Today is the first day of school for public school students in Washington, DC, and probably everywhere.
In the introduction to his book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Tom Brokaw quotes John Lennon: “The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”
John commenced his high school education in 1960, the beginning of the era of possibilites and responsibility, to which Lennon alludes. Below is a section exerpted from Come on Fluffy, This Ain’t No Ballet. Enjoy!
You can buy the Kindle version of John’s memoir from Amazon, www.amazon.com/dp/B0056UF30G.
In 1960, school started the Tuesday after Labor Day. We were back in Hammond by then, where my parents had bought a house just before Grandma B’s death. After moving, we had just enough time to buy some school clothes before enrolling at Donald E. Gavit High School. All the clothes I ever wore in high school came from Sears, Goldblatt’s, and Carson Pirie Scott and Company. They were the department stores, where almost everyone I knew bought everything he had ever owned. Cotton slacks, short sleeve dress shirts for early fall, socks, a beige cardigan sweater, an argyle pull-over sweater, underwear, and a pair of gray Hushpuppy shoes were the items Mom bought me that day. I was, or thought I was, ready for high school.
On Labor Day, Dad had a cook-out on our brick patio and invited our new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Beanblossom along with their son Ralph, who would be in my Spanish class, taught by Senor Calderon, who was also our World History teacher. Ralph was a freshman too, and because the school was brand new, we would both be in its first graduating class. Ralph was not a very good student, but he was considered very cute and cool by most of the girls, including the prettiest ones. I always hoped that some of his popularity would rub off onto me, though it never did. Picture a young Tom Cruise, and you’ll know how Ralph looked, but as is always the case with boys, it wasn’t just his good looks that made him popular. He had bravado and panache, words I didn’t even know until after a whole semester of freshman vocabulary lessons. Popular boys always had a certain swagger, never seemed to take anything too seriously, dressed in a cool, casual way, and had at least a slight bad-boy image based upon things like drawing very unflattering caricatures of unpopular teachers during class, throwing food in the cafeteria, doing mild graffiti in the boys’ washrooms about popular girls and their extracurricular activities, and getting low but not necessarily failing grades on report cards. It always amazed me that the boys that beautiful and intelligent girls most often wanted to date were the ones with motor cycles, tattoos, much more unusual in the 1960’s, and flat top haircuts that were so severe and sharply done, they might cut through stone or glass, or greasy hair styles that might increase a guy’s total cholesterol by two hundred points. Being good at sports didn’t hurt either, but being an athlete wasn’t really a requirement for popularity. Image was everything, which I suspect is still true in high schools today, and image was certified by one’s going steady with a gorgeous girl, whose image was generally based upon comparisons to Barbie dolls, Annette Funicello, Sandra Dee, Yvette Mimieux, Carol Lynley, or Connie Francis. Of course, male stereotypical images of what was cool were determined by Elvis, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Troy Donahue, and Tab Hunter. That meant that somone like me didn’t have a chance to be considered anything but a second-class side-kick to somebody like Dobie Gillis.
My friendship with Ralph survived all this and the fact that my mother was so pathetic at remembering people’s names. That September of 1960, Mom had met Ralph’s mother, Mrs. Beanblossom only once at our backyard cook-out, and one day while I was harvesting the last of our garden tomatoes, Mom was watering flowers in the backyard. Our neighbor was in her garden too just on the other side of the four-foot cedar fence, when I heard my mother say in her cheerful, crystal clear voice, “Good morning, Mrs. Brussel Sprout.” Only my mother could screw up a name so badly and not realize it even afterward, but I’ll never forget the look on Mrs. Beanblossom’s face, as though she wasn’t sure it was intended as a joke or that somehow Mom’s elevator didn’t go all the way to the top. Then Mrs. Beanblossom looked at me for what appeared to be some confirmation, but I simply smiled as though I hadn’t heard a thing and that I was unrelated to the strange woman watering roses in our back yard. Mrs. Beanblossom never looked at me again without the same suspicious gaze that seemed doubtful of my mentality, as though my own cranial attic might not be completely furnished either. Thanks, Mom.
For Mr. Gilbert’s Biology I class we were all expected to create and turn in our individual insect collections that had to include at least one hundred bugs. Maka’s Craft Store certainly sold plenty of styrofoam sheets and stick pins that semester. Of all areas in biology my least favorite was insects. Fortunately, we had to get most of the information from our reading in the textbook, so there was very little lecturing on the subject of bugs. Besides, Mr. Gilbert was much too busy sharing with us his many stories of lurid biological phenomena. Those stories are what I remember most clearly about the class. One story was about a man at Inland Steel Company in Gary, Indiana who had been backed over by a heavy industrial crane and literally cut in two just above the waist, where the wound had been perfectly sealed by the tremendous weight of the crane. The poor man was totally conscious, able to talk, felt no pain, and lived for more than seven hours. Another local story was one about a cow in Lowell, Indiana, that had given birth to a two-headed calf. Mr. G even had photos for that story. All of those tabloid tales assured that no one ever slept during class, except on the relatively rare occasions when Mr. G would lecture on lessons from our text book, subjects on everything from chromosomes to Corn Smut. I often missed details of Mr. Gilbert’s lectures due to my fascination with his Adam’s apple, which traveled like a little elevator smoothly up and down his long neck. It was a distraction that others too enjoyed more than those lectures, so at least I was not alone.
My insect collection took a whole month to assemble, and I managed to find most of the specimens before frost, except for two spiders from our basement, which I needed in order to reach my quota of one hundred examples. I had to remove two legs from each of the dead spiders, so that they might look like insects, as arachnids were not to be included. I figured Mr. Gilbert wouldn’t have the time or energy to examine carefully more than one hundred-twenty insect collections from his four freshman biology classes, so I hoped he might not even notice the “insectified” spiders in the bottom corner of my collection case. I also made up some silly Latin sounding classifications for the mutated spiders, “omnivus caractivus” and “petuma victabin.” There were huge red question marks beside these when my project was returned. The red ink dug into the paper right down to the styrofoam underneath. There was also a note about the pinching bug I had included, which was four times its original size and extremely flat due to my brother’s having dropped a big Webster’s Dictionary on it the day I finished the project. The final project grade of “D” was also dug into the paper in blood-red ink. My final thought on the whole business was whether insects might have their own little heaven, free of styrofoam and stick pins.