Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fall and Gateway Regional

Perhaps I should tell you more about my new school.  Not the bickering and backbiting and meanderings of seventh graders but what my school looked like.  Gateway was brand new.  Brand motherfucking new.  We had new lockers, new hallways, new teachers, new desks, and new classes.  Instead of Science we had Earth Science.  Instead of History we had Social Studies.  Instead of Reading or Language Arts we had English.  And we had to learn a new language.  You got to pick your language.  I picked French.  
We also had new desks.  The desks in Wenonah Elementary were old school.  Wooden desks that were separate from the chairs.  Desks that opened up and you put your books in them.  Your books sat there all year unless you took them home for homework cuz you had the same seat all year long.  Gateway had desks attached to chairs.  The desks in Wenonah had been carved up and inked by years and years of students.  Gateway and its desks were clean and free of taint.
Gateway was laid out like a grid.  A long rectangle with a center entrance.  At one end was the Auditorium and flanking that Wood Shop and Home Economics.  At the other end the Cafeteria.  Just before the Cafeteria was the Gym.  The Gym had a huge dividing wall that could be opened for athletic events but was closed during gym classes because boys and girls did not exercise together except on rare occasions.  God knows where that might lead.
This was an era where sports were the province of boys.  The important sports were all boys; boys football, hardball, basketball, wrestling and track.  Girls could do field hockey, girls basketball (note the "girls" in girls basketball), and softball.  They might have had track but I doubt it.
The school had two floors and if I recall was divided in quadrants by class.  Seventh graders were on the 2nd floor.  I have no idea where everyone else was.  
Our principal was Charles Korkuch and our superintendent was John Lelko.  God only knows what a superintendent did then.  We certainly had no clue.  There were 32 teachers on the faculty. I spent few hours today looking at my yearbook trying to figure out who my teachers were that first year. Couldn't do it cuz they blurred together.  Perhaps one of you can help.  Over the next years I had nearly all of them for one class or another.  When I returned in my thirties for a poetry in the schools gig most of them were still there.  I don't know if that is sad or beautiful.  Or both.
To be honest going through the yearbook was a trial.  We all look like creatures from another century.  And not the 20th.  Children taking Personal Typing.  Mechanical Drawing.  The Dance Band! Irma Fean our school nurse.  Object of ridicule for most of my later years in school.  When basketball players feigned illness for a cheap time out we'd all shout: "Irma!, Irma!"
The pictures of the children are hideous.  Giant beehives, huge ears poking out from the sides of heads, all the boys in sport coats, all the girls with head bands.  We all look earnest and young and stupid.  I think we were.
We were all jammed together in this school.  Headed for the future and with no clue that everything we knew, everything our parents knew, would be turned on its head in 7 years.  Jesus the world is strange.
Stranger still that at our reunion this summer most of the tiny photos from my yearbook in 1965 turned out to be my classmates in 1970.  This was a world where no one left.
Next up on the reports!  Scholastic achievement!  Touch football with Jane Shiflet in the afternoon.  Sex rears its ugly head and brings with it dances and fashion.  Ugliness abounds.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The World of Gateway

This was a new junior high school.  In fact, it wasn't even finished.  The gym wasn't quite done, the auditorium a work in progress, everything was new and half done and odd.  But we were all there.  Disgorged from our buses and thrown together.  Several hundred students from four districts with little in common.  Westville and National Park were largely working class, factory towns.  Wenonah and Woodbury Heights more middle class.  There were points where we all intersected and points where we veered widely apart.
I've been thinking about this first year for a while now.  In part because it was a huge leap in my life and in part because I had to confront things I'd never had to confront before.  No one knew me here.  No one knew many many people.  New friendships would be formed and old ones changed.  
But for me the hardest part of seventh grade was going to my locker.  Each day when I went to my locker a kid who I will leave nameless would confront me and assault me.  We're talking punches and insults and general bullying.  In Wenonah I'd feel comfortable dealing with this outside of the school but here there was no outside of the school.  I was taught not to behave badly in school and fighting would be definitely a bad thing.  I took my licks.  I took punches to the stomach and arms and insults every day at the beginning and every day at the end.  It was a bad, bad experience.
One of the boys who bullied me was in my gym class.  Our gym class instructor was a man named Chuck Williamson.  Mr. Williamson.  Old school.  Not a man prone to sympathy.  Towards the end of the year we were playing softball at one of the newly completed ball fields and I was playing first base.  The boy who bullied me stole second and I threw the ball hard to second.  It drilled him dead center in the back.  He turned and he and his lackey chased me for a good ten minutes before Mr. Williamson put a stop to it.  Ten minutes.  It didn't help my self esteem and it didn't make me a man.  It made me a scared little rabbit running from a kid who'd flunked two grades and had two feet and fifty pounds on me.  This was not fun.
The other part that was not fun was losing my friends.
This is harder.  We continued to engage in play after school in Wenonah but in school they had new friends, cooler friends.  The gap grew larger and larger.  It would close in later years but it felt weird and was painful.  I came to understand that growing up wasn't just about knowing new things but about losing old things.  I've never been good at that and it always hurt.  
The funny part is that all of us felt this way.  Even the kids that bullied us.  We were all in the same strange boat.  Unmoored from our safe little towns.  Our rituals.  Our games.  We invented new ones.  Some nasty, some joyful, some stupid.  But nonetheless we were on our own in this creation.  There was no one there to tell us how it would be.  No rules.  No guides.  Just knucleheads set loose.  Bullies and bullied.  Cool and uncool.  Stupid and smart.  Ugly and beautiful.  And at the end of the day some Boy Scout furling the flag.  Uncoolest of the uncool.  A volunteer to stupidity.  
Next post: the geography of Gateway