I grew up in northern New Jersey, in one of the towns bordering New York City. Instead of our public school, I went to a small Catholic elementary that extended through 8th grade. In 1981, when the time came for high school, it was decided that I would attend the local public high school. That was like throwing a lamb to the wolves. I went from a school with 9 classrooms (K-8) and 20 students in each class to a massive high school of roughly 600 kids. None of my Catholic school classmates were going to the public high school, so I was on my own.
As a relatively introverted person (I prefer to refer to myself as “thoughtful”), I was completely intimidated by the packs of kids who all seemed to have known each other since kindergarten and had shared histories and a language of their own. Almost my entire freshman year was dedicated to observing the dynamics of the school and figuring out where I (sort of) fit in. It wasn’t with the popular girls who wore designer jeans and passed folded-up notes to each other in the hallway. I wasn’t particularly athletic. Although I did well enough in school, I wasn’t among the super-brainy elite. Eventually, I found a group of kids who were like me – nice people who were just trying to get through with as few scars as possible. We weren’t popular or shunned, we just were.
We never did anything completely outrageous (no police records!), but we managed to get ourselves into typical teenage-type trouble. Some taught me lessons right then and there (don’t scale sheer rock cliffs without appropriate gear), and others took a while to sink in. Otherwise, our escapades were fairly harmless – here’s a sampling of those that I remember from (eeeek!) 30+ years ago.
When we were 15 years old, Chris “borrowed” his mother’s car one afternoon while she was at work and took us all for a joyride in the AT&T parking lot. The seven teens in the car were both elated at the idea of actually driving(!) and terrified that we’d be caught and wouldn’t be able to test for our permit on our 16th birthdays.
We knew which liquor stores didn’t check ID and would buy beer, bring it into the woods and drink. One time, my best friend, Linda, got drunk and I had to bring her home to her father. He wasn’t happy and my parents heard about it. I was grounded and my mother let me know how “disappointed” she was in me. She later told me that she was proud of me for looking after my friend.
On a beautiful Sunday in the spring, we decided to take a ride to the rock quarry in a neighboring town. Someone had the idea to try to scale the 80 foot cliff. Succumbing to peer-pressure, I joined them. It was probably one of the stupidest and most risky things I have ever done. I survived and earned myself the nickname, “Goat.”
One Halloween we took a bunch of rotten vegetables out of the dumpster at the Stop & Shop and veggie-bombed a car belonging to a popular senior boy who regularly picked on one of our gang. He never knew that it was us, but we felt vilified.
On Saturday nights my girlfriends and I would go to the roller rink and skate for hours to Duran Duran and Madonna. We used to skate near the cute boys and pretend to fall so that they would help us up. Clearly, I was not the most confident person when it came to boys.
We smoked a joint in the bathroom of the public library. I know, I know…sacrilege among the stacks!
The only time I cut class I got caught and had to serve after-school detention for two days. It was Senior Cut Day and the teacher that caught us refused to give us a break. Some people just cannot bend the rules.
We went to a lot of concerts. From 1982 to 1985 I saw almost every touring band from Adam Ant to Van Halen. The local concert venue, the Capitol Theater, has since been demolished and the names of the Meadowlands arena and Giants Stadium, have been changed so many times that I’ve stopped trying to keep up with the names – but I do remember the concerts and singing along with my lighter waving high above my head.
My favorite classes were poetry, creative writing and journalism. Some things never change. I was nominated for a nationwide poetry contest, was published in a local poetry journal, and wrote for the school newspaper. My poetry teacher, Ms. Betty Vlack, introduced me to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlighetti, the ballet, the symphony and the New York City arts scene in general – all which I promptly fell in love with – in New York City, I finally found a place that felt like “me”.
I attempted to dye my hair blonde and it came out a weird shade of greenish gray. It took two trips to the salon to get it looking somewhat normal (and lots of “I told you so,” from my mother). This was the day before the senior prom. This is the “after” photo. To this day, I would work an extra job to make sure I was able to have my hair professionally colored.
My pal Dave was not the best looking guy in school. Red haired, freckled and short, he was not among the most popular with the ladies. But that didn’t keep him from trying. Dave must have asked out 80% of the girls at school and was turned down by most – but that didn’t get him down. When I asked him why he kept at it, he told me, “If you throw enough shit against the wall, something’s going to stick.” Today he is married to a gorgeous woman. I loved his attitude and persistence and that spirit has endeared him to me until this day.
When I went to college, I found myself in that same situation; alone at school, knowing no one, and having to start from scratch all over again. What I thought was a hardship four years ago, actually turned out to be a blessing. I already knew how to make friends and navigate a whole new world – and it gave me tremendous confidence. That scenario has played out every time I moved to a new town or began a new job. My experience in high school gave me the confidence to navigate a new world on my own – an essential skill for someone who would, at times, rather read a book than interact with people.
And if someone messed with me…I could always get a few rotten veggies from the dumpster at Stop & Shop.