teenagers whose stories were touching, odd, funny, and beautiful.

In Wonderland, lives intersect in unpredictable ways and are never what they appear to be. The star quarterback seems to be perfect as he walks Pennsbury’s hallways, but hides the pain of not knowing where his father is. The senior in the lowcut jeans and the black Corvette doesn’t realize she is idolized by a group of junior boys. A student with cerebral palsy is desperate to learn to tie Eagle Scout knots, despite a useless left hand: his dream is to arrive at the dance in the car from Back to the Future. A young couple want to score the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for the big night–and a babysitter for their infant son. The patriarch of the prom, a history teacher who has presided over the dance for thirty-three years, secretly wishes after a new life as a novelist and a White House usher. And then there is Bob Costa. He dreams of making his name and bringing glory to his school by convincing John Mayer, whose song “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is an anthem for the students, to perform at the prom.

Wonderland shows that truth really is stranger than fiction, and every bit as moving. It is a portrait of young people in America today–finding their way, struggling with identities, fighting with their parents, falling in love. Moving, heartfelt, and inspiring, Wonderland is a fresh and spirited report from the front lines of American adolescence, where children long for the ritual of a seemingly vanished world and search after what they’ve always wanted: hope, meaning, and something to call their own.


“Michael Bamberger’s vivid, engaging Wonderland is . . . something of a real-life teen soap: its intertwined storylines and folkloric personalities certainly draw you in the same way. . . . What’s attractive about the students, teachers, parents, and administrators whose lives Bamberger tracked is that they’re once eternal types and indiosyncratic, surprising individuals. . . . Wonderland isn’t just an uncommonly rich and intimate look at high school life; it’s the best piece of decent-minded unpatronizing Americana I’ve read since Jim Wilson’s Vietnam-themed The Sons of Bardstown.” –Tom Carson, The Atlantic Monthly

“From the planning stages in September 2002 to the big night in May 2003, Bamberger tells a captivating story about a small-town prom and the people–teachers, parents, students–who paint a fascinating portrait of the “wonder” that exists in all of them. . . . In chronicling their quest to make this prom the best one yet, Bamberger gets us to care about the teachers and the students–the ones who make it and the ones who don’t. We root for them and their dreams. We also remember what life was like when, as Bamberger puts it, “You’re old enough to see a real glimpse of your adult self, but young enough to dream.”” –Helen Ubinas, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Bamberger spends a year learning the individual stories that make up a senior class, weaving them together for a composite portrait that, we hope, will give us a clear vision of a changing America. . . . For most of the students Bamberger introduces to us, it seems likely that the realities of adulthood will never be able to measure up–but Bamberger’s carefully drawn portraits seem strangely optimistic nonetheless. Perhaps, he appears to suggest, students who can construct such a virtual world for themselves are indeed capable of reshaping their own lives to match their dreams.” –Rachel Elson, San Francisco Chronicle

“Writing in a . . . detail-driven style, Bamberger builds an admirable measure of suspense: Will Bob Costa use his unabashed Pennsbury pride to persuade pop star John Mayer to perform at the prom? . . . . The verdict: A ticket to the hottest show in town.” –Patti Ghezzi, Atlanta Journal Constitution

“As someone who has spent many, many years observing and participating in the life of a high school, I found Bamberger’s book honest, moving and very difficult to set aside. Education continues to be an ongoing and controversial topic. Readers who want to see the subject from an inside viewpoint won’t get a clearer look than that from Wonderland.” –Harriet Little, Roanoke Times

Wonderland feels like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but with the riveting aspect that this is real life and real drama. . . . Generations may change, but Bamberger shows us that high school remains the same.” –Blake Miller, Philadelphia Magazine

“[Bamberger] succeeds in evoking the strangely obdurate innocence of a place where generations come and go but the school rest rooms still smell of “grapefruit disinfectant.”” –New Yorker

“Enchanting . . . the book everyone is talking about.” –Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America

“The 2003 prom is the all-stops-out climax of Michael Bamberger’s deeply affecting Wonderland. . . . “He was the consummate listener,” says Bob Costa, current student body president and Wonderland‘s go-get-“em hero. “He really wanted to get to the heart of what high school kids are feeling.”” –Adam B. Vary, Entertainment Weekly

“Michael Bamberger finds surprises around every high school corner in Wonderland. . . . With each [student’s] portrait. . . Bamberger inverts the correlating cultural stereotypes. Wonderland is the rare high school story that refrains from sensationalizing its subject matter, and instead offers an image of optimism with the occasional dose of heartbreak. As Bamberger writes them, the Pennsbury students are real, textured characters.” –Elisa Ludwig, City Paper of Philadelphia

“In an age of instant gratification, shrinking global borders and ever faster and easier ways to communicate, kids long for long-held traditions like a senior prom in the school gym. . . . Bamberger knew this story was no longer about a high school dance. This was a snapshot of contemporary America.” –Jo Ciavaglia, Bucks County Courier Times

“Reminds readers of the joys and the sorrows that come when we fall down the rabbithole into the bizarre, horrible, wonderful world of high school.” –Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, MSNBC Test Pattern

“In the best tradition of Tom Wolfe or Tracy Kidder, Bamberger embedded himself into Pennsbury High School [and] digs into the interior lives of key characters.” –Beth Taylor, The Providence Journal

“For an entire year, Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger immersed himself in the societal microcosm of Pennsbury High School, located just outside of Philadelphia, [resulting] in this century’s first great coming-of-age snapshot.” –Steve Uhles, The Augusta Chronicle

“Using the nine-month time line of prom preparations as an anchor, Bamberger gives readers intimate insight into the minds and hearts of several students and teachers whose lives changed during the year. Some were for the better, some for the worse and some in ways they never could have imagined. . . . Although the story is told with a great deal of sensitivity, Bamberger never loses his reporter’s eye for detail or sense of truth.” –Jessica Carter, Gwinnett Daily Post

“Bamberger wisely concentrates on the fates of some dozen students, juniors and seniors, following their trajectories with enough detail to elicit empathy. . . . Tenderly delivers a frazzled, appealing group of kids, proving once again that no examined life is ordinary.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Nearly everyone older than eighteen has fantasized at one time or another about going back to high school. Michael Bamberger has done it. Wonderland lets you walk the halls again, ogle the girls who are certain to become Hollywood stars, or the boys who will undoubtedly play quarterback someday in the pros. Written with humor, insight, and an abiding, endearing sweetness, the book penetrates the forbidding walls of modern adolescence, and returns with the reassuring news that the more things change, the more they stay the same.” –Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Finders Keepers

Wonderland is just a wonderful book. There’s no better articulation for it. The book has beautiful heart. It is nostalgic in the best way of reminding us that not everything in America has become some bad version of a reality show. It is poignant and at times aching. You root for the kids that populate it, because thanks to Michael Bamberger you know them and care about them and identify with them and yes, even love them. This is a book that is as good as it ever gets.” –Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City

Praise for To the Linksland:

“A piece of sparkling prose that, if words were golf shots, would be a 62 and five strokes ahead of the field.” –The Washington Post

“Lyrical and inspired . . . A lovely book that will stand with the classics of the game.” –Kirkus Reviews

“His was a marvelous journey, and we are privileged to share it. . . . [His book] deserves not only recognition but sustained praise.” –The Sporting News

“Fine travel writing about people and weather and history and terrain as well as about hooks and slices. He has written about golf for an audience of golfers, and he has done that superbly well.” –The Atlantic

“There are writers who reduce ideas and there are writers who expand them. [Bamberger] is one of the latter.” –Golf Digest

Praise for The Green Road Home

The Green Road Home is a piece of sparkling prose that, if words were golf shots, would be a 62 and five strokes ahead of the field.” –The Washington Post


Chapter One: Taking Attendance


I. Principal Katz

The roles must be filled. A high school must have politicians, ­ath­letes, beauties, scholars, musicians, poets, actors, clowns, insiders, outsiders, and large numbers of the unexceptional. At the start of the school year, there may be any number of vacancies, but over the course of the year, the positions will be filled. It was true at my school and it was true at yours and it was true at Pennsbury. A school with no athletes will somehow identify sports stars. Celebrities of some sort will always emerge. The common trait of a school’s most famous students–cele­brated for something, good or bad–is their exalted sense of themselves. But the status of the prominent is ultimately conferred by all the ordinaries who make up the great middle in any student body. These anonymous souls, passing through school with shuffling feet and quiet voices, have no idea how important they are.

Who would the notables play to if this great middle- class audience did not exist? Finally, there must be a person seeking to direct the populace. The school must have a principal, its mayor and police chief in one. It’s a rule.

The hands of Bill Katz, the principal at Pennsbury High, the lone high school of the Pennsbury school district, trembled slightly ­whenever he lifted the microphone to make the morning ­announcements. The kids who took the microphone after him–Matt Fox, the school president, and Bob Costa, the junior-class president–didn’t get it. What could Mr. Katz possibly be nervous about?

He towered over everybody. Except for his paunch, Mr. Katz still looked like the basketball star he once was. When he graduated from Pennsbury in 1967, he was a stick. His picture, in black and white, had been plastered all over The Falcon, the school yearbook. Soon after, The Falcon went color. The yearbooks from the 1970s were done in Kodachrome, and the children of those kids were present-day students. Mr. Katz’s yearbook was from a distant era, even though he’d been in the second class to graduate from the new building, as people still called it decades after it had opened.

His prom date became his first ex-wife. His second ex-wife was the mother of his two boys, one at Boston University, the other at MIT. That was what the teachers at Pennsbury knew about Mr. Katz. Beyond that, he was a mystery. His devotion to the Pennsbury prom–and to the idea that the prom should always remain in the Pennsbury gym, to hell with what the rest of the country was doing–was well known throughout the school district. But other things, like who he spent his weekends with, were unknown. Nobody at Pennsbury had ever seen him eat.

Young teachers were timid around him. He had a low, raspy voice that made people work hard to hear him. He wore button-down shirts daily, always with a sport coat and tie. His clothes were exceedingly sturdy and vaguely retro, as if he had raided a men’s department at Sears years before and stocked up for life. His only concession to the sadistically hot days at the start of the school year was short-sleeved shirts.

For most of his adult life, the most reliable address for Mr. Katz had been Pennsbury High, 705 Hood Boulevard, Fairless Hills, PA, 19030. He had been the assistant principal or the principal at Pennsbury for two decades, plus his four years as a student. He knew his school. He knew the kids and how they lived. Mr. Katz, the son of a career army man, had spent his high school years in Levittown. Even though Pennsbury was massive–Mr. Katz’s building housed the junior and senior classes, with fifteen hundred kids, while the ninth- and tenth-graders were in a neighboring building–it was intimate to him and to very few others. He knew where the kids would go “on campus,” as he liked to call it, to try to cut class or smoke cigarettes or engage in “inappropriate physical behavior.” He was privy to the most private details of the students’ lives. He knew about their health issues, their sex lives and drug problems and learning difficulties. He knew about their parents’ problems, too: unemployment, spousal abuse, gambling addiction, alcohol and drug abuse, credit-card debt. No different than anywhere else. He was exceedingly discreet about what he knew, just as he was about himself. If he dated at all, the teaching staff didn’t know about it.

What they knew was that he drank coffee from the time he came in, shortly after six a.m., until the time he left, ten or twelve or more hours later. He kept a coffee warmer on his desk, in an office that was crowded with manuals and textbooks and industrial furniture. Behind his desk he kept a tall thermos filled with coffee. He lived on cashews and Hershey’s Kisses and peanut M&M’s. His diet could only have contributed to his trembling hands.

As he took the microphone on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Mr. Katz’s hands were shaking more than usual. As principal, he worried most about the safety of his kids. After that there was an endless list of things that kept him busy. How did his students compare to the state norm on standardized tests? How did they behave on the class trip to Washington, D.C.? Would the football team make the play-offs? But safety came first. September 11 was a painful reminder to Mr. Katz that there were forces in the world beyond his control.

The attacks had hit close to home. There were Pennsbury kids who had older siblings or fathers who worked in the World Trade Center, seventy miles away from Yardley and Newtown, the two wealthy pockets of the Pennsbury school district. (From Yardley or Newtown, a commuter crossed the Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey, a ten-minute car trip. From there it was an hour-long train ride to Penn Station, in Manhattan.) There were kids whose fathers flew for American or United. Soon after the attacks, Mr. Katz learned that the father of a girl in the district had been the pilot of the Boeing 767 that crashed into the south tower.

And now it was the first anniversary. He had thought hard about the best way to recognize the date. He had considered asking his ­teachers to devote the day to studying issues related to the attacks. But in the end, he decided a little would go a long way: a moment of silent meditation followed by the reading of a poem written by the daughter, now a ninth-grader, of the pilot, Victor Saracini.

“President Matt Fox will now read Kirsten Saracini’s poem “Years Gone By,”” Mr. Katz said. His voice was solemn. He was a foot taller than Matt, to whom he handed the microphone.

Matt Fox was being asked to do something out of character. Suddenly, he needed to be serious.

When he ran for president, everybody figured it was a joke. He was the short, funny Jewish kid with yellow sideburns who had run a for-profit boxing club in his backyard until the school shut him down. You don’t have insurance, an assistant principal had told him. You’re promoting your private enterprise on school walls. Young man, this will not fly!

The two girls he ran against were good-looking and popular. They played sports. They took honors classes. They were in the service clubs. Matt Fox, he was just a prankster. Once Fox and his little prankster crew went to the mall, put a diaper on the ground, poured chocolate syrup in it, placed a $5 bill underneath the diaper, and waited for some kid to retrieve the bill, watching from a distance and recording the event with a video camera.

On another occasion Matt and four accomplices went to the Red Robin–a restaurant near the mall, and a Pennsbury hangout–dressed as a family. Matt was the daughter, in a wig. Another kid, Zach Woods, was the father, with talcum powder in his hair. The mock family sat down and engaged in a simulated family feud while ordering Cokes and lunch. But Matt’s wig wouldn’t stay on straight and he couldn’t get beyond the line “But Dad.” The old-gal waitress just stared at them, her order pad frozen at midchest, not laughing or smirking or doing anything except looking at Matt and his buddies as if they were very strange. That was the Matt Fox who ran for school president.

Late in Matt’s junior year, there was an assembly for the candidates. The first girl gave a speech about how their class should have the biggest homecoming day, the most spirit, the best prom, the most exciting this, the most exciting that. The second girl followed with the exact same speech.

When it was Matt’s turn, something occurred to him. He was going to win. The girls would split the girl vote, and if he could just show a pulse and be funny, he’d have the boy vote and the presidency. He ditched his prepared speech and winged it. “If you vote for me, I promise you a ­future brighter than . . .” He named a noted Pennsbury pothead. The student voters roared. “If you vote for me, I promise free admission to Matt Fox Boxing!” More cheers. Right then and there, Matt vowed to himself not to put up any posters. Let the girls plaster the halls with their signs, he thought, I’m running as an outsider. “If you vote for me, I promise you this: Your senior year will be one big party!” Even the Goth kids in the back of the auditorium, drawing cubist pictures with gnawed Bic pens on their skinny, veiny arms–even they looked up at that. The election was his. It was May then, the May of his junior year. Summer was coming. Everything was easy.

Now it was September, the September of his senior year, and every­thing was serious.

At lunch, the senior girls were already making lists of potential colleges and prom dates. Matt couldn’t believe it. His plan was to apply to Penn State and only Penn State. The idea of lining up a prom date more than a half-year before the event struck him as bizarre. But that was what the girls were doing, ranking their potential dates as if they were college choices, with a Safe date, a Reach, and a useful boy somewhere in between. It was unsettling.

And now he had to read a poem written by a girl whose father was killed in the September 11 attacks. This was different. This wasn’t trumped-up seriousness. This was the real thing.

Matt cleared his throat, lowered his already deep voice, now the voice of his school, took the microphone from Mr. Katz’s quivering hands, and read Kirsten Saracini’s poem “Years Gone By.”

At 0 you wanted Victoria to be my name forevermore
At 1 you bought me Ernie while in a Japanese toy store
At 2 you called me “Big Nea” and helped me to learn to read
At 3 you let me hold Brielle and taught me to do good deeds
At 4 you wrote me letters when you went away
At 5 you made me go to church and taught me how to pray
At 6 you bought me a Mexican backpack and waved “bye as I went to school
At 7 you took me to Jamaica (which by the way was totally cool)
At 8 you played catch with me and taught me to play ball
At 9 you took me to get my hair cut in the mall
At 10 you brought me cookies and bars from your trips
At 11 you took me to Canc”n and gave me bargaining tips
At 12 you taught me how to survive in middle school, and for that I soared
At 13 you took me to the beach and taught me how to Boogie-board
And for all the years that come I know one thing will never change
You will always be my daddy and I will always feel the same
I love you

Matt ad-libbed nothing. The president handed the microphone back to the principal, who nodded his approval. The secretaries were crying. Mr. Katz gave Matt a pass so he could return to his class, photography with Mr. Lefferts, without harassment from the hall monitors. The hallways were empty, and Matt’s sneakers squeaked on the linoleum floor, still shined to high buff from a late-summer waxing. He made his way past the empty cafeteria. He turned a corner and practically bumped into a girl carrying her books the old-school way, in a pile, her arm underneath them, resting them on her perfect hip. Matt could see her navel. There was no jewelry in it. The girl was a well-known senior, a beauty, an athlete. They lived near each other.

“Nice job, Matt,” she said in a low voice.

Matt Fox was speechless. He had known the girl since kindergarten. For years they had ridden a bus together. She had never initiated a conversation with him, not even a hello. Now she was saying nice job.

Maybe, just maybe, Matt Fox thought, he was on her list.

©2004 by Michael Bamberger. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Author Q&A

Q. As a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, you write about steroid abuse, athletes in prison, Tiger Woods at the Masters. What made you want to write a book about a high school and its prom?

Michael Bamberger: I saw a little clip about the Pennsbury prom on TV news and I was just so intrigued. They showed hundreds of parents and siblings lined up on the sidewalks to watch the prom arrivals. It just got me thinking about what a key ritual a prom continues to be in America, even with all the changes our society has gone through, even in the 25 years since I was in high school.

Q. The kids in WONDERLAND speak with great candor about their lives. How did you get them to open up like that?

Michael Bamberger: I think the key to all reporting is hanging out. You spend as much time as you can with your subjects–at a Starbucks, over the phone, online–until they realize they are talking to somebody with a sympathetic ear. I find that people are aching to talk about the things that are most important to them, they just need to know they have a listener who really cares.


Q. You describe the students in WONDERLAND as “everyday kids.” But they produce an exceptional prom. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Michael Bamberger: It might seem like one, but it’s not. The thing that excites me most about WONDERLAND is that I know it’s not exceptional. Pennsbury is absolutely an ordinary, middle-class suburban high school, with one exceptional built-in annual ritual: the Pennsbury prom. The kids are devoted to it because they’ve grown up on it, but the kids themselves are the same kids you’d find wandering around the food court in any mall.

Q. What surprised you about spending a year in a high school 25 years after your own senior year?

Michael Bamberger: So many things. I think the most significant thing is that I found that these kids don’t want Clinton-in-the-Oval-Office sex. They really don’t. They want real relationships. They want courtship and–I wish I knew a better phrase–a sense of community. I think they want what their grandparents may have had in the Fifties. You see the tattoos and the body-piericings and navels on display, and you might think you know these kids. And you don’t. That stuff is really just their costume. The kids, at their core, are the same as they’ve always been. They want to be liked and they want to be loved. If they can get sex too, great, but it’s not the only goal.

Q: You have two young children. Did writing WONDERLAND change your approach to parenting in any way?

Michael Bamberger: I think it did. I think I saw up-close that kids will do all manner of stupid things – and some smart things – no matter how closely you’re riding herd on them. And you know something? They’re probably going to turn out all right. I’m very inquisitive by nature, and very involved in my kids’ lives, but I think I’m now more inclined to give them a longer leash and let them discover things for themselves. Of course, my wife has her own ideas

Q. One of your subjects, Bob Costa, can’t be regarded as ordinary, can he? Here is a junior in high school who met with the singer John Mayer to try to get him to play the Pennsbury prom.

Michael Bamberger: No, Costa is not ordinary. His thing now is to get Clinton to be the graduation day speaker this year. I was amazed by Costa, which is why he’s the most important character in the book. Writing about Costa, I felt like I was writing, THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT, 2040. But it was the environment of Pennsbury that allowed him to be exceptional. He needed the massive public high school experience to become a leader of kids in the way that he is.