Second semester of eighth grade started in late January of 1968, along with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on U.S. television and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. My mom worried about an endless U.S. involvement in that war that might eventually lead to me being drafted for military service in another five years. My hands ached from the cold even with gloves on as I lugged my saxaphone case in one hand and a load of books in the other arm the nearly mile-long trek to school and back. It always seemed farther than that because of all the twists and turns on the five different streets that got me to my destination, along with the fact that given a choice I wouldn’t want to go to school, particular this one. Though my American history teacher was entertaining at times and I still had some sort of a crush on my young female math teacher, I knew at some level that I could better spend my time doing activities and being around peers of my own choosing.
Though I had begun to see my mom as a real mortal human being, struggling like me to make her way through each day, still she was a source at times of embarrassment and frustration. She had her own self-esteem issues and I projected my own challenges in that area on her. She seemed to carry herself with great importance whether gardening in the front yard or engaging with the college-town academia in her social circle, always trying to make a provocative comment and have an intelligent response to every statement within earshot. She waded into political arguments with men as her way of flirting with them. She seemed always bigger than life and trying to control the room she was in and bring attention to herself.
Part of her strategy in that regard would be to tout the talents, thoughts and accomplishments of her sons, at times trumped up, since parenting was the effort she was investing the most of her time and talent in. Things like, “My son Coop is quite a sculptor!” and then pointing out a little clay prairie I made in art class that I did not think rose to that level of acclaim. When done with me next to her and suggesting that I provide more details, I would be embarrassed and even angry and felt like she was asking me to be a trained seal, barking on command for her admiring audience. I might even respond to her negatively right then and there, saying “Mom!” and scrunching my face and rolling my eyes at her, which she would deflect as best she could.
For all her efforts to paint the perfect persona amongst company, I knew that at her low points at night in her room that she was painfully lonely and still mad at my dad for betraying her several years back now by having an affair with another woman. I could hear her in the adjacent bedroom calling him up late at night, sobbing and angrily accusing him of ruining her life. Even saying things like, if this was what her life was going to be then it wasn’t worth living. At some level I worried if she might be getting suicidal, though I also saw her repeatedly guilty of hyperbole.
I continued to do my paper route each day. I saw the headlines with the body counts of dead U.S. soldiers and pondered what real war was like as opposed to the mind-stimulating military strategy games I loved to play. At least being an afternoon paper that I delivered after school, it was the warmest and lightest part of some very cold winter days, and when there was precipitation it was snow, which was a lot easier to deal with than rain. And when Mother Nature finally flipped that circuit breaker (that’s what it felt like… suddenly one day winter would feel over) to let it be spring, and the snow changed to rain, I so enjoyed a rainy day that I did not mind too much. I had a big orange poncho with a hood that covered all of me and my bag of folded newspapers. It just took twice as long to walk each one up to a spot by each person’s front door that would stay dry rather than just tossing the thing near the door from the sidewalk.
Though it was a real seven-day-a-week chore always hanging over my head, and I was really bad with my bookkeeping on who had paid me or not, I liked performing this service in the real world and being honored by real adults that I did not otherwise know by being paid when I got up my nerve to knock on their door and ask for my money. I did not feel nor did others treat me like that proverbial “child” anymore, with all its “childish” connotations, when I was doing my route. I had my own money, for my own financial needs, and did not need to get any allowance from my mom, whose money situation was always very tight. As I was reminded each month when she tried her best to triage and pay her bills, always seeming to be made more problematic than normal by some unplanned expense.
In terms of my Greek Chorus on the radio, two of the big songs on the music stations that winter were Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”. The former was just the latest incarnation of those siren songs of love agitating my budding hormones but frustrating me because I was too shy and even timid to act on any of those urges. The bluesey ennui of Redding’s song actually sounded good to me, reminding me of my own family trips to Cape Cod, none of the daily stress I felt having to report to school each morning and try to make it through the day not too beaten down.
The other daily chore, going to school, continued to be discomforting and demanding of most of my psychic energy. For each of eight classes throughout the school day we’d all enter our assigned classroom anticipating the bell in a few minutes. Rather than all my fellow classmates greeting each other warmly (we saw each other every day after all), we eyed each other nervously, maybe a couple of the cool boys would exchange a few words acknowledging each other. I didn’t really have any friends at school. There were a couple of girls that I had had as lab partners in science class that I kind of liked, but I wouldn’t dare initiate a conversation with them in class outside that context for fear that might not want to talk to me, or even if they did, some of the boys might tease me about her being my “girlfriend”. We were all that awkward age and all jammed together and our teachers did nothing to facilitate a positive group dynamic, just went ahead, seemingly cluelessly, presenting their academic curriculum.
In the few minutes between classes or in the lunch room we could congregate a little more naturally with one or two other people rather than thirty some kids in a classroom with everybody in each other’s business. Again, I had no close friends among the thousand other kids at my school, so I would try to find a male acquaintance or two to eat lunch with and at least chat a bit. Or failing that I’d find somewhere to sit alone or next to other kids who were obviously sitting alone. So many of us would leave the lunch line with our tray of food nervously surveying the tables full of kids, quickly doing the social calculus and ruling out table after table because the kids sitting there were older, or younger, or cooler, or less cool, or the other gender, winnowing the options down to hopefully at least one acceptable choice.
Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I think my particular extreme discomfort at the time was a combination, a perfect storm perhaps, of my sensitive empathic nature, my tenuous self-esteem given my parents’ divorce and family circumstances, and the fact that I was still a year younger than the bulk of my classmates, having skipped kindergarten seven years earlier. But the rules of engagement at Tappan Junior High, in the classrooms, the hallways, and the other venues of the school, did nothing to mitigate that discomfort, only made it greater. The adult staff – teachers, principals and others – that ran the place did nothing that I was ever aware of to try to mitigate all our collective discomfort. And certainly us kids had absolutely no input on how we might better engage with each other.
Amidst all the discomfort there was one of my female classmates, in my homeroom and a couple of my classes that I was attracted to and seemed interested in me as well. Her name was Cindy, and she wasn’t one of the cool kids, so not above my station as it were, and she would smile at me every time our eyes met in class. I couldn’t bring myself to actually have a conversation with her with all those other kids in eye and ear shot, though if we somehow had encountered each other more privately I’m sure we would have happily engaged in conversation.
I had braved all my discomfort to go to the eighth grade fall “sock hop” dance in our school’s gymnasium that prior November. I quickly noticed that she was there as well with her best female friend, and felt the twin jolts of excitement and fear. Could I actually bring myself to ask her to dance? And if she said yes and we did, could I survive the guys who might notice and the next school day torment me by asking me if she was my girlfriend?
Determined to ask her, I would hang out close by where she and her friend surveyed the dance floor and talked with each other. She noticed I was there and we might have even waved at each other in acknowledgement. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. She and her friend would move to another part of the gym or maybe go out on the dance floor during one of the more uptempo songs and dance with each other amongst the generally more girls than boys dancing. Each time they relocated I would shadow them like a stalker. The dance was two hour long, from 7 to 9pm, and the clock showed 8:30 and still I fretted in her vicinity, with her and her friend still noticing me occasionally.
Finally my fear of the utter devastation of the dance ending without asking her overwhelmed my fear of asking. She caught my eye again and I forced myself to step toward her and awkwardly blurt out, “Would you like to dance?” She smiled as she always did when we encountered each other and nodded shyly herself. Her friend, who was a bit more gregarious than Cindy, rolled her eyes as if to say “finally!”
Cindy and I danced to several rock and roll numbers played by the band of high school students hired for the dance. We were not touching each other at that point, just moving our bodies to the music facing each other. I had conflicting feelings of both relief and continuing stress. At the end of each song we would stand and clap at the band and wait for the next song to start. I would look around nervously at times to determine who I might know who might be seeing me dancing with her, possibly one of the boys I knew in my neighborhood who might tease me about it later.
And when the next song was a slow one, the band’s cover of “Cherish” by The Association…
Cherish is the word I use to describe
All the feeling that I have
Hiding here for you inside
You don’t know how many times
I’ve wished that I had told you
You don’t know how many times
I’ve wished that I could hold you
She approached me with her hand out and took mine and put her other hand on my shoulder. My other hand went to her waist as I remembered from watching other people slow dance. It was electric touching her waist and feeling the warmth of her flesh encased within her dress. As we started to move to the music she brought herself closer to me, the front of her body just touching mine, her head in the crook of my shoulder, feeling her hair brushing my ear, smelling her scent mixed with perfume.
My mom would later share with me how she and her male friends used to dance in the early 1940s as young adults, bodies engaged, their only socially acceptable alternative to sex. My slow dance with Cindy was just so, innocent to the outside observer, but wildly erotic and sexual to me with my sensitivity and active imagination, and I think at least close to the same for her too. After a seeming eternity that was all too short the song ended, and we disengage our bodies and moved apart and smiled at each other, and she suggested we adjourn to the cafeteria for a soda.
We walked down to the cafeteria with her friend leading the way and the three of us sat and actually talked, with no one I knew around to harass us. In a different world, where we young teens could engage with each other more naturally, Cindy and I could possibly have been boyfriend and girlfriend. But in this school world we inhabited, and Cindy and I both so shy, with so many of us uncomfortable with ourselves and not about to cut our peers any slack, we were doomed. The next school day we were all three back in homeroom together and Cindy’s friend came over and asked me if I was going to talk to Cindy. I could barely even respond to her, let alone actually talk to Cindy right there with twenty some other kids able to watch and even listen. It was so embarrassing.
Cindy and I had not had any encounters since the fall dance, other than the usual smiles when we saw each other. When Valentine’s day came around in February, some kids exchanged cards in school, but not something that I chose to participate in. But Cindy had, and somehow I ended up with a card from her. I don’t remember exactly, but it was probably one of those inexpensive ones on a single unfolded piece of heavy paper stock that you buy in bunches that says something like “Be my valentine!”, and maybe even was unsigned.
I pondered the implications of her giving me this card. Was she just giving one to everybody she knew routinely? Maybe so, but just in case, what if Cindy might be disappointed in me if I did not get her a card. So after I walked home from school I convinced my mom to take me to the store to buy a card and then drive my over to Cindy’s house which was in another part of town. I must have found her address in the phone book. I was too shy to even ring the doorbell, fearing facing a parent rather than her, so I just put the card inside the screen door and my mom took me home. But at least she would know that I had not chosen not to get her a card!
We both ended up going to the spring dance as well. I don’t remember if we both just showed up, or Cindy’s best friend (and social director) asked me if I was going and then passed on to Cindy that I was. This time, as soon as I arrived at the dance she saw me and waved, she with her friend as always, and I came over and we just started dancing, Cindy and I and her friend kind of off to the side. I remember the band, high school kids again I think, covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, a song I recall that was particularly hard to dance to!
Purple haze all around
Don’t know if I’m comin’ up or down
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me
Cindy and I did not know for “spells”, it was just nice to have someone to dance with that wanted to dance with you too. And we had several slow dances before the end of the evening, again getting to experience that physicality of another peer of the gender my emerging libido was tuned to. Again in class in the days after the spring dance, no verbal interaction and just an occasional exchange of smiles, and that was the extent of my relationship with my first, but not quite girlfriend. Whether there was any common ground between us that would have led to us being real friends, I’ll never know!
Transitioning into the second semester, my classes continued to be mostly a matter of sitting and being instructed, taking notes and demonstrating remembering that instruction on the tests. That said, some of the information put forward by my teachers about history, math or science was interesting, particularly my history teacher who had a flair for oral presentation as the “sage on the stage”. But most of the information presented was routinely ingested by me and mostly remembered at least until after the chance to regurgitate it on the test and have that fleeting good student rush. The dynamics of the classrooms were generally routine and passive on the part of us students. We would mostly just sit there and the more academically precocious among us would raise our hands, and when asked, triumphantly supply the answers the teacher was looking for.
Gym class, by its very nature was more active. Though I was as always a year younger than my classmates, I was reasonably good at all the team sports and enjoyed when we played one – football, basketball, soccer or baseball – in class. As a shy kid, being a member of a collaborating team was something I was quite comfortable with and capable of, it was the individual athletic efforts, that were often the class curriculum, that I found discomforting. Whether learning to dive or climb a rope, the exercise would involve one kid at a time in the spotlight being instructed in the skill and attempting to execute it while everyone else watched.
We kids were in an environment where we were constantly being compared with each other and ranked by grades, whether we wanted this or not, which made most of us generally uncomfortable about maybe falling below expectations. A major way of venting that discomfort was to project it on our peers by deriding those among us who were incapable at a particular athletic skill. The classes focused on demonstrating an individual skill were the focus of the worst of this sort of thing. Watching an overweight kid required to try to climb the rope, ideally up to the gym ceiling, but after grunting and groaning getting almost nowhere, and getting derisive laughs and snickers from some of the kids, was profoundly discomforting for me, as I am sure it was for at least some of my peers. It perhaps drove me to try a little harder when it was my turn to get far enough up that rope that I wouldn’t suffer the same derision, but it was a motivation based on fear and stress rather than a positive drive to improve one’s skills relative to one’s own baseline.
Add to this when demonstrating our diving ability, again one at a time, we were encouraged to do our pool classes in the nude (to remove the logistical issue of what to do with all those wet swimsuits after class). This put you doubly on the spot when you were called to climb up on the board, and not only your diving skill (or lack there of) but you’re endowed and pubic hair festooned genitals (or less there of) were on display for even more intimate derision. I think there was more than once that I feigned illness to stay home from school when I knew such a session was scheduled in the pool for gym class.
Compared with gym class, concert band class was always a team sport, its ever collaborative nature made it more appealing, plus when we had to demonstrate individual prowess like doing scales for our teacher, they were done in a small soundproof music room with only the teacher in earshot. My saxaphone section would occasionally have a “solo”, but it was all three or four of us playing in unison, so if one of us was a bit off, the exact perpetrator was a bit disguised. Also the continuing learning about musical notation and structure I found an intriguing esoteric knowledge set. The grind of band class was not the playing together but the practicing at home by oneself and the lugging of the instrument to school and back each day, particularly on a cold hand numbing day
Two of my least favorite classes that year were English and speech. My English curriculum that year was mostly grammar, and our teacher, Mrs Peterson, was a particularly and unapologetically old school practitioner of “drill and kill”. Actually learning the mechanics of our language’s sentence structure was somewhat intriguing for me, particularly because I was also learning musical structure in parallel in band class. But her class seemed an endless series of worksheets labeling various parts of speech, taking the exercise way beyond the point of its conceptual interest.
Speech class was kind of like the worst of gym class, in terms of having to individually get up in front of your peers every few weeks and give a speech on some subject or following some form not of your choosing. (At least unlike diving, we weren’t doing it naked!) Again, if our teacher, Mrs Powrie, could have facilitated a more collaborative and supporting environment among the students to support and encourage each other that would be one thing, but that was not the case. Most of the time when someone was on the spot up in front of the class half the audience was bored and uninterested in what the speaker was presenting, and Mrs Powrie occasionally chiding someone to pay attention while you were speaking did not really help at all, just reinforced that you were boring.
But about a month into the second semester, we showed up in speech class and there was a somewhat dashing young adult in his late twenties up at the head of the classroom busying himself figuring out where various supplies were in the teacher’s desk and smiling at us as we entered the room. He introduced himself as Mr. Harrah, but asked us to call him Michael. He informed us that Mrs. Powrie had had a heart attack and would be out for the rest of the year. Michael would turn out to be a most significant player in the next ten years of my life, but for now he was anything but Mrs Powrie, and as such a relief.
Michael told us that by interest and experience he was primarily a teacher of theater arts and stagecraft, but as a substitute teacher had been called in to replace Mrs Powrie for the rest of the year. As such he was going to focus the next six weeks of class on theater arts including group projects performing scenes from plays.
We did various warm up exercises around relaxing our bodies, expressing emotions with those bodies and learning to project when we spoke. I recall one day in class Michael brought two big Medieval broadswords (with dulled points and edges for stage work) and had us all take turns doing a choreographed sword fighting scene with him. He taught us how to thrust, parry and block, and how to make it look from the audience point of view that you had been stabbed.
He had us divide ourselves up into groups of four or five, and told each group to pick a scene from a play to perform. Since most of us had little or no experience with theater, he worked with each group to see whether there was a consensus to do something comic, dramatic, or even musical. He convinced my group of five males to do the “Officer Krupke” scene and song from the musical West Side Story, where members of the Jets gang blow off steam in an off moment by derisively lampooning the police and the juvenile justice system that they as “juvenile delinquents” got repeatedly dragged through.
I was probably the shyest and least willing to sing of the group, so I played the part of Snowboy (the coked-out druggie) who pretends to be the neighborhood cop on the beat, Sergeant Krupke, and had the smallest and only non-singing part. One of our group agreed to play Action, who had the biggest part playing the hard-boiled delinquent kid with his story of woe. The other three of our group pretend to be the three functionaries in the system – the judge, the psychiatrist, and the social worker – that the delinquent kid gets passed off to trying unsuccessfully to straighten him out. It was the perfect scene for five boys (with one unwilling to sing) since it gave each of us a moment to solo as part of the ensemble effort.
ALL: (Sung) There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!
SNOWBOY: (Spoken) That’s a touchin’ good story.
ACTION: (Spoken) Lemme tell it to the world!
SNOWBOY: (Spoken) Just tell it to the judge.
ACTION: (Sung) Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!
We rehearsed for several weeks in class, with Michael managing to bring a piano into our classroom (which he played only passably) for our rehearsals and eventual performance in an assembly in front of several hundred of our fellow students. Michael worked with the other groups of our other classmates in turn helping them rehearse their scenes. The dynamic of it was completely different than my other classroom work. We were actually creating something real! Real in the sense that it would actually be performed in front of a real audience that might actually draw some pleasure and thought from watching it. Rather than turning in your work to your teacher for your grade and that was the end of it.
The day came for our class’ show in front of the auditorium filled with our peers, all raucous and talking and being shushed by their teachers. I was nervous, but I discovered that day that my version of stage fright was to go into a kind of shock where I was imbued with a sort of hyper calm. Michael introduced the program and each of our scenes. When it came time for ours, he did his intro then took his place at the piano to pound out the chords we would sing to.
We delivered our lines and sang our parts pretty well, with approving laughs and applause from the audience. It was the first time I had ever done something like this in front of more than a couple people. Up there with my peers, and I only having to carry my small part of the load like in a team sport, I felt okay, even a bit exhilarated. I did not realize it immediately, but it had planted a thespian seed in me that would stay dormant for a year but sprout soon after that.
Though our dad had moved 200 miles south to the small town of Xenia in southern Ohio, he would still come up at least once a month on Friday afternoon and take us down to stay with him for the weekend. He would get colleagues to cover his Friday afternoon classes, and I would get someone to do my paper route on Saturday. After an early lunch he would make the four-hour drive from Xenia to Ann Arbor, and after I had completed my paper route he would load my brother and I in his Plymouth Barracuda, and drive us the four hours back. We would spend Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning with him, then after an early lunch on Sunday, drive us back to Ann Arbor and return to Xenia that evening. All told 16 hours of driving to spend a day and a half with us. At the time, I don’t think I appreciated the commitment involved in making this effort, at least once a month, pretty much twelve month a year for the next eight or nine years, until both my brother and I had gone off to college.
The drive down to Xenia together was often the high point of the whole weekend. Whatever was going on in his own life, or between he and our mom, he was always glad to see us and energized by having us with him. That gladness was important to two kids from what society conventionally called a “broken” home. We were generally glad to see him as well and get to spend a weekend away from our mom and all her drama. Part of the ritual of the trip down was stopping for dinner at some sort of fast-food place once we entered northern Ohio. We all three were fast-food junkies, and for the first hour of the trip leaving Michigan we would discuss and decide on which restaurant we would stop at, either a returning favorite or a new discovery.
Beyond the logistics of dinner, and any potential plans for the weekend, our dad continued to be not much of a conversationalist. But my brother and I would invariably get into conversations with each other, about sport teams, slot cars, or our various ongoing fantasy narratives we concocted around super-heroes or around other wild fantasies we would think up. Our dad enjoyed, I think, just listening to the two of us share our analysis or spin our tales together.
For example, one of our favorite kill time in the car games was a circular fantasy narrative we called “Steam Bath”. The game revolved around an imaginary spa with one of those personal saunas that looks like a washing machine with doors in the front plus a hole for your neck that you sit inside with your head protruding from the top. It involved my brother’s character being lured into one of those machines (which we had seen in movies, TV shows and cartoons but never in real life) that gave your body a sort of personal sauna. Invariably, the device would malfunction, not letting the encased person escape, and then build to a crescendo of pressure and explode, killing the occupant.
First in the alive state, his character would be lured into the steam bath by some marketing pitch delivered by me playing the robotic voice of the device itself. Then after the inevitable malfunction and explosion, He would transition from being alive to being in heaven. Amazingly enough, as you enjoyed this wonderful new heavenly environ, there would be another steam bath that would lure you into it and, or course, again malfunction. The subsequent explosion would move you from heaven to hell, where you would desperately look for and hopefully eventually find yet another malfunctioning steam bath to kill you back to being alive again. The fun of the game was the ever ratcheting up of the verbiage and other incentives that would lure his character into yet another steam bath in the live world or heaven or his own fast talking to get himself into a malfunctioning steam bath in hell.
After arriving at my dad’s apartment, the weekend was spent doing a lot of TV watching, particularly any sports – baseball, football, basketball or hockey – whatever was in season at the time – or TV action or sci-fi shows. Saturday morning sleeping in followed by going out for breakfast or maybe lunch, maybe some grocery shopping, followed by an afternoon playing baseball, football, basketball or tennis, depending again on the time of year. Occasionally we would venture a drive down to Cincinnati to see a Red’s (baseball) or Royal’s (basketball) game on Saturday night, or got to a drive-in double feature of monster movies. Those times when my brother and I were playing with each other or otherwise occupied, he would take the opportunity to grade his students’ papers or otherwise prepare for his classes on Monday.
The whole ritual of those weekends was repeated so many times that it is still burned into my memory some 40 years later. It was our dad that believed that life was a great adventure, though he never said it in so many words. Though each weekend stuck mostly to a routine, the Saturdays could find us playing tennis or basketball at a different park, playing a pick up baseball game in the field behind his house, playing racquetball at the Antioch College gymnasium (where he taught a few classes beyond his full-time position at Wilberforce), watching the Cincinnati Reds play at old Crosley Field or even venturing on a road trip to find some funky miniature golf course or a movie playing at a drive-in in the next town over.
Sunday morning would come and after a late breakfast out, the long 200 trip north back to Ann Arbor. We’d get home in the early afternoon, and I would do my paper route, but our dad would then have the final four-hour drive back to Xenia by himself.
In early May each year, once Mother Nature was fully done with any last flights of winter and fully transitioned to spring, Burns Park had an “Ice Cream Social” which drew adults and kids from all over the neighborhood. After having our fill of ice cream I was drawn over to one of my friends’ houses to see his new “minibike”. These were very small motor bikes that were the rage at the time for dads to get their sons, only about two feet tall and just barely large enough to sit on and ride. My friend had just gotten one and wanted to show it off to all the rest of us envious peers. As we all watched with due acknowledgement that this was the coolest thing ever, he rode it up and down the street in front of his house. Then he offered each one of us assembled a chance to try it. Each of us took our turn riding it up and down in front of his house.
When it came to my turn, I squatted on the thing, turned the throttle on the handlebar and it jumped awkwardly forward and a bit sideways and I felt a brief burning sensation in my right ankle. I looked down and apparently the flywheel of the bike had gone through my sock and torn a two inch hole in my ankle. There were no adults around, and all the kids assembled were dumbfounded. I must have immediately gone into shock, because that hyper calm came over me again along with a surreal sense that there was this gaping hole in my ankle but no pain or real bleeding. I got off the bike and ran the short block home, which amazingly I could still do. When I got up on our front porch I opened our front door yelling up to my mom that I had cut myself real bad. This was the era before 911 so I’m not sure who my mom actually called, but a police car pulled up and the two officers actually picked me up in my sitting position, put me in the backseat of their cruiser and took me to the hospital emergency room.
The hospital sewed me up and put my leg in a cast and sent me home with crutches to help me walk and not put weight on that leg until the cast came off in six weeks. At my best physically with no disability to put me on any of my peers’ radar, it was stressful enough going to school. Hobbling around school on crutches with everyone’s eyes on me when I was not at my best was way more than I could handle. With just a little more than a month left in the school year, I told my mom I did not want to go back to school. Given her “bright kids will tell you what they need” policy, and seeing me always as a bright kid, she assented, and worked out with my school to pick up my homework once a week. We also somehow managed to find someone to do my paper route for a month, but I have no recollection now of how or who.
It was a strange month for me, a kind of purgatory. I was relieved not to have to go to school each weekday morning, but I was not on vacation either. That vital and even intoxicating spring air with the sound of chirping birds would draw me to go outside and play, but I had a cast on my leg for one, plus I was supposed to be in school. As a shy person I had a strong sense of propriety, so to even go outside during what would be school hours felt heretical, like our neighbors would see me somewhere I didn’t belong and my mom and I would somehow get in trouble. And even inside the house I was concerned about what my mom would think if I did not spend the hours from eight to three “studying”. Into my eighth consecutive year of reporting to the local educational institution each school day, I had by now completely internalized that I wasn’t where I belonged.
My natural urge always was to play, even if not able to do so physically because of my injury. To take my tiny (~¾ inch tall) toy soldiers outside and set them up amongst the dirt, stones and ground cover in our front yard, and play out some narrative of an assault on a fortified position. To set up and play my recently bought Avalon Hill game, 1914, simulating the German invasion of France in World War I. To read my DC and Marvel super-hero comics or one of the pulp sci-fi books I loved like Edgar Rice Burroughs A Fighting Man of Mars, or Edward Smith’s First Lensmen. To build an even more complicated multi-level race track for my slot cars to run on.
But instead I mostly stayed inside during the day, and to not tempt fate dutifully did my “seat time” at the table in my room that served as my desk, looking out my window across the park to my old elementary school, seeing all the kids out for recess or gym class running and shouting and playing. I did the assigned reading in my textbooks, did my worksheets, quizzes and writing assignments. And even after school hours when my peers were outside playing I stayed mostly in the house, not comfortable to be seen hobbling around on crutches, and not wanting to answer any questions as to why I was not in school.
The final day of school came with a more subdued sense of relief, but with some nagging guilt that I had not fully done my time, which made this yearly transition to summer vacation not quite so liberating, having not done my full penance for my cherished reward. I was at least grateful that I would not be participating in that yearbook signing ritual on the last day of school, remembering that discomforting event last year. And after getting my grades in the mail, indicating my teachers had given me a break and not marked me down for that last missed month, I felt more sanguine that I could close the books (as it were) on my eighth grade school year and get back to leading my self-directed life, as best I could.
As I hobbled through that May and June my Greek Chorus sirens blared out at me from the Detroit rock radio station WABX-FM…
Leave your cares behind come with us and find
The pleasures of a journey to the center of the mind
Beyond the seas of thought beyond the realm of what
Across the streams of hopes and dreams where things are really not
You might not come back
I longed to take that journey, whatever the hell it was, where “fantasy is fact”, but I knew next fall I would duly report for my third and last year at Tappan Junior High. But my cast was coming off, and at least for the next ten weeks, my life would be my own again.
Listening to The Amboy Dukes’ psychedelic 1968 hit today, it sounds pretty cliched and pretentious, but still gives me goosepimples. (A decade later the Ramones covered the song beautifully, there unabashed and unpretentious lampoony punk minimalism just the touch the song needs!)