In the preface to his widely publicized "true story," Fast Times at Ridgemont High, author Cameron Crowe states that he changed the names of his characters and altered superficial details in the book's juicy account of modern adolescence. But Clairemont High School insiders haven't been fooled by the cloak of anonymity.
For anyone who missed the similarities between mythical and actual learning institutions, Clairemont's school newspaper, the Arrow (transformed in the book into the Ridgemont Reader), ran a front-page story earlier this fall announcing that despite a prefatory red herring suggesting that the action instead took place in Redondo Beach, Crowe in fact did his research at Clairemont during the 1979-1980 school year. Among the numerous clues contained in the book to the school's true location: one character works at the Swenson's at the "Towne Center" mall, another surfs at Sunset Cliffs, and still another takes his date to see Phantasm at the Strand Theatre (following dinner at the Charthouse). Even more telling than the book's reference to Ridgemont's (and Clairemont's_ omnipresent green decor is a slip-up which occurs during a discussion of Ridgemont's yearbook, the Rapier, when on page 220 of Fast Times, Crowe's narrative suddenly and mysteriously refers instead to the Calumet (the name of Clairemont's yearbook).
Clairemont students who knew Crowe during the year of research point out that the young author also dressed up the facts somewhat in his account of his research methodology. Crowe's preface strongly suggests that he did his stint at "Ridgemont" incognito. "I was never found suspicious," he states. "I eavesdropped on conversations around me, made copious notes.... I began to feel like a third-rate spy." However, one teacher who remembers that Crowe sat in on her class perhaps two or three times a week throughout the school year, says, "To my knowledge, everyone knew what he was doing.... The kids knew who he was and why he was there." Clairemont alumnus Andy Rathbone, who says he became good friends with Crowe during that year, concurs. He adds that Crowe often openly tape-recorded various interchanges, and that students knew he wasn't enrolled as a regular classmate. "He'd mostly hang around the lunch court and stuff and after school he'd do stuff with us. But it was not like he was doing the regular student routine."
Rathbone (whose nickname at Clairemont was "The Rat," a nickname shared by another Fast Times character, "Mark Ratner") recalls that Crowe, who was then 22 years old, had no trouble mingling with the high school crowd. "He had a knack for getting along with people. He could talk to anyone." But Rathbone reports missed reviews of the book, which includes healthy doses of juvenile sex and drugs, from Crowe's subjects. "I'd say 50 percent of it [the account] is fabrication at least. He'd take the basic stereotype of a person and take it all the way.... I think we were a little bit more together than we came off in the book." Even harsher is Clairemont's current principal, Charles Raleigh, who barks, "I think it [the book] is a pile of junk!"
Crowe (who now lives in Los Angeles) couldn't be reached for comment on the fictionalization. His mother, Alicia Crowe, who works as a counselor at San Diego City College, says her son is still reeling from a catty item in the October California magazine which reported on the Redondo Beach high school district's lack of any record of Crowe. Mrs. Crowe points out that while her son did the bulk of his research at one school, he also drew material from a number of others. "I think this whole thing about finding the high school is just dumb," she sniffs.