I went to high school in an urban neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. It was during the early part of the 1970s, after the first wave of desegregation policies had changed the landscape of the Chicago public school system. We couldn’t believe the stories we heard from a few years earlier of white parents keeping their kids home or participating in protests in front of the school just because of the black children enrolling at Von Steuben High School. In elementary school we only had two African-American classmates who were bussed in, Mark and Patricia. They were the first black people most of the Jewish, Swedish, and Greek children in my neighborhood had ever met. But at Von there was a sizable black population. With no protests, no one picketing in front of the school, and no nasty letters to the school board, we were the model of integration, no? Not hardly.
Von Steuben was not a very large high school. Although we started out with quite a few more, there were less than 200 kids in my graduating class. Looking at my high school yearbook tonight, I was shocked to discover that I don’t remember almost half of the student body. It’s not just a question of a hazy memory after so many years, it’s as if I had never seen them before or heard their names. Zero recognition. What kind of private world was I living in back then? We thought we were integrated but it was like there were two separate schools co-existing with very little contact. The blacks ate lunch with the blacks, the whites with the whites. I can’t remember a single African-American kid at any of the parties I attended over the years. I do remember what the black kids sang at our talent shows because they were the only ones with any talent (I wish I could think of the couple who sang the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway song “Where Is the Love” one year and brought the house down). The jocks and the star basketball players were the other students who seemed to straddle both groups, as they were idolized by the entire school. My conversations with the African-American girls in my classes were so few and far between that I immediately developed a crush on every black girl who deigned to speak to me.
This yearbook picture is of my homeroom, or as we called them in Chicago, my “division.” We were grouped with these same kids for 20 minutes every day during all four years of high school. Whenever we posed for our yearbook picture, I made it a point to stand as close as I possibly could to LaJuan Amos. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. Her sophistication made LaJuan seem more like the keynote speaker at Supermodel Day than a fellow classmate. I looked up her profile in the yearbook and in addition to her membership in the Afro Club and being captain of the Pom-Pom Squad, LaJuan’s ten-year career objective was to be a model. I wonder if she made it. This was my favorite photo because it looks like the two of us are holding hands. Check out my smokin’ velour shirt with the zipper (oy!) and my shoulder-length hair. How could LaJuan not go for that? But the two black students standing behind me? I haven’t the slightest idea who they are. And what in God’s name is that girl on the right holding? I hate to say it, but it looks like a watermelon—was that her political statement on the inherently racist subcultures at the school? Not only that, but look at her middle finger. She is clearly flipping the bird, something that the photographer and Jewish yearbook editors were too oblivious to notice. Go, Afro Club!
2006 marks the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. 30 years?! I remember when my father went to his 25th Von Steuben reunion in 1975 and I couldn’t believe that any human being could have lived long enough to be out of high school for a quarter of a century. Have you ever attended a reunion? I’ve gone to both of mine—my 10th in 1986 which was sort of interesting and my 20th in 1996 which was so God-awful I vowed never to go near one again. How odd, then, that because of my blog I suddenly find myself on the planning committee for our 30th reunion.
I heard from a lot of former classmates after I wrote a post about our friend Julie Rotter who died last March. It was great to touch base with people who knew Julie back then. Our offline discussion eventually turned to our dreaded 20th reunion which was held in a boring, charmless hotel in the Chicago suburbs. The food was horrible, the conversations strained, and the only unifying event was a slide show mostly filled with photos of people from another school. I’d never been to an event that was so poorly planned and I swore I wouldn’t go to another reunion unless it took place in the school itself, not at some stupid hotel. So here I am, working with two classmates I haven’t seen in over a decade, one in Cornwall, England, and the other in Chicago. We secured the school building for October 28th and are in the process of contacting our former classmates, many of whom I have no memory of. I haven’t stepped foot in that imposing structure since my last day as a senior in June of 1976. Gerald Ford was the President and the price of gas had just skyrocketed to the unheard of price of 67 cents a gallon.
Sometimes when I think of my distaste for high school I wonder if I’m making it all up, if at the time I really enjoyed it. But tonight among my archives I found a letter I wrote to a friend in 1976 but never mailed. Almost every page is filled with invective slamming the school. If someone would have told me back then that I’d be helping to plan our 30th reunion, I would have thought they were using the hallucinogenics I would soon experiment with (ever so briefly) after graduation. As I’ve discussed in other entries, I was not a big fan of my Chicago public school education. Even then I could sense that many of our teachers were overworked, underpaid, and burned out to the point where they just couldn’t be bothered doing anything innovative or challenging. There were some notable exceptions—I loved filmmaking and most of my English and history classes. Oh, hell, maybe it wasn’t the teachers at all, it was probably just my own apathy that made high school life such a drag.
What was I so cynical about? Was that just a strategy to survive the usual horrors of adolescence? While I wasn’t exactly part of the “popular” clique, I did have my circle of friends and I was always a straight-A student. I was very outgoing in certain safe environments such as French class with Mrs. Snobel or filmmaking class with Mr. Daniels. Gym class was never a picnic, however, because I sucked at team sports. I remember the humiliating ritual of choosing up teams. As the teams formed in the front of the gym, I was always left sitting on the floor until the bitter end and I could see the dread in the team captains’ eyes when they realized they had to take me. It wasn’t that I was particularly uncoordinated, it’s just that I’d had absolutely no childhood experience playing sports and I didn't have a clue. My father grew up without a dad and he had to work from the time he could walk so I’m not sure he ever threw a ball in his life or even touched one. (Oy, I hope he’s not reading this—he’s already so guilt-ridden about some of the choices he made as a young parent that he’s taken to singing Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” every time we talk about the past.) My friends and I were fairly active in our own geeky ways, going on long bike rides to the Museum of Science & Industry or staging plays in my basement, but not so much with the team sports. In retrospect, I wish I had tried to improve my abilities in gym class instead of suppressing my normally outgoing self and developing a self-mocking persona that makes me cringe when I think about it. I’m sure I still carry some of the trauma felt by that boy sitting on the gym floor waiting to be chosen and knowing he was going to be last.
My co-chairs on the reunion committee, Donna and Susan, were among the most active, athletic, and energetic students in the entire school. They were involved in nearly every available extracurricular activity. I was involved in nothing. Why didn’t I join the writing club at least, or work on the yearbook? I guess I was too busy kvetching about my oh-so-miserable life. And yet, here I am, Mr. Apathy, Mr. Cynic, thrilled about reconnecting with these two women and excited about seeing these people I mostly don’t remember. What makes me so eager to explore these largely forgotten parts of my past? Am I trying to recapture something that I never really had? Is it my attempt to heal some long-dormant wounds? Do I want to touch base with people who knew me during a simpler time? Or am I just looking for new blog material?
I’m curious to see if the unintentional segregation will continue. All of the 1976 Von Steuben graduates were invited to both of our reunions but I can’t remember a single black student showing up. Maybe the former Afro Club members have their own gatherings.