26 May 2015

The Author Contrasts High School Today With That of His Youth and Includes a Long Digression on Hippies

This took place a few blocks from school. I was in the vicinity at the time.
High school was different when I was in it (this was Fall ’67 through Spring ’71). There was no social media. Telephones had to suffice and they could not be taken out of the house. It was exciting enough when we got an extension cord and I could take the phone into my room. Private conversations. But no Facebook or texting. We didn’t miss it because we couldn’t even imagine such a thing. I remember we looked forward to the day when you would somehow be able to see the person you were talking to on the phone. That was foretold and I for one thought it would happen.

My high school years were very much out of the ordinary. I was in Berkeley for crying out loud. I would cut classes and go to anti-war demonstrations. We had the National Guard bivouacked across the street from our school once for a couple of weeks. Hendrix played a concert in our high school theater. People, including yours truly, were experimenting with drugs, some of which were psychedelics. It was a new age and we were at the forefront. It was all about the younger generation. We were on the verge of changing the world. There was a real us against them mentality. We were cool, hip, with it, they weren't. They were old, conservative and totally out of it.

Hippies were everywhere in Berkeley and they were pretty cool. Today you have crypto hippies who are usually just young homeless people who are as apt to rob as they are to flash the peace sign. They sometimes go to demonstrations, but less out of any conviction and more for the scene. Of course there has always been a kind of floating definition of hippies. Some people assert that you cannot work and be a hippie. Others say its more about drug use and some say you need the right kind of clothes (or lack thereof) and you have to listen to certain music and well it goes on.

In the Sixties hippies often had VW vans and some source of income. They virtually all lived for rock music and were regularly stoned. They usually drank wine and most dabbled in hard drugs. Those without wheels hitchhiked. Some bathed regularly and the main reason many were dirty and smelly was because cleanliness wasn’t always a priority. They were promiscuous but were not necessarily into orgies. Some lived in houses and maintained gardens and were “into” cooking. Hippies could be “into” a variety of things besides drug and music. Generally stuff like nature and meditating and what can best be labeled interpretive dance.

Many hippies were intelligent, educated and well read. A few were as dumb as posts but that’s the case within subset of people. Hippie men usually had beards but not always and hippie women did not usually shave armpits or legs but there were always exceptions. Its not like there was a rule book on how to be a hippie. Another thing you hear about hippies is that “they” are gone. I agree and disagree with this. I agree that the hippie of the Sixties is no more. It’s a matter of logic that people of that generation have died or aged or changed. I disagree in the sense that if you fancy yourself a hippie, a beatnik, a member of the Lost Generation or anything else, who the hell is to say you’re not?

That was a rather long digression about hippies. I will now return to my high school days.

I’m reasonably sure that we read more books when I was in high school. This is partially due to the fact that we didn’t have the internet to distract us. But also we read newspapers and magazines of all stripes. Sure, high schoolers today follow the news and read about current events but its usually through things like twitter and it lacks the depth and commitment we had. When you sit down with periodical it allows you to delve a little deeper into the subject matter. We knew about Vietnam in much more profound way then young people today know about any world event.

We also watched — not religiously but often — the evening news. It was half an hour and it was not filtered through biases to the extent news is today. Sure the major networks tended to give you the government’s spin on things, but they also had reporters digging for the truth and willing to call bullshit when they saw it. We trusted Walter Cronkite, even those of us on the far left. He was the one who used his news show to say that Vietnam was not winnable and he suggested that the government had been jerking us around.

We saw better films too. It seems most high school kids today are seeing that Avenger, Iron Man, Spiderman crap along with shlocky romantic comedies and silly gross out hit in the crotch comedies. We were seeing films like If... (1968)M*A*S*H (1970), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Harold and Maude (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Graduate (1967). Not only were these great movies but they were anti-establishment stories featuring strong anti-heroes. Films, along with the music of the time, were forming both the backdrop and the inspiration to the cultural and social revolution that we felt a part of. Hell, we still had The Beatles back them, along with Muhammad Ali who was a dual political and athletic hero.

My high school experience lacked the traditional rally days, proms and spirit weeks that were in vogue before and are back stronger than ever now. I should amend that to say that were proms but I don’t know a sole who went to one. It all seemed silly to many of us. At my high school alma mater they have long since held  a big spirit day in which all four classes represent themselves and everyone dresses up in school colors and there are competitions and prizes. The very suggestion of such a thing when I was in high school would have been met with gales of derisive laughter.

Another Berkeley scene, I was nearby.
When I went to Berkeley High they started an experiment with a smaller school within the school (now the whole damn place is divided into smaller schools). It was called Community High and it was held right there on the main campus. We had our own building. It was a very liberal Sixties kind of a deal organized by the most liberal free thinking educators who wanted to experiment with new non traditional ways of education. I signed up and got in.

We did a lot of sitting around in circles talking and us students were given the authority to be part of the decision making process. The whole deal fit perfectly with the times. Within Community High there were "tribes" with different focuses.

I’m not sure I got as much out of high school in terms of some of the fundamentals that one normally expects to enter college with, but I was on the verge of feeling stifled and brain dead in traditional classrooms where desks were in rows and teachers talked us silly. So this got me through high school and made me feel empowered and hip and I was comforted to know that some adults could be really cool. I had some great teachers too, one of whom in later years became a principal and offered me a job that I ultimately turned down.

The schools within the school today feature your basic traditional education, they just emphasize different things. Nothing like the student powered experience I had.

Of course much was the same about high school when I attended. We were adolescents so there was that. Discovering the opposite sex (or for some the same) and yearning to get acquainted with other bodies and to start to develop an understanding for this soft and tender gender. I don’t know what dating is like now, but when I was in high school it was nothing like what was and has been depicted in popular culture. There wasn’t the formality of “going with” someone and bringing corsages to your date before “the big dance.” It was pretty casual.

When it came to dating I started off as a blithering idiot. I was cute, charming, funny and an athlete but was supremely awkward around girls and was the last person to know if one of them had a crush on me. I didn’t develop any finesse until college when I needed a few drinks to show a little polish. Eventually I got it together. In high school I never really had what I considered at the time a girl friend. Few people then did. There were a few girls I somehow managed to kiss and one with whom I did far more than that. I am one of about 99% of the male population who wishes he had it to do all over again knowing what he does now.

One of the best things about my version of “the good old days” was youth sports. Today it has become vastly over organized, elitist and exclusive and far too competitive. Some people figured out how to make a buck. Young athletes — and I mean even before high school — are often on high pressure traveling squads. Parents are made to believe that to be on an elite team means future glory, particularly in the form of an athletic scholarship to college. They are being swindled by modern day snake oil salesmen. Coaches are modern day fascist dictators. Many young kids are on teams in which they barely play in games. This is the most ludicrous thing of all. When I coached middle school soccer and softball every player played in every game, period. It sickens me to see what has happened to youth sports in this country and it doesn’t in turn surprise me that there are far far fewer African Americans playing baseball, up to and including in the Major Leagues, as there were in my day. You wanna play ya gotta pay. Sports was a source of great joy in my childhood and the teams I played on were low key and fun. My soccer team was state champs in 1970. We flew down to LA for the match and that’s the only game we played outside the Bay Area. We had to fund raise to make the trip. Everyone on the team played in the championship match. (I scored the winning goal in overtime and it is still a personal highlight.)

I do not mean to suggest that “it was better” when I was in high school than it is today. I have merely endeavored to illustrate some differences. It would be surprising if there were none given that we are talking about 44 and more years ago. I cherish those times and feel quite fortunate to have enjoyed such an unconventional high school experience. So I guess I am suggesting "it was better."

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