Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My life in the 1970s part 2

Suddenly, and unhappily, just at the moment when I was making genuine intellectual progress with my newfound teacher friend and his Orwell books and his Socratic inquiries into the nature of freedom, and was at long last not merely reduced to playing in the trees and sun with Lydia and Sally, (the latter comprising most of the school year), my parents, as usual, decided to "pull" me yet again from a school before the year could be finished out. I am sure they had their reasons and, luckily, for once it didn't involve a violent altercation between me and a group of other children.

I can't remember very well the exact reason for this particular "pull", but probably one reason was that my father began teaching at my school and he was actually trying to teach theater to these fifth graders. It appears that, along with the unusual curriculum that involved group therapy and emotional confessions, this school would hire just about anybody willing to teach. I think my father had run into trouble because he had it in his idealistic mind to try to reform the resident juvenile delinquent Kevin, namely by casting Kevin as Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream. The trouble was that, among other things, Kevin was barely literate, his daily conversation consisted of grunts and short phrases like, "your dead fuckhead" and, moreover, had so many behavioral problems. Some of us found him to be practically evil as he would do unspeakable things to the girls in the school, like shove spiders and bugs under their clothes, and in many cases try to beat them up as if they were boys like himself. It occurred  to us that perhaps Principal Mr. Highsmith's absence for the school year may have had worse consequences than simply the absence of his style, charm, and hot wheels. Speaking of which, Kevin would also destroy property, and he was one of the only kids to try to deface Mr. Highsmith's van after it had been painted, with the worst obscenities, I think the word motherfucker among others. Now I hated that van but I knew it was important enough to others not to ruin it.

Now my father wanted Kevin Myers to act in Shakespeare and of course Kevin would not learn his lines since he was too busy physically torturing the girls in the class. Indeed one of my jobs at school was protecting both Sally and Lydia from his predations. Many a time I would see a beleaguered and weary teacher try to explain to him that "you can't hit girls quite that hard", that "people didn't do that" and so on. I wondered why he was never removed from school. It is almost as if the stubborn faith in the potential of every child was such a sacred trope of the times, or at least at "free schools", that it would have been considered the most obscene sacrilege to expel a child.

I had no fear of Kevin whatsoever, however, and I would always argue with my father about the practicality and possibility of saving him through Shakespeare. Kevin was so awful, I argued, that not even Shakespeare could save him. It turns out we would never know because my father quit trying to put on MIDSUMMER and it was off to another school - I think this time an odd Academy that was even odder.

This was not the first time my father had had unusual gigs in addition to the family business. The most outrageous and memorable gig my father had was teaching in a Barbizon school of Fashion circa 1978. It was memorable because I was a very young male with a growing interest in females; it was outrageous because the setting was a school for fashion in the late 1970s. Luckily I got to go with my father to all of the classes. The whole point of the class was to indoctrinate these beautiful young women into the fold of some kind of "Dress For Success" feminism. Dress For Success was some self-help scheme dreamed up by one John T. Molloy. To put this into perspective, I was in South Florida, and it was, well, summer school, and these young women, roughly from eighteen to their early twenties were resplendent in the shortest of shorts, tight, hip-hugging jeans, tight t shirts, disco heels with perfectly shaved legs, lots of halter tops, you get the picture.

 And here came my father with Molloy's diagrams to rescue them from all of their allegedly cheap Floridian ways and offer them salvation in the form of double knit leisure business suits and, serious cowl necked sweaters in rust and chocolate brown, and lots of courdoroy blazers, and red and mint green pant suits, and just about anything that would turn them into the late 1970s idea of a professional women, that is, modest and not too loose or sexy. And of course I had to witness this transformation myself. They went in looking like Parker Posey and Milla Jovovich in Dazed and Confused and came out looking like Rhoda and Phyllis on Mary Tyler Moore. I really loved going to these classes; the students were so nice to me as I was a kind of curiosity and they always remarked at how well behaved I was for an eleven year old.

Odd too was seeing my father's outfits and presentation with his graphs and color wheels and swatches: I haven't seen more examples of multi-coloured, rainbow hued shades of dacron in one place in my life. Be aware that my own father came to class is a short sleeved chocolate brown or sky blue denim leisure suit and he had a wild beard and, to the horror of his very Southern, almost "redneck" brothers and mother, a perm or "white" afro, a hairdo he sported for roughly a year and did so without any explanation or announcement as to why, with all of the casualness as if he had merely changed underwear. He just showed up one day with this luxuriant afro and expected us to accept it, and to the present day I will never know if it was his idea or my mother's as it was never discussed.

There is no existing photo of my father's perm but there is this picture of him going to teach at Barbizon before the perm.

Barbizon was my first serious glimpse into adult women's culture. Prior to that I had mostly known female peers. The most intensely emotional impression to be seared into my brain was still to come when a beautiful curly haired and olive skinned brunette walked into the life of our family office wearing denim short shorts and some kind of peasant blouse with a bare midriff. Her name was Carla and she was mysterious to me and I was as crazy for her as someone as young as me could be.

Carla called herself a feminist (though I think she preferred the word liberation to feminist) and I don't recall hearing that word much if at all before she entered my life and she showed me books about sex ed and my first glimpse of something called OUR BODIES OURSELVES by a group called the Boston Women's Health Collective.
 She was the same age as the less serious girls I lusted after at Barbizon, yet she was somehow of a different character: stronger, independent minded, and not slavish towards male opinions. Yet she was entirely comfortable with men and sex in general, a subject which seemed impossibly complicated and utterly other-worldy to me.

This was a difficult situation for me because I was still a boy and she worked for my family so she had to surreptitiously give me this literature about biology and something she wanted everyone to support that was called The ERA. The ERA was much debated in that Southern Florida town. Everybody in that office argued with her with the usual scary stories. "If the ERA passes boys and girls will have to share bathrooms" or "men and women will both have to go and die in wars". (This latter became a most painful daily reality the past twenty years without any help from or even passage of the Equal Rights Amendment). Of course I sided Carla which did not endear me to the others at the shop. From then on my whole life was often constituted of various political disagreements.

This progressive and seemingly intelligent educational material was for my tastes an improvement over former attempts at instruction. The last time I had any adult try and offer me anything persuasive it was usually born again Christian propaganda. The most incendiary and divisive would have to be these cheap, almost mimeographed cartoon made especially for children concerning the rapture and the last days, and the End Of Times and the second Coming of Jesus.

Win and Jan, a husband and wife traveling ministry rode in a VW minibus, usually barefoot, and shoved these scary cartoons under my nose - much to the chagrin of my family. I would read them at night, with their crude drawings of Satan and Jesus coming in on a blaze of fire with a sword in hand, punishing the wicked and those resistant to His love, and wonder about why a couple would give such things to children and wonder about the highly unorthodox forms Christianity seemed to take around me. Those cartoons scared me more than the movie Jaws, more than the movie The Exorcist (!) and I grew a terror in the night that some entity would come and take me away. Win and Jan did not bathe, they believed in wearing shoes under only certain SCRIPTURAL conditions, and they subsisted on a raw food or protein shake diet of peanut butter and bananas and so on. They looked like the cast of Godspell. But my parents were like surrogates for them at times in a way and my parents would take them in and let them camp their van near us, often for indefinite periods of time.

With all of this supposedly positive "diversity" I was only left wondering what to believe about ANYTHING. What was truth and falsehood? Why did so many people believe such incompatible things and believe them so passionately? How different they all were from one another and how surprisingly little violence there existed in my world, considering such incompatibilities. Moreover, I was struck by how wild and creative these United States were, with everybody forging their own creeds, their own paths and faiths, and their own new politics.

My school history kept getting weirder at this time. I mentioned an academy. I will try to recount some stories from that and other schools, partly in an attempt to understand, but mostly to give a sense of a time in which literally anything was permitted.

This was before afterschool events of all types, before tracking and newfangled tests. I had yet to encounter the genius, high achieving culture of more affluent kids back East, with all of the over researched, and micromanaged curriculum. And, however many schools I was shuttled to and from, I come away today in middle age with the most curious and astonishing stories. I encountered principals who openly slept with their female students, taught classes without any textbooks and still others who would rant for hours on end on their pet peeves and cranky obsessions, unsupervised by school bells or normal accrediting. We would have recess every few hours or so and the older stoner kids would take us little ones under their "care" and ride around in wide-bodied cars with us tagging along on the hood, roof or trunk, oblivious to the inherent danger and with nary a teacher or adult supervisor in sight to stop them. And they would smoke weed and talk about Frampton or Aerosmith and so on. I encountered a racist Christian English teacher who tried to reason with us that the whites ought not to prejudge someone because they were "black" because that black person just might be teaching the Word of Christ and would therefore be okay and not deserving of racism. (!) And I encountered fellow students who exposed themselves openly exhibited hyperactivity and mental retardation of all kinds, who bullied and tortured and others. The regular kid who just got into trouble, the one you could make friends with, seemed a rarity. This was before awareness about special needs or certain cognitive disorders. The 1970s was the last gasp and expression of a kind of preconscious pure feeling and behavior, before consciousness became systematized, and explained away in the form of new neuroscience. It was an age of perception about to replaced by a age of conception. (see William James on concepts and percepts).

Little wonder that I solace and comfort in adults rather than other children, like that lovely Carla who entered my life with a smile and a copy of a curious book with photographs in it like OUR BODIES OURSELVES.

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