Monday, August 25, 2008

The New Class Struggle

Before I continue my story I should correct a few minor issues that my beloved readers noted.  First, that first year GRHS was only a Junior HS and the sending districts sent 7, 8, & 9 graders.  After their 9th grade year was up they moved onto Woodbury HS.  Second, apparently, in Wenonah at least, you could choose either Woodbury or Pitman HS.  Bob Thomas reports that in the case of one of his neighbors two siblings elected to go to different high schools.

But to get back to the matter at hand.  We were to be divided in classes in our new found school  As I mentioned I was in 7C.  Naturally that means there was a 7A, 7B, 7D…and on to 7F.  Similarly in 8th grade.  We were also nominally assigned to homerooms based on our last names.  The classes were divided based on tests we’d been given over the years, teacher evaluations, etc.  7C and 7E were college prep.  The others…maybe not.  Initially we were only vaguely aware of this structure but over the years it would become more and more apparent.  This would have positive and negative consequences but mostly it meant smart kids and geeks hung with smart kids and geeks and greasers hung with greasers and jocks with jocks.  The only time we all got mixed together was in the halls, the cafeteria, the auditorium, and gym class.  This would have dire consequences for me in particular.  

But more than my personal difficulties with the various groups of young men and women who had suddenly become my classmates there was the fracturing of long standing friendships from our old schools.  Kids who once were my dearest friends found other, cooler, friends.  Kids I barely paid attention to became my new friends.  The small, close knit world of Wenonah Elementary was shattered.  If I was smarter or more worldly or braver this would have been a time to reinvent myself.  Instead, inside I was still Wacky Jiler, the Rough Tough Creampuff, and I was certain everyone in this new school knew it as well as my friends knew it.  I was scrawny with a stupid haircut and clothes from G. Wayne Post's or Sears.  I was fucked.  And like every other knuckleheaded teenager I had no idea everyone else felt the same way.  Of course, even if I did I wouldn't have the balls to use it in any intelligent, thoughtful way.  Self knowledge for teenagers is not always a good thing.  That's why football heroes act like arrogant assholes.  Or why geeky nerds trudge the halls with their heads down hoping no one notices.  It's dangerous to be noticed sometimes.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bluebird Buses and Me

The crisp smell in the air. The morning a little darker. The trip to Pitman to pick out our school clothes. The sure and perfect signs we were going to school. And we were. To Gateway Regional High School. Woodbury High School was too small to accommodate the children of the baby boom and thus was born GRHS. Woodbury Heights, National Park, Westville, and Wenonah all sent their children to GRHS. If memory served the first classes were just 7th and 8th graders. We would be the first classes to go elsewhere; our parents had all gone to Woodbury HS but we would be part of the new generation. We were a little social experiment.
For the little knuckleheads from Wenonah it was to be our first bus ride to school. Our first interactions with the larger world. Our first time out of the little world we grew up in. We got our class assignments, our instructions on how to get on the bus and then on the first Tuesday after Labor Day we got on the bus. A Bluebird yellow school bus.
We boarded our bus at the corner of Jefferson and Mantua Avenue. In the beginning my friends came to our house first and then on to the bus. That would end soon. The bus took us up Mantua, made a left on Glassboro Rd and then a right through Deptford, past the pig farms, till at last we reached our mostly completed school. I say mostly because the auditorium, the auto shop, and the gym were not yet complete. They would be soon but we had to go to school so fuck it.
We ate in the cafeteria. Thirty five cents bought you a lunch and a milk. A dime bought an ice cream sandwich. There was no soda or salad or ice tea. Just lunch and milk.
It was all very exciting. I was assigned to class 7C. I was to stay in that class for most of my HS life. I can remember most of my fellow classmates by alphabetical order because i heard it time and time again. My memory begins at the L's. Lundquist, Maddox, Parker, Percival, Springer, Stens, Trocolli, Wernig, Williams, Wiler, Zahn. I'm sure I've fucked it up and someone out there will correct me. As they should. Lora Banks, John Camp,and all the others before Gary Lundquist are lost to the fog of memory. But we were all joined together in this great experiment. Separated by some weird system based on intelligence and personality that was established by tests we didn't even realize we were taking. Little lab rats in madras shirts and khaki pants sitting in neat little rows waiting to learn the new facts of life. And we would. And we would.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sweet days of summer

Okay, they're not always sweet. But this summer, the summer of 1964, the summer before we entered Gateway Regional High School was my last blissful summer. Summer in Wenonah was always rich. But also filled with dread and the sure knowledge school was coming. Wenonah summers are hot and humid. Sometimes it feels like you're walking around in a swimming pool with trees in it. We returned from California ready for the rest of the summer and like all rest of the summers it stretched wide before us.
We could go to the pool, or ride our bikes, or play guns, or kick the can, or the Gun Game, but either way there were a million things to do. And we did them but by mid-August time had shifted into a weird sort of warp. On the one hand it was rushing forward with a terrible pace bringing the fall and school with it. On the other hand it had slowed to a near crawl. We'd exhausted all the fun in the world and nothing was left except Risk and Monopoly.
Oh, sure, we got to vote on the name of the new Gateway athletic teams. The mascot. Woodbury was "The Thundering Herd", Deptford was the "Spartans", West Deptford the "Eagles" and we became for reasons I've never, ever understood, the "Gators". For some insane reason alliteration triumphed over location, desire, and anything remotely related to the idea of a school mascot. "Hoyas" makes more sense than "Gators" (a little snide nudge at Lundquist there). There are no alligators in South Jersey. Maybe the occasional rattler or water moccasin, or garter snake. some toads and frogs. Box turtles. Catfish and sunnys and carp. But alligators? You'd have to go to South Carolina to just see one. We were bummed. What about the Jersey Devil, or the Gladiators?
"The Gateway Gators" with some natty little cartoon of a gator for us to stare at blankly.
After that it was just a waiting game.
A waiting game spent on my porch with Mick and Sam Stewart and Chris DeHart and Terry Fleming and Gary Condell. A waiting game spent conquering the world or else taking over the now decrepit Atlantic City. Sure, we fucked with the games. We combined two, three Risk games to create huge amounts of available armies. We also used rules from Chris' original Risk which decreed each throw of the dice killed but one army. This insured epic, lengthy, battles.
We did the same with Monopoly. Bags of money were everywhere, like in the Hague administration in Jersey City. Hotels sat two and three high on a property. We played on, we played on.
My brother Mick, for some stupid reason, always tried to take Asia. Gary Condell was in love with America. Me, I preferred to take Australia and stack up box after box of armies waiting for armageddon. And it would come, it would come. Then, when I'd exhausted my opponents armies I'd sweep out across the board and ruin everyone's dreams. We'd begin again. Broken and bruised but ready to battle for days, weeks, even if that's what it took.
And it did. The games sat on the porch day after day waiting for us to hunker down, pick up the dice, and launch our evil little dreams.
Risk is a game where everyone eventually ends up hating everyone else. No other game elicits the deep level of personal hate that this game does. It was like taking some evil drug everyday for weeks.
Years later I taught a poetry group consisting of teachers. One of the teachers wrote a poem about a game of Risk between herself, her new boyfriend, and a newlywed couple. At the end of the game the wife is sobbing in another room, her boyfriend storms out to buy cigarettes and she and the husband share a brief sexual interlude. The last line was "I was Queen of the World". Indeed.
We battled and schemed and waited. Waited for the doors to open in our brand new school. Waited to meet the dozens of strangers from the four sending districts. Waited for the unknown. It would come. It would come. Till then my armies are massed in Indonesia for a final battle against Gary Condell and the Asian hordes.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Walking the Boards

So, in theory I'm done for awhile with this acting thing. With this play. With my past. What does that mean exactly? I don't know. I know that each time I do it I'm seduced by the freedoms of memorization. I know that each time I do it I sense the power of the things I said another way and enjoy the saying of those things. People after the last performance praised the 'authenticity of my performance". What is that?
As a poet I know what I've left out. Here are some nurse Maria, the man who brought my meals, Ron, the woman from visiting nurses, Caroline. What I've left out is their deep commitment to my return to health. No. To my acknowledgement of illness and the ways we return to health. I leave them out all the time. As though they were never there. I slight my brothers and my father and my mother and my sister and my friends. It's always about me and my indominatable spirit. Hah.
It was my selfishness that impeded my return to the world and it was their unselfish love that allowed my return. I acknowledge my fears and weaknesses but not the fears and weaknesses of my friends and family and nurses and doctors.
Let me say this. It is easy to get up in front of people and say you almost died. It is much harder to hold that person up. And hold me up they did. Cranky and angry and sad and difficult as I was they comforted me and gave me courage and strength.
I think this is a way of looking at your life. We think we blunder through the world alone. We don't. The whole time there is a web of kindness that keeps us whole.
So what.
So you should sing their praises and worship their weaknesses and strengths and give them the knowledge they saved you. As they will save others. As you must save others. As we all do, almost by accident everyday.
God Bless those who saved me. God Bless those who never knew.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Frost Place

I've just returned from Franconia, NH and the Frost Place. I spent three wonderful days talking about poetry, arguing about poetry, and yelling about poetry. It was marvelous. I drove up with Cat Doty and we yakked for hours. I don't think I stopped yakking till I got home to Johanna.
If you're a poet and you value words then you should go to the Frost Place at least once for their Festival of Poetry. It's a gas. Plus you get to hang out at Robert Frost's house and listen for ghosts.
Now it's back to killing bugs and talking to rich people about mice. Life is hell. If any of you have the time or inclination I'd love to see you at one of the performances of my one man this case only one night is me. The rest is young people pretending to be me. And doing it well.
Life can be scary but life is never dull.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ventura on my Mind

Well, we arrived in Ventura, safe & sound. But in my case, angry. Angry at my haircut, angry at my parents, angry, pretty much, at the universe.
My aunt lived in a new development that butted up to lemon groves. She was happy, married, with new hip California friends. Instead of calling her Gert for Gertrude they called her Gigi.
She also had way better tv stations than us and this was to prove my escape. Instead of visiting stupid mission churches I'd stay home and watch movies. No messy human interaction, no one to see my crewcut, my uncool self.
Of course, my standards dropped when it came to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm, but all rules are made to be broken. Even mine.
At Disneyland Ted got a Derby hat which made him adorably, insufferably cute. At a surfing tournament he was besieged by young (girl) reporters. My blood boiled.
We did find that skateboarding was much easier here than in Wenonah. No gravel & macadam streets, just smooth asphalt for blocks & no one outside in the day.
Alas our little tour had to end and back we drove to Wenonah in murky, hot midsummer. The return trip uneventful, lost, no things to recall.
It was time to begin the long slide into the hell of Gateway Regional HS.