By June of 1972, my sentence had been served. I was ready to be released from the prison that was junior high school. I had done my time – hard time – and had survived.
Now all I had to do was to get a good score on the entrance exams for Saunders Trades and Technical High School, the school I was dying to attend and which both of my brothers had graduated from.
It was the middle of March, I had just turned 14 and in answer to that eternal question posed by adults the world over, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a scientist. I wanted to have a starched white lab coat as my uniform and I wanted to spend my days locked in a laboratory, prying Nature’s secrets from her cold, clammy hands.
Dreams of Jaques Cousteau
Actually, I wanted to be the next Jaques Cousteau, living aboard a tricked-out boat and sailing the Seven Seas, riding whales and diving to the very depths of the oceans, eventually discovering new fishy life-forms and having them named after me – Carcharydon phillipus, I saw in my mind’s eye.
This dream had started many years previously when I was still in grade school and Mickey would bring me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I was awed by the creatures they had there and would spend hours gazing at fossils and fishes and massive T. rex skeletons. Mickey would always buy me something from the museum store – a star chart, a model Stegosaurus, a book with the title “501 Science Experiments You Can Perform at Home” – for the last of which Mom never forgave him.
But I was hooked! I was hopelessly addicted! I was a nascent nerd! I would steal Mickey’s latest copy of Scientific American and, even though I couldn’t understand a word in it, would marvel at the pictures. I talked Mom and Dad into giving me half of the basement for the construction of my laboratory, with Dad building a long cabinet-equipped lab-bench and grabbing a beautiful old wood-and-glass floor-standing display case from the local college for my growing collections of rocks, minerals, and fossils. I set up aquariums and terrariums, I saved my allowance and bought Pyrex labware from the hobby shop, every spare nickel I found went into the general science fund.
I had always been an ace at science classes in school, and my teachers always supported my dream of becoming a scientist, so it seemed only natural that while the other kids in the neighborhood would rave about their new baseball mitt or their new Lego set, I would be equally enthused about the Bunsen burner I had set up in my lab last night powered by a small propane tank from Dad’s shop. I did well in all the science fairs, never really winning first place but always placing well, with some truly bizarre projects – I especially remember the human eye model that had a photocell in the pupil that would light up the appropriate part in the model brain when someone passed in front of it.
So it was really not surprising that I wanted – I needed – to attend Saunders High. Saunders had been around since 1911 and had seen thousands of students graduate from its well-regarded and high-ranking classes. Saunders always placed first in the city, county and even (on occasion) the state for its grade-point averages and for the number of scholarships that the students received. It was divided into two main sections – Trades and Technical – and each section contained several fields of study that would prepare you for a career.
On the Trades side – the side which my brothers had attended – you had specialties such as Plumbing and Heating, Auto Mechanics, Carpentry, Electrical Wiring and Machine Shop. On the Technical side were Technical Electronics, Architecture, Machine Design and my own desired specialty, Chemistry.
We had a tour of Saunders while I was still in Gorton. It was a field-trip for those interested in applying to the school and was a full day of sitting in on classes as well as presentations in the auditorium by each of the specialty’s teachers, extolling the virtues of their classes and trying to motivate us with their rah-rah speeches.
Some of us already had all the motivation they needed.
But to get into Saunders, you couldn’t just decide one day to go there and be welcomed with open arms. No, Saunders wanted only the best of the best, the brightest in the land, to walk through their hallowed portal. You had to take a test to get in. You had to prove your mettle. They made a big deal of those tests as I recall; we were advised to start studying extra-hard months in advance, and even given lists of recommended study guides and books, for which my long-suffering Mom coughed up money she didn’t have but somehow found.
And I studied my butt off. Day, night, weekend, I was the ultimate student, lugging the extra study material along with me to school, to my martial arts classes, even foregoing the weekend bike rides and Frisbee tosses in order to cram just that much more information into my rapidly-swelling brain.
Test day finally arrived. Three months of studying would now, hopefully, pay off in my receiving that acceptance letter in the mail. We sat for the test in the cafeteria, and there were about a hundred students taking the test that day. It was a four-hour test, starting at 8am and ending at noon, and we were promised that if we finished on time we would have the rest of the day off. That didn’t even appeal to me – I lived only for acing the test, and forget about anything after that except getting that letter.
I took the test, sweating and swearing to myself – math, science, English, history, social studies – everything but Gym was on that test paper. I remember it being a combination of multiple-choice and essay questions, and I blazed through the multiple-choice questions first, saving my energy for the essays.
After four grueling hours, and finishing two minutes before noon, I was done! Now to wait …
What I didn’t realize then was that the acceptance letter (if there was one) would not arrive until the end of summer vacation. I thought we would be notified within a week, so my summer that year was filled with waiting for the postman, pathetically hanging out near the mailbox like Snoopy, each passing day bringing more and more frustration. I’d taken the test in June – it was now mid-August. Two months of agonized waiting.
Finally, it arrived, in a nondescript white envelope that nonetheless bore the coat-of-arms of Saunders Trades and Technical High School. I ripped the envelope open, speed-read the first sentence and screamed for joy – I had been accepted! I was going to start at Saunders in two weeks! Huzzah for me!
It, therefore, didn’t seem fair that the first year at Saunders – what would be my 9th-grade year – would be spent in a series of 6-week rotations among all of the specialties, trades, AND technical courses included.
Six weeks of plumbing?!? My DAD was a plumber, and I knew I didn’t really want to be one – why force me into six weeks of toilets and greasy iron pipes? It was the same with auto mechanics – at the time I had no interest in becoming a mechanic.
Architecture was interesting, but only because I designed a new and improved laboratory for my basement. Machine Design was confusing, Technical Electronics was boring and in Carpentry I smashed my thumb with the hammer several times. Finally, we got to spend the last six weeks of the year in Chemistry, which for some reason appeared to be the hind-end of all the courses at the school.
I DID, however, discover something interesting during this first year, something that would both frustrate me and elevate me to new levels of scholarship; something that would shape the way I viewed education in general; something that would drive me crazy for the next 3 years.
Saunders was an all-boy school.
Don’t ask me why – I still don’t know to this day. Of course, now they’re co-ed; in fact, in my Junior year there they brought in six girls as a test.
Six. Among 350 boys. The Battle of Thermopylae comes to mind. There were just about as many casualties, as well.
But this forced genderization helped us to focus upon our studies instead of upon the female anatomy. I think this was a clever move on the Board of Education’s part, but they blew it in one critical area.
We had a few female teachers.
It’s hard to stick to the Bro Code when your English teacher is a 24-year-old hottie with curves that would make Marilyn Monroe jealous, even more so when she wears form-fitting slacks that fuel your adolescent fantasies for an hour every day. The Spanish teacher was even better: her preference in fashion ran to the mini-skirts of the day, and she had the legs to pull it off. Luckily our Math teacher was a more mature lady (I’m guessing 32 or so) and wore sensible loose-fitting pants suits.
Math was our Breather class.
Aside from these few distractions we were soaked in an all-male environment. You didn’t have to worry about girls making fun of your spindly legs when you jogged around the school during Phys. Ed. – you only had to worry about the guys doing it. No walking into walls and doors because you were hypnotized by a gorgeous girl – you only walked into them because you were studying your class notes. We formed our cliques, the Trades on one side and the Techs on the other, and even amongst those two main categories, there were multiple sub-groups – Tech. Elec. didn’t hang out with Chemistry, and the plumbers didn’t eat lunch with the Architects.
We did something that wouldn’t be given a label until a few years later – we bonded. We did the Male Thing. We sweated and cursed and scratched ourselves and farted. We played stupid tricks on each other, we got into fights and we got drunk and high together. We went outside at lunchtime, sat on the grass and evaluated any females that walked down the sidewalk. We discussed our pasts and our futures. We went to each others’ houses and hung out. We went to New York City together.
We were guys, doing guy things.
Then, in 11th grade, everything changed. We lost our innocence. We would never know that close-knit grouping of adolescent males again.
We got girls in the school.
6, to be specific. SIX girls, thrown into 300-some-odd testosterone-squirting guys. Throwing Christians to the lions would be a mercy compared to that. They started new classes – Fashion Design and Cooking – and guys started begging to transfer into those programs just to be near the few girls in them.
Pathetic. I would NEVER do anything like that – I’d NEVER give up my Chemistry major. At least, that’s what I thought until I saw Donna Salerno.
Imagine the most pulchritudinous woman you’ve ever seen, multiply by 2, and you still wouldn’t be close to Donna Salerno. When she walked down the hallway everything stopped. Guys walked into lockers, fell down the stairways and started drooling on their notebooks. She was the IT girl of Saunders, and she knew it.
And for some reason which to this day I’ll never figure out, she chose me as her boyfriend. I mean, she was the Captain of the cheerleading squad! Now, even though that squad was “fleshed-out” by girls from another high school, we still had all six of the Saunders gals on it, and they made a fine showing. But Donna was always the one that all the eyes would follow.
She got into the habit of visiting me in homeroom, before classes started for the day, and sitting down on my lap. That she was often wearing her little cheerleader outfit didn’t help any – after she nuzzled my neck and kissed my ear I was ruined for the day and was often late for my first class because I couldn’t stand up without all the guys pointing and laughing.
But I wouldn’t have traded those days for anything. It was a wonderful experience to bond with hundreds of other guys my age, and I like to think we developed a group-think that saw us through the tough times. Our friendships were tight, tight enough that we still keep in contact even now, almost 40 years later.