No, this post is not about some Geritol-like energy supplement I need now that I’m turning 47 in a few weeks. The Senior Supplement is the name of the publication I found during my most recent foraging through the decaying archives of my youth. It was created for the 1976 graduating class of Von Steuben High School. I pulled out this primitive 28-page document in anticipation of my 30th high school reunion which is coming up in Chicago in two months. I already wrote about how strange it is to be on the organizing committee for this reunion considering how anti-social I was three decades ago. But after shooting my mouth off on this blog about how much I hated my 20th reunion and how I’d do things differently if I could help plan the next one, I suddenly found myself working with several of my former classmates and communicating with a bunch of people I had last spoken to prior to Nixon’s resignation.
I had already perused my 1976 yearbook to see if any dormant memories would be jostled, but finding the forgotten Senior Supplement provided a closer look at the disgruntled teen I was back then. One section, called “The thing I’d most like to remember/The thing I’d most like to forget” was particularly illuminating. Here are my responses:
The thing I’d most like to remember: 10% of the people.
The thing I’d most like to forget: the other 90%.
And I wonder why I was a social outcast? Could I be more obnoxious and arrogant? It’s bad enough that I only deemed 10% of the student population worthy of my attention, but to state that in print in an official school newsletter? Oy. Compare my reply with the response by Donna Anton, another member of our reunion committee, who wanted to remember “all the good times, memories, and friends,” a sentiment that was echoed by many other students who didn’t feel as disenfranchised as I did back then. Is it too late to take back my answer? Not that I was the only surly student. Some people listed their favorite memories as cutting class, getting high with friends, leaving the building forever, and said how much they couldn’t wait to forget the school’s dilapidated condition, insincere teachers and administrators, how the school is run, and the putrid swimming pool.
Here is my official freshman class portrait, taken in September 1972. Because I had skipped third grade, I had just turned 13 a few days before freshmen year began. My young age, which hadn’t seemed so noticeable in elementary school, started to have a bigger impact as I began to dart through the minefield of high school adolescence. That’s me in the middle row, first on the left. I’m sitting next to my locker partner Alan Syncheff who sadly died several years ago from a heart attack. I’m directly behind LaJuan Amos, the African-American classmate I had a secret crush on and always tried to sit near in class photos. I already posted the other photo of me and LaJuan taken several years later, the one in which it looks like we’re holding hands thanks to my careful jockeying in the frame. Of course I never once uttered a single word to this girl, I was far too scared to even say hello to her. Apart from Alan and LaJuan, I can only identify five other people in this photo of 22 kids even though I was with the same homeroom group every day for four years. I wonder if LaJuan became the model she hoped to be in 1976. In the Senior Supplement, she said that she anticipated marriage in 1977. Wow, I wasn’t ready to even contemplate such a thing until the Clinton administration. LaJuan has replied that she'll be attending the reunion in October. Will I finally be able to muster up the courage to say hello?
The Senior Supplement included the Last Will and Testament of all the graduates. I can’t begin to understand any of the long forgotten inside jokes I made in mine (a slab of cow, J.D. extra crispy, a hot dog, a rusty carousel) but I’m shocked at all the off-color references made by my classmates that involve sex, drugs, and basically telling half of the faculty to fuck off. Were people in my class really having sex and doing drugs? Oh, how innocent I was back then—I don’t think I realized any of that at the time, I was too busy running home to watch “The Waltons.”
A particularly nasty section of the Senior Supplement was the “Can You Imagine?” feature in which the editors tried to think of snappy ways to complete the question, “Can you imagine so-and-so…?” None of these were the least bit funny and many were terribly mean-spirited. About a nice guy who had a slight stuttering problem, they wrote, “Can you imagine XX a game show host?” God. About a short, slim boy, “Can you imagine XX in a Charles Atlas pictorial?” How about the question about a flat-chested girl, “Can you imagine XX in a Playboy pictorial?” Yuck. Was there no faculty advisor? Then there were the racial comments. About the one Arab student, “Can you imagine XX an Israeli Prime Minister?” And about two African American boys, “Can you imagine XX tall, light, and handsome?” and “Can you imagine XX a white boy?”
I got called on the carpet about the post I wrote last January about race relations at my high school. I never witnessed any of the open hostility that existed between the races in previous (and later) years, but I maintained that despite the apparent harmony, the black and white kids tended to have very separate social lives. Some former classmates told me that this wasn’t their experience at all and they seemed offended by the implications I was making. This photo of my junior year student class officers offers up some evidence that we weren’t as segregated as I thought. There is Jeff Lasky as the class president surrounded by his African-American “cabinet” of Michael Harvey, Sheila Hall, and Karla Scott. Maybe there was more social integration than I realized. Since I was segregated from nearly everyone on campus, it’s only natural that some of my memories of this time are a bit skewed.
On the other hand, this photograph taken in the lunchroom, always a barometer of the social strata in a school, validates some of my memories of the distinct cliques at Von Steuben. I’m including the caption that appeared underneath this photo in my senior yearbook, “Seniors jive at the lunch table.” Sweet Jesus, they show a group of black students and caption it “Seniors jive?!” How did they caption the photo of the Jewish students in the cafeteria, “Seniors kvetch at the lunch table, nu?”
At least I remember some of the African-American students. One group that flew completely under my radar screen was the sizable Asian community at the school. Apart from a few Chinese- and Japanese-American students we knew from elementary school, there was apparently a wave of immigration from Korea and other Asian countries in the early1970s that I had forgotten about. When I started seeing a bunch of Asian names appear on our reunion list, I would have sworn on a bible that it was a mistake and that none of those students ever went to Von Steuben. And yet, there’s Hae Ran Kim in the Senior Supplement, saying that the thing he’d most like to remember is his “good American friends” (which obviously didn’t include me). Needless to say, Asian stereotypes abound in the publication even though they were the “nice” kind of stereotypes: “Can you imagine Hae Kim missing a geometry problem?” “Can you imagine Byung Kim not successful?” “Can you imagine Naomi Kasamoto not looking just right?” Several of these students will be attending our reunion. I’ll have to introduce myself.
This is a photo of me from the senior yearbook. I think I look a little scary and like I’m part of the stoner clique who was out back “dealing Mexican” according to the Senior Supplement. Looking at this photo makes me think of how many people, in responding to the online reunion invitation, have commented about how they need to start that diet and make other changes that will get them back to their 1976 appearance. As if. I admit that I’ve had those same thoughts, and I wonder why it’s so hard for all of us to accept the natural aging process, particularly in the context of seeing people we haven’t seen in so many years. But short of major liposuction and hair transplants, I ain’t never gonna look like that lonely high school student who walked out of Von Steuben in 1976 and never looked back (until now).
In the process of trying to find missing classmates, I found myself corresponding with a few people I hadn’t thought of in years. Some of them were quite interesting and had fascinating insights about our childhoods. This made me feel even more frustrated that I had squandered so many opportunities for friendships back in the day. One of my former classmates told me about the harrowing experience she had being trapped in the riots in India following the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi. Her car was overturned and she was injured so badly she had to stay in a Calcutta hospital for months before returning home. Another classmate sent me links to his excellent writing, including a piece he wrote about Adolph Eichmann in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. I am so grateful that my daughter did not inherit my debilitating shyness. I just received some pictures from the educational camp she’s attending this week at Sea World and loved seeing her arm in arm with all these people she only met for the first time a few days ago. What a different and richer experience than my closed-off childhood.
I don’t mean to be so hard on myself. My parents had just divorced and I was at where I was at. I can’t change history and become a more involved high school student. But I can learn about myself by examining how quickly I dismissed others out of my own fear of rejection and social awkwardness. The mantle of superiority that I wore back then was designed to make me feel better but of course it didn’t, it only made me feel more separate and alone.
I keep asking myself why, considering my experience, I’m so interested in attending this reunion and playing such a big role in making sure it takes place. The three other people on the reunion committee were among the most active students in the school, involved in every extracurricular activity, sport, and academic organization. I was involved in none of those things, not even areas that I would have enjoyed like the yearbook or creative writing journal. Even back then I suffered from the syndrome that still haunts me to this day. I LONG to be part of a group, a community of people who share some common interest or skill or passion, but at the same time I fear such groupness and want to be left alone. This simultaneous mantra of “please let me be in your group/please leave me alone” is something I struggle with all the time. Back in high school, the “leave me alone” ethos ruled the day and I realized this morning that helping to plan the reunion with these people is fulfilling some of the ancient longing I had to be more active than my dysfunction allowed back in the 1970s. It took 30 years to shed some of my carefully honed cynicism but I’m finally on a committee with those involved students and enjoying the connection as I always secretly suspected I would.
I remember one African-American classmate named Rochelle not because I ever got to know her but because she had a huge chest that everyone in our class joked about. This was my only memory of her until yesterday when I read the poem she wrote on the back page of the Senior Supplement. It is by far the most moving and sincere contribution to this cringe-producing document and I wish I would have complimented her about it thirty years ago instead of snickering with the others about her physical attributes. As Rochelle’s poem states:
we, the senior class, will find that four of our most important years were spent growing up here at Von.
our eighth grade thoughts of how dreamfully wonderful the world would be
we’ve turned into adult thoughts, that life is what you yourself make it.
and you as a person must choose whether to live or die
for either way the world will go on.
we, the senior class, have proven that love, peace, and a little understanding goes a long way.
ours were not the dreams of the distant past but the ideals of showing how we, the average class, could make it.
the guidance of our elders
and the wisdom that came from the home front
we are the spirit of nineteen hundred and seventy-six.