This year my high school class is holding its fiftieth reunion. I have always had decidedly mixed feelings about my high school experience. Many people have experienced ambivalence reflecting on this period, conflicted feelings compounded of joys of discovery and exuberant youthful energies balanced by social insecurity, sexual frustration, and doubts about the future. I cannot know if my case was any more intense than that of other young lads. In fact, it is probably in the nature of adolescent emotion that each agonized subjectivity considers its own falling upon the thorns of life an ordeal dramatic and extraordinary. I was sufficiently eager to leave my own high school that I took off a year early, hoping at college to find kindred minds and to escape what seemed a stifling social scene and the isolation of what I took for suburban unreality. Without realizing that every culture tends to seem invisible to those born into it, I thought that the rural farming towns, the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago, indeed every foreign place on earth had its own culture. Where I lived struck me as no less barren than it was comfortable. I would take the el to 63rd Street on the South Side and walk for miles, just looking and listening. Once graduated, I fled to university, to the West Coast, the East Coast, abroad, far, at any rate, from where I had grown up, and I did not revisit the scenes of my suburban childhood.
I was myself surprised at my receptivity when one day I received a call about the reunion from a man whom I had known even in elementary school. In one of the typical readjustments these occasions elicit, once I had caught his name, I was slightly surprised me at his mature assuredness. Though I hadn’t thought of him once in the half century past, my impression had been that he was something of a nebbish. (Lord knows what he thought of me, if he did at all. On the phone he didn’t seem to remember me.)
I would be little surprised if any of my fellow students who did give me a thought considered me somewhat odd; my own self-image was probably more extreme. Many of the elements out of which the high school memories of others are constructed were lacking in my case. No prom or big game; in fact, I never dated or attended a sports event. Unlike some high school students, I could rationalize my social unease as a sign of sensitivity and my lack of a generalized popularity as an inevitable concomitant of intellectuality. Further, I regarded myself as counter-cultural even in the early sixties and thought estrangement from the school social order evidence of integrity. I got off rather easily from my fellow-students, though my copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 still carries the traces of chewing gum some wag inserted while I was away from my desk. Confident in my taste (if in little else), I pushed back and began ostentatiously carrying a huge scholarly edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queen. I was the first person to check it out from the school library, but I am afraid I actually read precious little of it until several years later.
Self-righteously, I felt I had broader reasons than literary interests for disaffection with the Glen Ellyn high school social scene. Glenbard West was a picturesque school, built atop Honeysuckle Hill overlooking Lake Ellyn in 1920 in the style of a fanciful castle with turrets and leaded glass windows, but to me it represented some rather ugly values. I utterly rejected (consciously, at any rate) the prejudices of the haute bourgeois suburban community which in those days excluded non-whites and Jews and celebrated wealth as the definitive measure of worth and achievement. The superintendent of schools (once the high school’s principal) was Fred L. Biester, a decidedly old-style bigoted reactionary. Difficult as it is to believe in the twenty-first century, this man addressed my junior high school graduation by informing us that needed to study hard and do well in college since, though we might not yet realize it, the white race was in the minority and needed to work to maintain control. In this era and environment the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade flourished, while I and others of my generation in similar settings across the country decided we were socialists.
The reactionary attitudes of the community seemed to me to translate on the high school level into a social order in which the most prestigious were the children of the members of the more expensive country club whom I saw as programmed to follow their parents as business executives. (This did not, of course, always prove to be the case. ) I regarded the student organizations as little more than training grounds for the board rooms of the future.
Yet there were compensations arising out of the same package of factors. I was acutely conscious of the area’s privilege (though I was surprised recently to see DuPage County identified as the wealthiest county in the Midwest). Glenbard West (East had just opened when I attended) was certain in its annual quota of Merit Finalists and Westinghouse Science winners and secure in its place on the Newsweek list of best public high schools.
I did make close friends in school. In our circle it was ordinary to cultivate serious academic interests, either scientific, artistic, or intellectual. Virtually all pursued research or creative work and became professors. A cohort like mine could hardly have existed in most schools and the honors class system guaranteed that we would all follow much the same schedule year after year. I fully believe that we could have learned very nearly as well without teachers as we did with their help. The only one whom I recall with affection was a young male English teacher just passing through for a few years, who gave a decent modern poetry unit, but whose most impressive quality was his style. Dressed elegantly in a three-piece suit, his hair swept back in a dramatic wave, he would wax enthusiastic about the ballet, the opera, the Chicago Symphony. “I,” he would say, “am an Italophile. Everyone say I-tal-o-phile.” Confident he would appreciate the gesture, we posted a sign above his classroom door quoting Dante: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.” Today I have not the slightest doubt he was gay, but I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to any of us back then.
For all our engagement in learning we conceived of ourselves, not as nerds (I’m not even sure of an early sixties equivalent term) but as romantic rebels. We socialized deep into the night, playing poker (some of us were good indeed, as later games would show) and watching old movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Shape of Things to Come. We preferred Mozart and Muddy Waters to the pop rock’n’roll that was marketed to teens. I recall my brother ordering tunes like Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” in our little local record store.
Unlike the good students of earlier years, we did not all line up to be patted on the head by the school administration and the presumptive similar approval of university admissions offices and future personnel departments with similar taste. Junior cynics who liked to color themselves with a hedonistic air, we declared ourselves honest adherents of “the cult of self-interest,” claiming that everyone else was in fact a member of the same faction but that others simply wouldn’t admit it. Later we elaborated this, putting on supercilious airs. After an arch remark, we would ask on what level of irony the speaker was operating, imagining increasing gradations infinitely outward and tending to increase in coolness and wit as they gained in artifice. I’m afraid we were often dreadful smart-alecks, expressing ourselves through pranks and hoaxes, satirizing our teachers, athletics, student government, and the like.
Larry Shue who was to achieve professional success as an actor and lasting celebrity as the author of such community theater favorites as The Nerd and The Foreigner before his early death invented a poet named T. L. Cosgrove. (He did a marvelous Bottom during school in Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Cosgrove’s name and his nebulous, quasi-profound style owed a good deal to T. S. Eliot. A group of conspirators began mentioned Cosgrove off-handedly in English class, snaring teachers who did want it to appear that their students were more up on contemporary poetry than they. Eventually Cosgrove himself contacted the school, offering to do a reading which was duly scheduled and announced, though, unfortunately the celebrated poet was stricken ill the night before he was to appear.
At the time of some sort of “presidential” fitness push, our physical education class was told that we would be timed in a cross-country run. Our gym teacher stressed the seriousness of the competition, repeatedly warning that our times would be written into our “permanent record” (though I doubt they could be found now). Hence the boys of my gym class, including most of the students in honors programs organized a pool, each contributing a quarter, to go to the one who came in last. Our instructor was at a loss. He had, perhaps never encountered such a perverse bunch. As I recall, there were no repercussions. Perhaps the teacher preferred not to make our obdurate behavior known to the administration. He may have turned in respectable times for us all.
In the spring of my last year at Glenbard a group of students, performance artists in embryo, organized the Consecutive Shirt Athletic Association. This all-male group held a competition to see who could wear the same shirt for the longest time without ever washing it. We were obliged, of course, to rely on each other’s honor, knowing that a good guy would not secretly launder his shirt. In spite of the fact that during this era, my suburban family bathed only weekly, I marvel now at mothers allowing their errant sons to participate. I wore a plastic badge noting the day “CSAA day 14,” for instance. Two or three of us lasted until the end of the school year, a matter of several months. The yearbook advisor was a sport enough that in the school’s yearbook the Consecutive Shirt Athletic Association is duly listed and photographed among organizations like the National Honor Society and the Smoking Council. (This latter was a group of students who were somehow persuaded to cruise the campus at lunchtime looking for smokers on whom to inform.)
My last year the odds-on favorite for president of student council was a candidate who allowed his friends to convince him to declare at the assembly at which such junior leaders were to articulate a platform that, if elected, he would dissolve student council since it had no real power, being always subject to the administration’s authority. We proceeded to mount an unconventional campaign for which my contribution was a very large poster at the main entrance to the school, covered with bits of poetry in a dozen different languages. In the tiniest writing, in the extreme lower right of the poster were the words, “Vote for C-------.” Another friend made a sign saying “Vote for C------- for he is good,” but with the o’s in good pushed together so that it appeared to say our man was god. Such were our notions of wit.
My primary memory of high school years is not of school at all, but of reading while lying in my WWII surplus bunk. I had posted a sign by my head reading “Ne reveiller pas l’élève qui dort,” my trope on “Il ne faut pas reveiller le chat [le lion] qui dort.” Next to it another posting read en oino aletheia [in Greek characters I don't know how to bring to the blog] which struck me as more satisfyingly abstruse than in vino veritas. I had a picture of Lenin haranguing a crowd which I regarded as heroic, but I felt my motives were ironic in also displaying a soft-focus idealized portrait of a grandfatherly Khrushchev. The levels of irony, I suppose, were not always entirely clear to observers. Next to the bed was always a stack of books – I was doing my best, as I have ever since, to make myself at home in the ocean of words.
A few years back, I read Baboon Metaphysics (the title alone makes it worth mentioning) which argued that the primary purpose of the monkeys’ utterances was not to warn of predators or to communicate about food sources, but rather to express differences in social status. The zoologists reported that they had once been visited by a member of the British royal family who had been gratified to be given evidence that hierarchical stratification is simply biology. While I would like to believe that we can surpass the primate organizational system in government, I admit that, in the context of high school, and indeed, in society in general, we may remain baboons. In a few months, when I venture into the tangle of conflicted attitudes suggested by the lines above, I shall see what impact fifty years has had, beyond making all of us from the class of ‘64 feel vulnerable in a way far different from the way we did back then.