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.