When I entered my sophomore year of high school, my brainiac brother Jeffrey convinced me that it would be a good idea to take both chemistry and biology concurrently. Doing so would eliminate the need to take a science course in my senior year and enable me to get out of school just an hour after I arrived. It sounded like a brilliant idea at the time, but once the semester started and I realized just how in- over-my- head I was, I began to think otherwise.
Biology was somewhat manageable, since to some extent the material could be memorized, but chemistry required both logic and math skills, two competencies that had ceased to be part of my being after fourth grade. To make matters worse, chemistry required a weekly lab period which was slotted into my already crammed schedule at “zero” period, which if my memory serves me correct, took place several hours before sunrise. During labs, we would work with bunsen burners and chemicals I hadn’t seen since the day’s when my brother was allowed to make bombs in the house. We would make observations and hypotheses (total random guesses) as to how the chemicals would react under various conditions. Immediately after “ain’t no sunshine” zero period, we would head to chemistry class where we would receive a lesson that probably had some correlation to the lab experiments, but I, for the life of me, could never figure out what that was. Our teacher would try to quiet the class for the lesson using her signature (and only) attempt at humor, saying “Quiet, you’re disturbing the moles” (yes, I had to Wikipedia that term too and it still isn’t funny).
I learned so little in chemistry, that my father assigned Jeffrey the task of tutoring me for the Chemistry Regents exam that I was about to fail. (Note to readers under 25 who have attended dozens of Kaplan prep classes: no parent was willing to pay for tutoring back then; siblings’ sole purpose was to teach each other stuff they didn’t know and agree to play Monopoly in place of their parents). After several frustrating attempts to learn the material from Jeffrey and buckets of tears, dad brought in the reinforcements (my brother Stuart) who was actually the more patient of the two teachers. I passed the exam, took a deep breath of O2 and a swig of H2O and moved on.
By the time I got to my junior year and was expected to take physics, I created a new hypothesis that if I begged hard enough to my physics teacher, he would let me out of the class and my science credits for high school would be completed. Finally, one of my theories was proven correct.
Math that year was no better. We were learning geometry and by what must have been an egregious administrative error, I was placed in honors math, alongside the best and brightest students in the school. Just seconds after a geometry problem was written on the board and before I could even draw the triangle or parallelogram, some future doctor, scientist or Nobel Prize winner was raising their hand with the answer. On occasions when we worked on a series of problems on our own, our male teacher would walk the room, usually ending up behind the girl with the biggest boobs in the class (which for once wasn’t me!) and massage her shoulders or do something else inappropriate. At the time we all just referred to him as a creepy pervert because we didn’t know fancy words yet like pedophile or sexual predator and no one could Google him back then to see how many states he was wanted in. By my junior year, I was outed as a sub-par math student, booted out of honors math and placed in a more academically appropriate class where I didn’t do much better, but never had to worry about some old guy’s hands near my bra strap.
One of my favorite subjects in high school was history and during my junior year I got to take a college-level class in American history. It wasn’t that I was so enamored with the subject matter but part of the course material was a book about Thomas Jefferson that detailed his numerous sexual relations with his slaves. I’d never read a history book like this before and I’d hardly had any exposure to the topic of sex since my brother explained the F-word to me years before, so this book was a welcome addition to all the dry readings about the other boring presidents who seemed to do a better job of keeping it in their pants.
I did well in English class, but looking back on the books we were assigned in high school, most were torturous reads with little relevance to my life at the time. Just a few of the books I suffered through included The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter and A Tale of Two Cities. You know a book is bad when you read page 64 five times before turning the page and don’t even realize it and this is when I discovered my favorite book series…CliffsNotes.
Outside of academic pursuits, high school offered several extracurricular activities Students at my high school were basically attracted to one of four areas: sports, SING!, Beacon and drugs. Categories one and four are fairly self-explanatory. I didn’t really fall into either of these categories because as for sports, I was still having trouble running the five laps around the school’s non-regulation size track sans sports bra and on the drug front, I had basically just learned how to swallow a pill whole the year before, so I wasn’t quite ready to run with the quaalude crowd.
SING! is an annual student-run musical production competition by grade put on by some high schools in New York City. At least that’s how Wikipedia describes it. A more accurate description might be “a temporary state of insanity which commences in late September and doesn’t resolve until mid-January.” SING! productions required students to write original scripts, rewrite lyrics to popular songs, design original sets using only a huge burlap schmatta and paint as a backdrop, create dance routines, design costumes, recruit a grade-level musical ensemble and cast and put on an hour show in about 3 months. Great friendships were built (and demolished) during SING! and there was often more drama offstage than on. Grades tried to keep their shows a secret from each other for as long as possible for fear of any intellectual property being stolen. There was some amazing talent among the grades and some of the alums have gone on to earn some coin as singers and musicians. I participated in two SING! events, in more behind-the-scenes roles like the ensemble and script writing because I was way too shy to audition (especially with such fierce competition), but I created some amazing friendships with some great people, many who impressively still remember all the SING! 1979 revised lyrics to Earth Wind & Fire’s Fantasy.
The Beacon was the school newspaper and it was here that I discovered I liked to write. We learned how to report in a newspaper style and write and edit longer-form content as well. This was where I also discovered the best book ever; the Thesaurus; a nifty tool for making me sound much more literate than I actually was. My favorite “go-to” word for anything I wrote about was “juxtaposition” and I started overusing it in articles and daily life as well saying things like, “Is it ok if I sit juxtaposed to you at lunch today?” and “Hmm, when I juxtapose my score on the math test next to yours, I realize I’ve failed.” Several members of Beacon went on to become paid journalists and writers. I ended up with this self deprecating blog and five followers.
By my senior year, the extracurricular activities played a bigger role in my daily life than the academic coursework and we began to turn our attention to other senior activities such as prom and graduation. Some member of the administration thought that it would be a good idea to include an overnight, barely supervised trip in the prom festivities and so hundreds of seniors got to go on a trip that had the potential to turn into a 1980 version of Burning Man. The event would be held at the Concord Hotel in The Catskills which was considered posh in the 60’s, somewhat tacky in the 70’s and has since devolved into this. The evening would begin with dinner, followed by a pool party and then the prom at midnight. I thought I’d be clever and kill two birds with one stone. In 1980, Danskin, the manufacturer of the famed children’s equivalent of polyester leisure suits in 1974, had come out with a new look; a one-piece bathing suit collection that had matching Lycra skirts. (Note to all corsage-wearing girls in long formal wear: disco was still king; this was considered formal wear back then, at least for a girl from Queens). For the pool party, I wore the bathing suit. Then I ran back to my room, semi-dried the suit, put on the skirt and heels and bam! Prom-ready.
Meanwhile, the boys had other ideas about what to pack in their suitcases, mainly vodka and orange juice. We managed to end up in a room next door to the Assistant Principal, a man named Milton Sirota, who had to endure a full year of kids chanting his name to the tune of The Knack’s My Sharona which someone cleverly changed to Mi-Mi-Mi Mil Sarota. My my my i yi woo!!! But despite his proximity, the boys (and some girls) managed to Ch-Ch-Ch Chug the vodka. The next day there were a lot of hung over kids but I don’t remember any admonishments from the faculty. Perhaps they were hung over themselves, or maybe they just remembered what it was like to be young.