Moving from Brooklyn to North Massapequa on Long Island, New York, I was the new kid on the block. The only friends I made were a set of twins who had also recently moved from the city to suburbia and together, we lamented. We hated it. I couldn’t sleep, it was so darned quiet. I could hear the crickets at night, instead of traffic or any of the sounds of a ‘quiet’ city at night.
Things I remember most about high school: being a bleeding heart liberal who has always wanted to ‘save the world’ in some way, I joined a black club in my school. There were 3500 students in my high school, but only about 40 kids in this club, and I was the only white kid. I thought we would participate in activism of some kind, but discovered that they really wanted to do things like fashion shows and hang out with people of their own kind. Whereas, in Brooklyn, there were lots of races in the schools, here in Farmingdale, there were mostly white kids. So much for my activism.
I wanted to be unique and unusual in high school, so I wore funky clothes like overalls and fedoras, and flitted from group to group. My high school had a huge open area called ‘the Commons’ where the different cliques hung out and I frequented them all, except the jocks. Even though I’ve always been athletic and involved in some sort of activity, like tennis or dance or skiing, or just running around playing games in the streets – I didn’t really care for the jocks. I found them petty and vain, concerned more about how they looked and what they said. I have never really been a conformist, so there you have it. There was the hippie crowd, the cool kids, the intellectuals, the greasers, the nerds, and the outcasts. I found each of them to have something to offer.
The school offered an alternative learning experience they called ‘the New School’ which was a school within a school. It was similar to a Summerhill experience where they held several lectures throughout the day on various subjects and anything you did outside the school could be considered part of your learning experience, like going to the Botanical Gardens or the Zoo. I decided not to join because I didn’t trust myself to do my work independently without structure, but I hung out there a lot with my friends. We created a huge fantasy mural of magic mushrooms and such. I wish I had joined the program.
While most girls dated boys in the normal way, I didn’t really feel all that comfortable with the high school boys. I had a lot of male friends, but not boyfriends. There were several boys in the New School that I liked, but I thought they were too cool to like me. I found out later in my life that they thought I was too cool for them and that’s why they never asked me out. If only we knew how to communicate.
Everybody hung out behind the pool and smoked pot after lunch. The dean would sometimes come outside and yell, “Okay, you kids, stop smoking that pot and get to class.” I guess he knew he couldn’t stop anyone. Nobody really thought about the fact that pot was illegal, because so many kids smoked it, so what were they going to do? Arrest everyone? People made pipes out of apples, pens, and even tampons.
Once I got used to being in suburbia, it was kind of fun. I walked to school through my neighborhood, then cut through the woods by the lake. That’s where everyone hung out after school, and sometimes at night. I would stay out way too late with my friends and sneak in through the laundry room window, only a foot off the ground.
I stealthily crept into my teenage bedroom that my mom let me decorate myself so I would feel more at home. Two of the walls were royal blue, 2 had a patterned wallpaper or red, white and blue, shag carpet of the same color scheme, red window shades, and a blue and red blanket to snuggle under, which I still own today.
Then, I would put multiple vinyl records on my record player, plopping one on top of the other, until I fell asleep to the sounds of Ten Years After, Grand Funk Railroad, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carol King, or Sly and the Family Stone (my first concert at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan). Sometimes, I would get out my notebook and write for an hour before falling asleep. There were no personal computers in 1972.
Back at school: I had chemistry right after lunch with a teacher who used to be a nun. One day I had to make up a test and she let me stay late to take it in her office. She left the room for a bit and I had my books right next to me. I had never cheated before and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to look up some formula, but I agonized over the decision. Sure enough, the minute I opened my book, she walked in. She was very disappointed in me, lamenting “Robin, I trusted you”. I was so devastated that I never cheated again. I’m not Catholic, but I mean…a nun.
Funny how, although I did love school, the things I remember most were my teachers. I don’t really remember much about the school work, or what we read, or what we learned. I’m sure I’ve retained some knowledge of these things, but again, I’d have to get a memory shovel.
I do remember the first BIG report I ever did. I stayed up all night to finish a 25 page report about Tennessee Williams, whom I’d spent weeks reading about, and reading as many of his plays as I could get my hands on (Glass Menagerie was my favorite).
My favorite teacher of all time -I loved my high school English teacher – Mr. Cates, a thin, demure man with thinning white hair and long, lean fingers, who looked like someone’s grandfather. He was a gentle man who loved what he did. I asked for him again in 12th grade.
He inspired me so much that I opted to work with him on the Dostoyevsky novels instead of the easy stuff with the really cute student teacher. We read “the Idiot” and “Brothers Karamazov”. I’ve always been fascinated by cognitive anomalies (to this day, I read books by neuroscientists and work with gifted kids); the Idiot was based on Dostoyevsky’s life as an epileptic.
Mr. Cates had us to his house for a gathering and he had little animal figurines all over the house, which he told us moved from room to room when he wasn’t looking. Something told me that it was probably true. Cates made us read an unusual story called “the Dark Tower” in manuscript form. Mr. Cates said that if we ever figured out what the true meaning of the tower was, we should come visit him and tell him. Years later, I thought I had figured it out and went to look for Mr. Cates, but it was too late – he had died – although his influence never died. I would become an English teacher for some time and it was due to his passion for literature and philosophical discussion that prompted me to begin my life’s journey for meaning and truth.