Saturday, March 11, 2017

You Must Change Your Life: Ninth Grade and a New School, a New Me

Me, age 14
Fall of 1966 saw another change in my life: going to high school meant a third new school since 1963. Homesickness had been replaced by nostalgia for the past. Fourteen years old, and already my heart resonated to lines such as, "I remember, I remember, the house where I was born," by Thomas Hood.
Me, Winter 1966-7
Being an introvert, not one to jump in and go with the crowd, I still missed having a best friend. I was lonely. I also knew that my priggishness was keeping me back. Only liking classical music, classical literature, and disdaining the popular was a real drawback to making friends.

My resistance to rock and roll and 'liking boys' was wearing down. I was ripe for change, and high school was an opportunity for a start-over. But, at what cost? Could I betray what I had always been--in exchange for what? That road was unknown.

A few weeks into the school year my English teacher Mr. Botens told the class, "You are three persons: "The person you were in the past; the person you are at this minute; and the person you will and want to be in the future." That comment changed my life, for I understood that I held my destiny in my own hands. I could be who I wanted to be. The question was--what did I want to be?

I was very aware of leaving childhood. "I'm suddenly seeing things through different eyes," I wrote in my diary. "I found out what life is all about. The suffering, pain, and work that was ahead. But the thread broke and the dream of childhood drifted away." I wanted to write, and knew "it takes imagination to write fiction, and study, brains, and experience to write non-fiction."
Homecoming float for Freshman Class, Oct. 29, 1966
My Freshman year classes at Kimball held a mixed bag for me, academically. I actually did good in General Math, Civics, Glee, and even Gym, but ended up flunking German although I really wanted to learn. I never could memorize. In college, I just squeaked by in Latin.

Team English had three teachers and 90+ kids. I was in the highest Reading Group, but middling spelling and grammar groups. (Many years later when working in editing and copywriting, I kept my trusty grammar guides beside me.) I loved Mr. Botens.
Girls Glee Club 1966-67. I am on the center row, far left. 
I was in Girls Glee Club and was pleased when Mrs. Ballmar called me to join a group of girls she thought were some of the best singers. My training was good: I had been in chorus in elementary school in Tonawanda and played the piano. My folks bought me a guitar and I was taking lessons and teaching myself to sing folk songs with guitar. I loved the idea of 'portable music,' an instrument I could take anywhere.

The Christmas Concert was an amazing experience, with all the choirs joining in the last piece, The Song of Christmas, and the O Holy Night. Learning the alto for O Come, O Come Emmanuel was handy considering how many times I sang it in church over my life! In my four years singing in three choral groups, the Christmas concert remained a highlight of each school year. Performing was exciting. In the Spring Concert, we sang Mr. Wonderful.
1966 Christmas Concert program
I made many friends in Glee. Pat had been in Mrs. Hayden's class and we became best friends that year. If I was fearful and controlled, Pat was a free spirit who pushed the envelope. She certainly pushed me into uncomfortable areas. Even going to see Dr. No and Goldfinger at the Main Movie Theater was a push for me!

Pat took me home with her after school and we practiced flirting with the 19-year-old man who was helping to build an addition on Pat's house. We made pulled hard candy. I stopped by Pat's house on the way to school and we walked together, or her mom gave us a ride in bad weather. Pat let me borrow her parent's copy of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. Now, I wonder if her parents knew! One weekend we walked to downtown Royal Oak by way of the railroad tracks, discussing religion.

I had a mad crush on a boy and Pat encouraged and abetted me in all the wrong ways. But, I also had crushes on dozens of other boys as well. It is a great relief to know that as a teen Jane Austen was described one of the silliest and boy crazy girls in England! I can excuse myself for being normal. I had finally broken my vow to never be silly over boys.
Me and Pat, summer 1967
Pat encouraged me to lose weight, giving me an exercise pamphlet. I went on a 1000 calorie diet. Mom had already tried a high protein diet, a calorie control diet, and even 'pep' pills. I can't believe the doctor gave me pep pills! Plus, I walked 2 miles to and from school every day. I did lose 25 pounds before the end of summer 1967.

By the end of the year most of the girls I would be friends with in high school I had already met. Friendship was such a big deal to me after several lonely years. I would walk girls to their classes for a moment's gossip, and be late to my own class!

In my diary I wrote about the overwhelming newness and awareness of just starting life, but also the lack of a purpose in life. I was still seeking the faith in God I had observed at the altar call when I visited a Baptist church in Sixth Grade.

"I think some people don't have a point of life to make it worthwhile. You may be having a grand time, but what is it worth if it doesn't have a point? A goal, a purpose, something to achieve. I don't have a point in life. I'm just living it. Seems a pity to just waste it. I just go on and on, every day. As much as I love life--my life--it doesn't appear to have much of a point." I continued, "The best point to have, I think, is God. It must be. Our point is to worship God, to believe in and love God. To serve him, and not we ourselves. No, not ourselves. We should do God's bidding. That seems like a good point in life. It really does."

I was not "there" yet, and my language reflected what I had heard, not what I had personally experienced.

Christmas came and went. Our consumer, throwaway values upset me when I saw the Christmas trees at the roadside. I wrote,

"I was thinking about all the little Christmas trees at the side of the roads now. How can people just toss them out in the snow? To think--a few days ago, they were decorated and "oohed" and "ahhed" at. Now, no one cares beans about them. They were beautiful, and loved, but once used, they're tossed away. Trash. People kick at them while walking. No one now thinks of how beautiful they were. People use them, then just throw them away."

I also wrote a poem, full of mock pathos:

The Tragedy of the Ever Green Tree

ah, once pretty ever green tree
with strands of tinsel
still hanging among your branches
of brown, falling needles;
the season's over.
ho-ho-hos and presents are gone,
safely tucked away in drawers and rooms
and memories.
your work is done, ever green tree.

once pretty ever green tree,
laying in the once fresh sparkling snow
now dirty and gray
next to tin cans full of
residue and refuse from the holiday--
the garbageman will come for you,
children kick you on their way to school,
and cars splash black melt on you
as you sit by the roadside.

once grand and regal
in the warmth of the livingroom,
decked in lights and donned in ornaments,
now you lie in the cold,
on the street
to be taken away.
grandeur has left.
all fame leaves with the turning
of calendar pages.

I was in my e.e.cummings phase. I later read this poem in speech class but gave an alias for the author. It was not the only poem I was to write about a throwaway society. When I was in my early twenties I wrote,

I am an old Bic pen,
an empty tube of colorless plastic.
Bought cheap.
Used.
Discarded.
The consumer's whore.

Mr. Botens had to get our parents get permission to read The Catcher in the Rye. I had never read anything like it. The last book I had written about reading was Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. In January I wrote, "I picked up some good sayings from Holden. Good ole' Holden," adding it helped me 'express' myself. I also admitted that the 'sex' stuff in the book was pretty embarrassing to discuss in class. I took to introducing myself as Rudolph Schmidt, the alias Holden used when he met a fellow student's mother. I went on to read everything I could by or about Salinger.

Other books I noted reading that year included Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ethan Frome, Death of a Salesman, The Oxbow Incident, Inherit the Wind, In Cold Blood, and The Great Gatsby.


The first 45 record I ever bought was Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfield. I was now spending most of my allowance on a 45 record a week, which I bought at the Kmart store in Troy. Records I bought included Michelle, Ebb Tide, Homeward Bound, Message to Michael, Sloop John B, Monday, Monday, Paint it Black,  Red Rubber Ball, and I Am A Rock. I even bought silly records like Little Red Riding Hood! So much for pledging to never like silly music like Itsy Bitsy Teeny Tiny Polkadot Bikini!
I kept the Top Ten record sales lists in my scrapbook

Easter 1967
But that other side of me was still there. At home, I played classical music on the piano, drew, and filled notebook after notebook with my writing.

In March I wrote, "It's fascinating, even at my age, to see a butterfly land on your finger, spreading it's golden-orange wings in the breeze as if it were keeping time to some unheard song. Sitting peacefully and calmly without at care. Only to fly away in a moment. Up and away it goes, off to another place. Gaily it circles in the wind, to land on a flower or a green leaf." But I also envisioned a dark future, "Perhaps it will land in a spider's web. Carefree, happy and gay--it's caught. It struggles to get away, but alas, it is too late. He turns gray and soon our pretty butterfly is no more."

Dad in our back yard. 1967
May 21, 1967, my family went to see dad's friend who lived in Windsor, Canada. I documented the whole trip minute by minute. I wrote,

"We went by the tunnel. We stopped at a Hi-Ho restaurant for a hamburger. Customs took about 2 seconds. On the way back to Detroit, we saw a whole pile of smoke. Dad thought it was from a factory. But as we got close, we decided there was too much smoke to be from smoke stacks. It was a fire, a tremendously big one. The flames went up so high in the air, and the gray smoke swirled upward in the wind to form big billows of gray clouds. Beautiful--yet deadly and sinister. A two-story building was on fire, and [there were] houses all around. People emerged from everywhere and nowhere, all watching and talking. We heard on CKLW it was the third time for that building to be on fire this year."

Then, Dad got lost.

"We had to travel until we found Woodward. We went through the heart of Detroit and the slums. The slums I've seen in movies all year in Civics, they were right there in front of my eyes. The crowds of people in front of porches, talking, leaning on cars, sitting on steps. The mutilated buildings boarded up. Why doesn't someone do something? I wish I could. I don't blame them for hating us. I think we're half-sick. Why can't everyone feel the way I do? Why so much prejudice? I think there should be more propaganda to get sympathy for the Negroes, and booklets telling how you can help them fight for their rights. And if anyone says we're traitors--no--we aren't. It's the patriotic, right, Christian thing to do. To put them down should be a sin or something. I don't know, I swear, I don't know or understand anything. Nothin."

I ended by writing, "Born Free is playing on CKLW. We're all born free, and yet some can't be free. We are born with rights and then somebody comes and takes it all away because your skin's the wrong color. Hate--violence--the one to blame is the one who won't give citizens their rights."

My teacher Mr. Warner taught us that there is only one race--the human race.

Most of my diary is filled with an obsession with friends, boys, and the agony of typical teenage angst over friends and boys. I hardly recognize the girl I had become during those teenage years. At fourteen I had an idea that people change continually, evolving, and named each change an 'era'. I suppose I still believe that for looking back I can see myself becoming different people as experience and wisdom shaped me.

March 21, 1967, Detroit Free Press story with Kimball boys.

April 11, 1967, Detroit Free Press. Hemline wars.