It's been seven years since I set foot on the campus of the Meadows School, since my own graduation and relative escape from its world of little power players and disturbing class politics and stringent regulations and excessive image consciousness. In other words, high school, except at a higher level, and as much about the status of parents who are movers and shakers in town as it is about the children living their own lives. Since its founding in 1984 by Carolyn Goodman, the wife of Mayor Oscar Goodman and the school's president for its entire existence, and Dr. LeOre Cobbley, who died in 1997, the Meadows has grown from a set of trailers across from the Meadows Mall to a sprawling 40-acre campus in Summerlin. It's grown as much, if not more, in stature, to the point at which many of the most powerful families in Las Vegas—names like Wynn, Primm, Binion and Creel—send their children to the school.
Although Meadows has only been graduating high-schoolers since 1991 (its first graduating class had only three students), already a network of alumni has sprung up, constituting much of the next generation of influential businesspeople in Las Vegas. Most of them have gotten boosts from their families' wealth and influence, but the Meadows experience and network of contacts are inextricably tied into their success.
My return to the Meadows is to witness the graduation of the class of 2005. It includes the daughter of County Commissioner Erin Kenny, the nephew of Steve Wynn (who is also the event's speaker) and the son of Hard Rock Hotel President Kevin Kelley, who has two Hard Rock limos and one Hard Rock van waiting outside the school's gym, where the ceremony takes place.
Walking from my car, parked on the street, to the gym, I'm overwhelmed by the development that's taken place since I was last here. There's a gate and a security guard at the school entrance (which is right across the street from a retirement community). There are several new buildings, including a massive performing arts center. Right at the entrance to the gym, there's a bronze statue of a mustang, the school's mascot, rearing back on its hind legs and prominently displaying its genitals. I learn later that it's the gift to the school from the graduating class.
The ceremony is, according to a friend and fellow Meadows alum, sparsely attended compared to recent years, although last year's speaker, actor Anthony Hopkins, likely drove up attendance. The mayor is here, glad-handing as always, although he's not part of the ceremony. His wife, though, is the star of the show, as she is in all Meadows-related things. She is, in many ways, the embodiment of the school: rich, powerful, well-spoken and demanding, wielding substantial influence while remaining largely unnoticed. She was my college counselor, as she has been for a whole generation of Meadows students, a position that, in my experience, she uses as much to bolster the school's image as to find the right options for the students.
This year's class of 57 graduates includes, as always, no one who has not been accepted to a four-year college. While six of my classmates headed to UNLV, there are only three this year, two of whom will be entering the honors program. There is a Yale, a Princeton, a Harvard, three U-Penns, a Duke, a George Washington, and plenty of USCs and University of Arizonas. Part of the excessive self-congratulation at the two hour-plus ceremony consists of Goodman reading the "accomplishments" of each graduate—their awards, club memberships and sports participation—calling seemingly every other student "popular." She refers to students who have been at Meadows since kindergarten as "lifers," without a hint of irony.
The surrounding presentation of diplomas and standard "follow- your-dreams" speeches from such non-luminaries as the valedictorian, the student-council president and the senior-class president (who does get in a nice snide remark about "feeling sorry" for people who aren't lucky and/or rich enough to go to Meadows) are just warm-up acts for the real attraction, the address by Steve Wynn. Last year's speaker may have been an Academy Award-winning actor, but there's no way he could have held a candle to Wynn's rambling, bizarre and completely non-inspirational speech.
Starting by noting his recent visits to Asia in connection with his new casino in Macau, Wynn tells the graduating class about how much smarter and more driven young people in China and India are. He says that America is no longer the world leader in business. He tells the class of 2005 that the times ahead will be "gritty."
And then he talks about the Burgess Shale. What is the Burgess Shale, you ask? It's an important paleontological discovery made in British Columbia in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, an exquisitely preserved sample of life 505 million years ago. The discovery challenged certain notions about evolution and, well, it really doesn't matter, except that Wynn goes on about it for several minutes, during which I perhaps tune out, because the next thing I know he has somehow segued into talking about the natural light in Wynn Las Vegas. This, apparently, has something to do with 505 million-year-old fossils.
He talks about taking risks, or something. It's hard to tell anymore. My friend asks me if I think Wynn is winging it. After extolling the virtue of dreams (apparently the only commodity on which America still holds a hegemony), Wynn offers what appears to be his thesis statement. Without dreams, he says, you just end up with a "box of stuff." "The world is full of boxes of stuff," he tells the audience. "Nobody really cares." I decide that this will become my new philosophy of life.
After his speech, Wynn leaves. He walks right out the door and doesn't stay for the reading of the dubious accomplishments, or the throwing of hats. He's not at the ostentatiously catered reception afterward, held in the high school's commons. My friend convinces me to go, to gather more material. The most notable detail: a table full of bottled water bearing the Community Bank of Nevada logo. I spend several frantic minutes trying to avoid the school's headmaster, who is retiring this summer. At my own graduation, I wore a T-shirt and shorts under my cap and gown, and for this offense the headmaster threatened to prevent me from participating in the ceremony and to call the college I planned to attend and tell them of my rebelliousness. Neither of those things happened, but he's not exactly been my favorite person since then.
Distracted by speaking to my former French teacher, I miss the headmaster's approach. He does not mention our seven-years-gone confrontation. He asks if I am still writing. I tell him that I am. I ask after his son, who graduated with me. I congratulate him on his retirement. Behind the headmaster, my brother, who graduated this year from Bishop Gorman and has come to see some of his former Meadows classmates, points at me and laughs. It is clearly time to leave.
For better or worse, this place is the nexus of power in Las Vegas, the place where the rich and powerful burnish their images by sending their children to a place equally concerned with burnishing its own. It's a place of uniforms and uniformity, where everyone is special and thus no one is special. It's a place to which I never wanted to return, and yet feel compelled to dissect, over and over again.
The world is full of boxes of stuff. Nobody really cares.