A Sentimental Look Back at My High School – And It’s All Made Famous in a Movie

One of the indulgences of being a middle aged blogger like myself, is that I get to reminisce on the “good old days” as much as I wish. (Although some of those old days were definitely not “good.”)

While I would have liked to crawl into a hole and hide during my entire awkward junior high career, the opposite is true of my high school experience. I was visible, I was out there, I was having great fun. I was there to have the time of my life and not look back and ask “What if?”

Although I was not with the “popular” crowd, I found dear, wonderful good friends and some were very high profile – cheerleaders, prom queen, all who specifically chose not to hang with a “crowd.” I called these types free agents, and like me, they were able to befriend anyone they cared to befriend, without fear of being ostracized by their group, and without fear someone would mock their choice of friends. (Those who hung with a “pack” had a pack mentality.)

I was busy, active, happy, dating, (and then in love) and had plenty of friends and activities, all while maintaining decent (though not stellar) grades and winning an award for my volunteer service to my school. I was still unformed, still blossoming, still developing in every way. My metamorphosis (as some – Bobby C and Larry B later referred to my going from barely passing average to very attractive) was still underway and my self-esteem was poor. This was at a time when counselors at school added to that insecure baggage because they were not as evolved as the modern day counselors, and their motivation to help was severely lacking.

The particular horrors of the general attitude by staff or counselors for insecure kids like me at my high school was well played out in a famous (or infamous) documentary at the time. (1968) The film, called High School, was done by observational documentarian Frederick Wiseman. He chose my high school, called Northeast High School – part of the School District of Philadelphia, because it was urban, yet suburban in feel. It was considered one of the best in the city. He wanted a neighborhood where families were middle class but striving to be upwardly mobile. Nothing could have described my high school better than that.

We all lived in row homes, duplexes or twins. (Except for the more suburban kids who lied about their addresses to attend one of the best high schools in the city.) As one of my neighborhood kids who grew up to be somewhat of an intellectual says, it was a ghetto of sorts, but one that put on airs. We were better than others, even within our brick, tiny row homes. There was working class, and upper middle class professionals. The further north you went in the high school boundaries, the more affluent the families were, and the more obvious who were the “haves” and who were the “have nots.” Elegant catered sweet sixteen parties for the haves, nothing more than pizza parties for the have nots. New cars were common comforts for the haves – my ride to school was in a brand new Firebird my junior year- thank you H, and then a gorgeous Mustang convertible my senior year – thank you Joy!

Note: the reason my friend called it a ghetto, was because for many of us, it was such a self-contained environment, most of us knew no further boundaries. We had schools, synagogues, shopping, restaurants, and rarely had to venture further away – we were a minority group kind of self-contained there.

Getting back to the film,  I will link it on Vimeo here in it’s entirety, and you can see the whole thing. It is fascinating. Boy were they able to get away with things they could NEVER do today.

Note that the documentary was filmed in Spring 1968, and I first stepped foot in the building as a tenth grader in the fall of 1969, not much later. So it is a very accurate depiction of not only what our high school looked like at the time, but what our neighborhood looked like, and what the students looked like. (Backs of houses on the more expensive “twin” homes were panned at the beginning of the film.)

PLEASE NOTE: in 1970, the school district first allowed girls to wear pants, and then jeans to school. You will note in this documentary, which took place before that time shows girls exclusively in dresses or skirts. Since this edict came down in my sophomore year, I spent my high school years in jeans, occasionally wearing nicer clothes. You will see none of that just two years before in this film. I am a savant in years and memories, and remember the exact year and time that this important rule change happened because before that, I only wore skirts and dresses to school as well. Also, if you watch the film you will see the awful gym suits that we had to wear for each “gym class.” (Not known as PE then.)

Some complain that the perspective is skewed in this film to make the school seem uncaring and unfriendly, especially on the part of the staff. It could definitely be THAT place, though in my experience, I had more good experiences than bad ones as a result of staff and faculty.

Cora Hurwitz, the college counselor, was a bit of a problem. She is depicted in the documentary, but it did not show her nearly as mean as she could be. Her famous expression was, “You are not college material.” She left a scar on so many, there is a discussion group on Facebook about the damage she caused, with story after story of people going on to college despite her bleak forecast, and becoming a huge success. There is even a band of guys around my age, who call themselves “Not Collidge Material” (purposely misspelled as Cora thought they were dumb.)

Dean Allen is well remembered and he is depicted as the tough guy he was, however, most of us who towed the line never had a single run-in with him.

Most of the teachers and administrators in the film were still there when I attended, making the film very special to me as it captures that time and place. The Home EC teacher with glasses telling girls how to walk and telling them their legs were fat (in prep for the student creations fashion show from her sewing class) was so mean to me, yelling at me my entire sophomore year because I could not machine sew a pattern to save my life. She actually was as bad as depicted.

I remember most of my teachers liking me greatly, motivating the underachieving me, with many making me their class pet. Thanks Mrs. Hall, of blessed memory, Mrs. Corson (who let me run the attendance and all of her errands making others hate me for it.) saw my value and intelligence and pushed me to succeed. I give some of them credit for my later success.  Mrs. Grabar encouraged me to keep writing, (I only wrote in English class and in a diary back then) and amazingly I became an internationally published journalist!

My Algebra teacher, a young hunky guy named Howard Friedman who looked like Ryan O’Neal, was easy to flirt with and sweet talk into a better grade.

My PE teacher, Miss Scott, in my first year, saw my athletic potential and made me a gym leader, a prestigious position where we were given the privilege of marking grades for apparatus and events. (I never had so many friends in my life after that status upgrade: “Arlene, could you please pass me on the ropes – there is no way I will ever be able to climb that thing and pass? Please? We’ll be friends for life if you do!”) I marked attendance too, so anyone who wanted to cut, only had to befriend me.

For someone slightly dorky, the above was a real bonus for making friends and I got some terrific, true-blue lifelong friends out of that deal. 

On the negative side, in the film you can see my English teacher, who was a joke, (too many stories to go into) Miss Sommar read “Casey at the Bat” in the film, in her cringeworthy Philly accent. (Hi Renee!) Typing class horrors of timed tests! Manual typewriters with erasers! (Hi Harvey S!) This movie featured most of the classes as mind numbing, and many were. Thank goodness for note passing entertainment, and class clowns. (Thanks Barb S, Richie S, Brad Mirkin OBM)

Aside from class clowns, we had the hippies, the druggies, the class leaders, (Hi Jackie!) the band kids, the sluts, the brightest kids of the poorer neighborhoods bussed in, the athletes, the artists, the populars, the cheerleaders, (Hi Pattie xo) the pretty girls, (too many to count in this particular school – in fact guys used to drive up from other neighborhoods to meet us) the bad boys, (and girls) and the slackers just like every other school. We had the geniuses, most of who were enrolled in a space/science program called SPARC.

I defied categorization though, and I was a free agent as well. The best way to describe me was goofy – with a lot of outgoing, joie d’vivre personality. I was friendly, talkative, and very immature due to a very late puberty. Fortunately I found very mature friends by senior year, and I tried to emulate them.

In other words, though my high school had it’s faults, it was a truly a microcosm of society, except for the fact that it was probably 80 percent Jewish, with probably half the teachers being Jewish too. (As an example, each and every cheerleader on our school squad in my senior year was Jewish – all fourteen of them.)

Every once in a while, some random memory will pop into my head from high school, and I will be amused for hours from it. For example, I was on the Dance Team at school and during my junior year, boys were allowed on it, in a manly role of course to lift the girls and such. (This was the early 70’s where gender roles were clearly defined.)  The guys who were on it had a definite agenda – to be around pretty girls in various states of undress or leotards. One guy, Danny I., who was a friend, was a real wise guy kind of kid, and I recently connected with him on the memory of how he must have loved touching us during those dances! He admitted as much and also admitted he joined to be near his crush. (Hi Janey – see you this summer in Margate!) I spent part of that day very amused at that memory.

As you can see, via Facebook and by visiting the beach town each summer near where I grew up, I can stay in touch with loads of people from high school – I love doing this. I really revere those years and all the people in it – because I really only dwell on the good memories from that era.

So, although the time and place and fashion and mentality is accurate– if you watch the documentary High School I linked (and by the way Frederick Wiseman was just recently given an honorary Oscar for his documentary work) you will see a somewhat biased account of how it really was. Although it had many flaws, it was really so much better than depicted. It was the place where any of us; nerd, popular, and average learners and geniuses alike, could produce mostly very happy, sweet, and nostalgic memories.

20 comments

  • Thank you for leading me to this wonderful movie. I am sorry that I never heard about it before.
    Brought back instant memories of the good times.
    Thank you, Paul

  • Farryl Hoffman Cohen

    I remember those NEHS years. Also not “a college kid”. I went to Penn State, got a Retail/Merchandising degree and was an excellent worker out of the classroom and the youngest buyer at Gimbels and Lits.
    I remember Cora Horowitz for her resting bitch face and negative attitude, but can’t remember any teachers except for Miss Feldenkreis , my typing teacher. I was always screwing up my typing tests but I do very well on my keyboard.
    I also did very well in breakfast during 1st and 2nd period, at Country Club Diner.
    Thanks for the memories and the great blog. The class of 129 girls have been meeting every 5 years for our special birthdays and they fall between our reunions. We usually get between 50-60 girls and they come as far as California. It was a great way to grow up.

  • Your experience was SO different from my own! I lived in that more affluent neighborhood to which you referred. Everyone went to George Washington High School,except me. I went to Girl’s High because my mom liked the education my brother got from Central. The schools were segregated by sex. Girl’s High, at the time, was considered only 2nd to Central as far as top Philly schools. I hated my high school experience. I always had stomach aches because I was afraid I would suffer the wrath of many (not all) teachers if I gave the wrong answer. I hardly ever raised my hand. I only went on blind dates, but manage to go to my Soph Hop, and Jr. and Sr. proms as well as the coveted, Central Prom. I spent all my time in the evenings, studying and my lunchtime, mastering ping-pong. I enjoyed the diverse population of the school, because I had friends of color from all over the city. My closest friends were in my bus group. I regretted going to this is college-bound-only, academic school. I felt if I had more experience being in a coed school, I would have gotten over my shyness and prudish ways around boys and most certainly would not have looked twice at the boy I met in my sophomore year of college and married after graduation! This story has a good ending because fortunately I blossomed during my freshman year at college. I raised my hand all the time and loved my college experience. I discovered boys found me attractive and would actually ask me out! I decided to become a teacher because I saw what good teachers do to motivate and knew what I would never do to those in my charge. I was not afraid to walk, take public transportation, or teach anywhere in the city (that was a plus from my inner city university as well as my multi-cultural high school experience.) And best of all I got the two most amazing, loving, bright, children who are married, hold wonderful jobs, are good people. And, they have given me 4 beautiful grandchildren… all this from a man I never should have married!

    • What a well thought out and informative response. I did not assert myself in Jr. High and regretted it so I did not want to do that in HS. It was a great time for me.
      And you do have fabulous children!

  • I love this recollection of our time in high school! Quite the memory you have!

  • I have many more stories about that place though I don”t have the detailed memory of it that you had and had a far different experience there than you did.
    You haven’t mentioned some of the strangest and most interesting things and characters in that place, though I have had experience with that college counselor, who told me I would never go to college. Three graduate degrees later, I had the last laugh.
    The most unusual aspects of that school were the astronaut training program and the languages the school offered. I took Russian, French, and Swahili.
    Then there were security guards, rejects from Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia Police Force, who planted drugs in students’ lockers and stood around watching bullying and fights without intervening.
    Great place.

    • I did mention SPARC for the geniuses. I do not remember the police and the drugs. I guess I was naive. But how many bright people did Cora discourage? It is ridiculous!

  • Fabulous story and recollection of events ! Things really changed in the early 70’s though , we sat on the law ,had long hair and fringe everywhere, wore peace signs and ate at Country Club Diner . Dean Allen was tough but he was very friendly towards me
    I especially liked that the boy walked out of class rather than being a scapegoat , reminded me of myself walking out of MIss Levins class , she should have retired she was a meany and that math teacher Howard Friedman thought he was special ,he was a narcissist
    Mostly they were good times !

  • I was a senior at Northeast High School in 1968. Speaking of typing, students who were in the “College Preparatory” academic program were not given an option to take typing, or driver training. Instead, we were assigned three or four periods of “gym” per week. Northeast, as opposed to most other high schools, did not even give anyone a break by having “study hall” periods. Even Central High (the “top” school for males in the city at the time), had study hall periods, during which the library was available and homework could be researched and (perhaps, even) done.

    • Interesting because when I was a senior, I was in the academic, college bound track and I was allowed to take typing as an elective. I did appreciate it in college for those term papers.

  • This is clearly a clear and accurate depiction of both the film and our lives at the time. It was my senior year when the film was made at Northeast. The teachers were actually meaner than shown in the film. They must have considered themselves on their “best behavior” during the filming. Imagine the rest of the time…

  • Shellie portnoy

    I love this. So true and such happy memories for me.

  • Barbara Shubin Saltzmann

    Enjoyed reading tbis. Glad I kept you iin good humor. Can’t believe we left 45 years ago.

  • Ahhhh dance club. And I remember much of who and what u wrote about. Good article. Now onto the film

  • Great memories, thanks Arlene! I guess I was one of the few, that lived in a single home!! In my senior year, I bought a 1969 Ford Mustang and loved that car! I will have to check out the film and share with my brothers who were there in 1968.

  • What a trip back in time! I grew up in Bridgewater/Somerville and summered at Asbury Beach and down the shore locales. Bruce Springsteen was just one of the crowd of neat guys. Your story awakens memories.

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