I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the 1950s, but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.
I grew up in a very different world. Play meant using imagination. It mean physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stick ball (no one owned a real bat). Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys and indians. Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a real thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe.
If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.
You didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.
You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.
My son commented the other day we are raising — speaking of my granddaughter’s generation — a bunch of weenies. We are protecting from them everything, effectively from acquiring the coping skills they will need to survive when mommy isn’t there to bail them out.
I said this to my granddaughter too, because she needs to hear it:. No one gets a free pass. Even being rich doesn’t guarantee bad stuff won’t happen, that you won’t get sick, lose a loved one, a child, or for that matter, your own health. Nothing prevents life from happening. Pain is part of the package. Learning to deal with adversity is called “growing up.” If you don’t learn to fight your own battles, when you get “out there,” you won’t survive.
Just about every family has some members who didn’t make it. The ones who never got a real job, formed a serious relationship, accomplished anything much. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong … and usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. It’s what we did too much.
I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring. Nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment. But I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.
So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, the great times. The schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost. The subjects we barely passed or actually failed and had to take again. The bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards. Getting cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switch blades, wondering if you can talk your way out of this one.
Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid in a school full of people who don’t like you. Getting through it and out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do those dances and never had the right clothing or hairdo.
Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now the cool people to know. Magically, we were suddenly part of the “in crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer were we outsiders. What had made us misfits were now the qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.
The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic. Especially if you weren’t middle class, white and Christian. Yet it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom. We had time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having far fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. Many of us felt lucky to have one crappy black and white television with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.
We learned to survive and cope, and simultaneously, learned to achieve. We weren’t scared to try. We screwed up enough to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again.
When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.
Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into the laughingly so-called golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them.
Now that my high school reunion has passed and I’m no longer besieged by nostalgia from a half century ago, I feel safe in saying it. I haven’t any idea in what world my classmates were living, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same one I inhabited.
I understand that time can cast a gentler light, a rosy glow over events that took place in one’s youth … but there’s a difference between a rosy glow and a full revision.
For months, I have been bombarded by email from people with whom I attended high school. They are sure they remember me. They recall the fun stuff we did together. After giving it careful consideration, I have concluded they are deranged, on drugs, or senile. Whatever it is they think they remember, it didn’t happen.
Who are these people? Why do they keep talking about relationships that never existed? These people were not my friends. I remember them. They didn’t like me. They either ignored me, made fun of me, or conscientiously ostracized me. I belonged to no cliques, no fun groups. I wasn’t invited to parties. I was not popular.
I had a few friends, but these people who are so happily remembering me? They weren’t among the few people I counted as friends.
Did someone — me or them — slip through a wormhole into an alternate reality? That must be it.
High school was not a good time for me. Neither was junior high school or elementary school, for that matter. Even amongst the unpopular kids, I was unpopular. By the time I had survived junior high, I’d learned how to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and over-crowded if you kept your head down, no one would notice you.
I was a klutzy kid with no athletic prowess, I avoided the humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. Every semester, I showed up at swimming class.
“You again?” said the coach. “Just keep out-of-the-way,” It was a win-win for me. I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of the pool and completely avoided gym class. I believe I was technically on the swim team, but I never actually swam in an event. I was a bench warmer. That was fine. I liked the water, but I wasn’t going to win any medals.
All I had to do was get acceptable grades, not fail math courses after which I could go to college. I heard from other survivors that in college I might meet people who I’d like and might like me. That sounded too good to be true, but I had it on good authority. It turned out to be true so I guess making it through high school alive was worth it.
This was not the first time I’ve had to fend off a reunion. I dodged the 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th. I think there was a 40th too. But like a bad penny, it keeps coming back to haunt me. On the up side, we are now all so old, there is very little likelihood of any more such grand events.
I have repeatedly gone over this in my mind. I know with absolute certainty that high school wasn’t a fun time. It wasn’t only not fun for me. It wasn’t fun for most of us. We were young, hormonal, lost, unsure where we were going or how we would get there. Everyone felt ugly or deformed. Many of us had dreadful home lives that we hid from everyone else.
Yet now those years have become one long golden memory. At the reunion I did not attend, they actually got together to sing the school song. Never once in the years I attended did we ever actually sing the school song. It was a joke. We used to make fun of it because it was so dumb. Now, it’s a warm fuzzy memory. Bizarre.
My husband says this is typical of reunions. He says that when he went to his reunion — he actually attended one — people were reminiscing about the great times they had together, none of which he could remember nor could he recall the people claiming to have been there with him.
He says people need to pretend that they had a great time. It makes them feel better.
Not me. Even after fifty years I can’t think of a single reason to revisit a time and place I would just as soon have skipped in the first place. Oh, and to put this in perspective, our high school prom was cancelled due to no one but me and my date signing up for it. So exactly how terrific was the experience really?
Does pretending the past was perfect when it wasn’t even close make you feel better about your life? It doesn’t work for me. But maybe I’m the one with a problem. What do you think?
And now, a word from our sponsor:
With the big day coming up — the 50th high school reunion to which I am not going — I’m getting deluged with emails from The Reunion Group. I no longer read all of them, but every once in a while, I open one up and I’m always sorry I did. The primary area of discussion has moved on from each person telling the story of his or her way better-than-mine life to reminiscing about the school song, almost the definition of “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
We never sang that song. Not at assemblies, not in chorus, not at all. Almost no one knew the words. I knew the words because they were so funny to me, given the real school and who we were, that I memorized the words for kicks and was usually the only kid who knew all three verses.
Here’s to her the school we love,
Jamaica, tried and true – oo,
Source of all our dearest aims,
Dear School of Red and Blue.
Red and Blue
Red and Blue
School of Red and Blue!
In love our hearts go out to her,
Dear school of Red and Blue!
If that doesn’t make you cry, you have no soul. It makes me laugh, so what does that make me?
What compels otherwise sane folks to transform a mixed experience rich with the good, the bad and a big dollop of indifferent, into “the best years of our lives?” It wasn’t. Not for anyone. They cancelled the Senior Prom due to lack of interest. I know because I actually had a date for the prom, but he and I were the only two people to sign up, so they cancelled it. What does that say about reality versus memory?
A few people go way back. We didn’t merely attend high school together. We also went to elementary school and junior high school in one big batch. We got to know each other a lot better than we wanted, a huge dose of too much information. By junior high, I was too miserable to remember much of anything and was being actively bullied by the same mean girls I swear are still hanging around hallways and school yards today. Maybe they are clones of the same girls.
Thank God for the special program that got me through three years of junior high in two years. At least the misery was shortened by a year. Pity about never learning fractions and all. It certainly didn’t improve my shaky math skills.
So all of these people are singing (literally in some cases) the praises of the school and the school system. It was a better than average school academically, but fantastic? It was huge, crowded and if you didn’t measure up and get yourself into the “brainiac college-bound” group, you got nothing from the school except a place to sit in class. The school was academically better than most, but otherwise was no better than every other overcrowded New York city high school. I had some interesting teachers. I had a few really good teachers, and at least one that seriously influenced my future. There were also one or two memorable ones, though not always in a good way.
With current planning involving all these aging nerds and geeks singing the school song, I cannot begin to imagine myself standing around (probably sitting since my arthritis is pretty bad) howling a school song no one ever sang while we were going to school. I think I’d collapse from laughter, genuine ROFLMAO stuff.
What urge makes people cast a rosy glow over a time that wasn’t rosy for them? So many of my classmates seem intent on reliving a past that didn’t happen at all. Is it because we are getting old and want our youth to have been much happier than it was?
Life was what it was. I am not a fan of revisionist history. I occasionally get an email from someone who has found my blog or my Facebook page. They want to renew our friendship. But we weren’t friends. Ever. Some of them are from that group of “mean girls” who turned my life in elementary school and junior high into a small personal hell. Now they want to be my pal? Really? Why? Have they actually forgotten the way it was? Why does no one ever talk about the one really cool thing we had: a gorgeous Olympic-sized swimming pool. Maybe I was the only one who always chose swimming instead of gym. I didn’t mind getting my hair wet, but apparently I was unique that way.
Is this whole collective stumble down memory lane a bizarre form of self-hypnosis whereby we erase real memories and replace them with stuff that never happened? Are we that old and out of touch?
I remember. Many of us suffered from, as did I, difficult home lives. We did a lot of acting out, each in our own way. I buried myself in books and didn’t emerge until college. Fortunately, that turned out to be a lot less destructive than other possible coping mechanisms. I’m watching my granddaughter do her own version of self-destruction for reasons painfully similar to mine, minus the abusive parents, but adding in social ostracism impossible until computers and cell phones. I have serious doubts about the human race and supposed social progress.
But here I go waxing philosophical again. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point God was making when he took Job, beat him to a pulp, then told him he had no right to question why it was happening to him. That’s my very favorite Bible story. Life in a nutshell. Shut up Marilyn. Apparently everyone but me has been highly successful and had insanely perfect lives. It’s just possible that I didn’t live the past half century on the same planet as they did. It doesn’t sound like my planet. Does it sound like yours?
This is far too weird for me though it makes good fodder for writing. And inserting lots of question marks in my tired old brain.
2013 is the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. That’s five zero. Half a century.
After so many years, one might suppose my memories would be fuzzy enough that I could delude myself into believing I had fun in those opening years of the 1960s.
This has come up because a few of the people with whom I apparently attended high school want to have a reunion. Not the entire graduating class of more than 1200 people. This is a smaller sub-group of people who claim to actually know me and want to see me again. They say they remember me and all the neat stuff we did together.
I think they are deranged. Whatever they think they remember, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I do not want to go to the party. I said no when I was contacted by phone, but they keep sending me invitations by email … endless variations of the same thing. Lists of names I don’t recognize. I know I’m not young, but I’m not senile either. Who ARE these people?
I am considering the possibility I slipped through a wormhole and am in an alternate reality, which would explain how come they know me, but I don’t know them. Yeah, that’s probably it.
I was not a popular high school student. Even amongst the unpopular students, I was unpopular. Fortunately, by the time I had survived junior high, now known as “middle school” but back in those good old days, referred to simply as Hell, I had learned to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and crowded, you could slither through all three years (10th, 11th and 12th grades) and if you kept your head down, no one would know your name. I only got attacked by junior thuglets once (not bad considering what an oddball I was) and participated in group activities only if dragged screaming and kicking, usually because someone needed an accompanist and I played the piano.
A klutzy young thing, I avoided the traditional humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. When I showed up, the swimming coach would say “You again? Just keep out-of-the-way,” and thus I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of our Olympic-sized pool. I think I was on the swimming team, but I didn’t actually ever swim in an event. I was a bench sitter. And, apparently, the only girl in high school who didn’t care if my hair got wet.
So all I had to do was get decent grades, try not fail my math courses, and then I could go to college where I heard I might actually meet people who I’d like and might like me too. It turned out to be true, so surviving high school was probably worth it. But now, like a malevolent spirit, fellow graduates of Jamaica High School want me to come to their party. They even think I should pay for the privilege.
If I could remember any of them, I might consider it. No, that’s a lie. You’d have to drug me then drag my unconscious carcass there before I regained consciousness.
High school wasn’t a fun time. Not for me. Fifty years later I can’t think of a single reason to revisit an experience I would as soon have skipped in the first place.
And now, a word from our sponsor: