Saturday, March 25, 2017

Nancy's Sophomore Slump

Me, age 15
By Tenth Grade I felt like an 'old pro' at high school. The year was a heady journey of ups and downs. I went on my first date, studied journalism, saw the end of a friendship and the deepening of others. That spring, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. A boy at school died. And Mom suffered a major health crisis that hospitalized her for weeks.

Me, fall 1967
I had taken Algebra in summer school so I could 'catch up' to my friends and take Geometry as a sophomore. I started out ok, but couldn't keep up and failed the class.

My geometry teacher Mr. Jacobson and I had a 'special' relationship. One day he said I was his favorite geometry student. "He kept bugging me and asked, "Who's your favorite geometry teacher?" That spring, when I was flunking the class, I told one of his honors geometry students to "kick Mr. Jacobson hello for me," and she did. She said he laughed and thought it was 'sweet of me' to remember him. When I came into class he told me, "I got your hello." I apologized, but he said, don't think of it, adding that he was "happy to fill my head with geometry."

About Journalism class I wrote, "Mr. Rosen's going to be a real peach of a teacher." I loved the class, even selling the Herald newspapers and Lancer yearbooks. I wrote, "Everything Mr. Rosen says sinks and goes deep into me. I looked through all my old Heralds and my Lancer.  I bet I’ve looked at my yearbook a million times."

I had Biology with Mr. Gasiorowski whose passion for his subject was infectious. What a great teacher and a great guy. He was a Chicago Cubs and Eddie Stankey fan.

When my dad brought home two rabbits in the spring I named them Eddie Stankey and Stanley Miller, a chemist Mr. G talked about who made amino acids in a test tube. My brother called the bunnies Spot and Snow.
Me with Edie Stankey and Stanley Miller
When Mr. G talked about Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape I bought a copy. Mom picked it up to look at and was appalled by the description of the human body response during sex. I told her I had read more salacious things in her books which I had picked up and read!

In October my folks went to the Parent open house. I wrote, "Apparently Mom and Dad had a good time at open house tonight. They liked all my teachers, especially Mr. Rosen and Mr. Gasiorowski. Mr. R said, “I don’t know if any of the kids have been telling you what we’ve been doing..”
“Yeah!” Mom said.  “Two hundred sentences…”
“That was a while back.”
“Now you're doing verbs and photography.  She likes your class best, I think.”

Girl's Choir 1967-68. I am in the second row from bottom, fifth from the right.
I was thrilled to be promoted to Girl's Choir. We wore a navy blazer provided by the school. I felt really sharp wearing it to school on days we sang. I was always singing, walking home or through the school hallways. They were a great group of gals and I made many friends in choir. I enjoyed Mrs. Ballmer.

Gym was required for two years. My gym locker was near that of the 'Greaser' girl who had bullied me in junior high, taking my hat and throwing it. One day I was singing while dressing and she said, "She's singing. Are you singing for me?" I replied, "If you want me to." And so I sang the second alto part of the song we were learning in choir. Her friends listened, too. They said I was good. I was never picked on again. It was a confirmation of something I had believed when a girl: if a bad guy came along all I had to do was play the piano or sing to calm the wildness.

I was still pining for the same boy. I wrote, "Mom left me with no hope. But Dad did. He said, “Don’t give up.” He said anything—even a fumble—boosts a guy’s morale. Let’s hope so. Of course, he ought to know, being a guy himself—once."

My old neighbor and friend Mike D. who had moved away was now a freshman at Kimball. I was too shy to talk to him. One day he gathered his courage and asked if I was me and then asked if I remembered the telescope and Homer the Ghost. I didn't have the courage to let him know I really had liked him. Partly it was pride, as I was a year older, but mostly I was shy.

A boy from my homeroom teased me for a while then asked me out. We dated for a few weeks, going to a school dance. We were dancing to My Girl when he kissed me, my first kiss. He wanted to go steady. I liked him as a friend, but we had little in common and I broke it off.
My homeroom class, 10th Grade. I am in the second row, third from right.
I followed several friends and joined the Political Action Club.

I never cared about sports but went to the football games at school to see my friends. I did learn a little about football.

I was writing more poetry:
The sunlight from the window,
Formed a stream of light flowing into the room.
The light illuminated the particles of dust
Floating on the river of melted sun.
The slowly sinking silver moon
Abandoned its position in the heavens
Giving it up to the victor, the sun.
A rosy dawn slowly, silently
Took over the sky transforming
A midnight blue to rainbows.
I read Gone With The Wind and wrote, "I feel I know Scarlet and Gerald and Rhett and Melody and Ashley all personally. I suffer with them. They haunt me, through Rhett's asking Scarlet to be his mistress, through Ellen's death, through when Scarlet finds the Tarleton twins have died. War is horrible. The book is so much a love story, but also it gives an excellent picture of Southern life and a great background to the Civil War. I never knew that was like that."

Other books I read included Alfred Hitchcock's Stories Not for the Nervous; The Moonspinners; The Return of the Native and Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy; Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote; J. D. Salinger's books; John Knowle's A Separate Peace; Green Mansions; The Foundation Trilogy by Issac Asimov; Kingsblood Royal; The Chosen by Chaim Potok; Anna Karenina; and Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein.

Tom and Dad playing at dining room table, Me and Mom.
No one else wore their hair that way. I always did something weird.
The fall began with the murder of a classmate's little brother in the Quickstead Woods near Kimball. Then my Grandfather Ramer was hospitalized after his first heart attack. One night some boys were trying to get the attention of the girls who lived across the street. Dad yelled at them to be quiet. They threw a beer bottle through my parent's second-floor bedroom window.

That October, listening to my records I wrote,

"Life is so baffling and unpredictable. It schemes, and you can only hope you’re on the right side of the conflicting forces and not on the overpowered side. It can cut you down like a scythe cuts the wheat. You fall at its mercy. It can be endless in every way as the stars. It can make you as exhausted as one lost in a pathless woods.

I won’t cry, no I won’t cry,
I won’t shed a tear
Not as long, not as long as you
Stand by me.

I feel so strange to feel so friendly
To say “good morning,” and really mean it,
To feel these changes happening in me,
But not to notice still I feel it.

"It’s all so strange. To say “good morning” and really mean it.  It makes me think.  Do they?  Does someone care, even if to say a “good morning?”  What is there left to say?  Is there something I’ve forgotten?  One person left blank?

“I can no longer keep my blind drawn,
And I can’t keep myself from talking.”

"But I notice, I feel it. What a strange effect a beautiful, overdubbed melody can have, creating a whole new emotion out of nowhere. Changing instantly how you feel. Maybe tomorrow I’ll know the answers. Maybe tomorrow I’ll know. I can only wait. And hope He will stand by me, as before."

At Christmas, our neighbors the McNabs joined my family for a turkey dinner. I played Christmas Carols on the piano and they sang along. Afterward, Grandma Ramer, Dad, my brother and me took a drive to see Christmas lights.

We ended up in Detroit. I wrote, "We saw Cobo Hall, Ford Auditorium, The Spirit of Detroit, Hudson's Christmas display windows. It began to snow, not much on the ground, but it does look beautiful to look out your window and see snow falling. Yes, we saw Detroit in all its glory, and the dark, back alleys that chill you to the bone. Not far from Grand Circus Blvd. and it's lighted stores, are broken-down tenements. But even there, in cracked windows, can be found a few colored lights, a lighted candle."

We spent New Year's Day in Tonawanda. I wrote, "Now I'm grown I can see people's personalities. Aunt Alice and Uncle Kenny, Skip, Tom Wilson. Skip says I can't marry until I'm 30--get an education. Uncle Ken is funny. Aunt Alice will have a baby in July. John [Kuhn] pities poor dad--"even your own daughter!"--because I pick on his big nose." I wrote that "Nancy Ensminger was impressed by my description of my life in Michigan." Sadly, Aunt Alice lost that baby.

In January I wrote, "I think the world's falling apart. Riots, wars, crime--dear God, I wish I lived on some obscure island in the Pacific or on an iceberg off Greenland. When will man find peace? Will he ever? We destroy all the beautiful things with ugliness. I wish I were a child again able to live in my own magical world and leave the rest up to the adults. But in this day and age, teenagers are caught up in it. Ever since I heard [a boy] talk about being drafted I've been scared for the boys I know. I hate war. Cutting down the nation's youth, without a chance, growing up too quickly."

The Herald, our school paper
On April 5, I wrote, "It happened again. Martin Luther King Jr's murder. Students wore black armbands, shaking their heads silently during Mr. Stephan's speech. They protested that the flag wasn't at half mast until the governor proclaimed it. They were emotionally upset. We all felt bad, and perhaps guilty for our race. We are the future who will deal with this problem. It's fortunate most felt compassion instead of victory."

On April 6, I wrote, "It seems we just all exploded happily over Hanoi's wanting a peace talk, and up, up, up went the stocks. LBJ had to stay and cancel his trip as riots broke out over King's murder and down, down, down went the stocks. I am convinced this country is a mess. Mr. Jacobson's been talking politics in class lately, and Mr. Burroughs is great on current events. I've learned a lot about him about Vietnam, stocks, the racial problem, and other problems of this Rat Race. Mr. Gasiorowski has been preparing us for sex, marriage, and other things about Adult Life and responsibilities. With Mr. Rosen we try to take this world and report all the latest facts on the Rat Race to the Rats themselves. So, in the end, you've gotta get involved. Mr. Gould tries to help your 'love life,' and Mrs. Ballmer helps you get enjoyment out of succeeding and working hard to get to the top. And Mrs. Dubois teaches teamwork. In school, they prepare you for Life."

On April 18, I went to Great Scott on Crooks Rd. with Mom to buy easy meals. Mom was going into the hospital for two weeks and I would be responsible for cooking, cleaning, and getting my brother up and to school. Every few years Mom would try another treatment for her psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

In May, my journalism class attended a conference for high school students held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We got press cards. My friends and I spent time wandering around town among the college students. I hoped to go to college, too. But I had not talked to my folks about it.

The photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook was the step-son of my Ninth Grade English Teacher, Mr. Botens. He would hang around our classroom, talking to Mr. Rosen. One time they were discussing how to photograph a person in a jar and they asked me to pose. I was wearing the Mod suit I'd bought with the money I found on my way to summer school. I liked Joe, but he was older and I thought he was too cool for me. My friend Dorothy knew him and one day we went to his house so she could return chemistry papers she had borrowed. In April she told me she asked him if he'd date me. She said he said he thought I was cute and would consider--it but he had a girl. That was bitter-sweet.

On May 15, 1968, I came to school and my friend Kathy gently broke the news that Joe had suffered a serious accident. I was stunned. At choir, my friend Peg told me Joe had died. The Girl's Choir sang Happy Birthday and I was offended, unwilling to have life go on in the midst of death. I grieved for days, recalling all my losses over the years. In the end, I decided, "So, follow his example, when he lived. Find the ambition and vigor he met life with. And die with the courage and determination he did, but only when it is time. Now you know death for what it is."
Newspaper articles on the death of Joe Botens

1969 Lancer tribute to Joe Botens
On June 5, I turned on the radio and heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. One of my close friends was upset, saying her parents didn't understand. There was another school rally and the Principal gave another speech and a prayer for Kennedy's recovery. On June 6 I wrote, "I prayed as I fell asleep: Don't let him die, don't let him die."
October 1967 Free Press photo of RFK visit to Detroit

While Mom was at the hospital the doctors discovered that she was being harmed by the medications she was on and they took her off them, cold turkey. She became very ill, losing both weight and her hair. The family feared she would die. Dad came home from work, ate, and went to the hospital. I was not allowed to go. I stayed with my little brother.  It was an awful, stressful time.

The school year ended. The last day I walked home alone, for all my friends had left already. I was very blue. Summer of 1968 was the lowest point of my life.

The stress of Mom's illness showed in my family. I was falling into depression, moody and unhappy. My folks were short with me. There were fights. They did not understand that stress affects the whole family.

My Uncle Dave was in a horrible car accident in Annapolis. I went with the McNabs to see The Graduate. I traded bedrooms with my brother, making me nostalgic thinking about all I'd experienced while in that room. I went bike riding with my girlfriends. We saw the fireworks display at the Clawson park, just a block away from where I now live.

Mom was still not well when my July birthday came. Instead of a Sweet Sixteen party like my friends had, I was lucky to have a cake and a family gathering.

I struggled with the evil in the world, the loss of my naive belief in the innate goodness of all people. Now, I wondered if I wanted to live in such a world. I prayed to just die and then felt terror. I realized my terror was because I believed in God and feared that my prayer might be answered. I had at least accomplished one goal: I was on my way to a real faith.

One summer day I took my brother Tom and his friend Bruce McNab to show them my daily walk to Kimball. After Freshman year all I could think about was getting back to school. This summer I was nostalgic for simpler, happy days. One year had changed everything.
Bruce McNab and Tom Gochenour

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