The high school years can be an angst-ridden time, if only because high school students are really half adult/half children people still learning the ropes of maturity. Yet the pressures of being a teen today are probably five times what they were when I attended Great Valley High in Malvern, Pennsylvania so many years ago. In those days, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on weekends constituted a major scandal. Drugs were unheard of; the words "marijuana" or "ecstasy," for instance, were never spoken by students then.
A 2012 survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that at least 86 percent of high school students in the United States are aware of peers using illicit drugs. That's a far cry from a few "normal" smokes behind the Great Valley gym auditorium. Bullying and teacher-bashing are also common occurrences in today's schools. During a recent discussion with a longtime female Philadelphia public high school teacher, I listened as she told me what she encounters everyday at a popular Philly school. "The students call me four-letter names every day in class," she said. "The attacks are relentless and pretty insulting, and when I go home it takes a while to recover from the abuse. I am powerless to do anything about it because when I do I am told by school administrators that I need to learn to 'better manage my class.'"
In other words, when there are unruly, rude students, it is always the teacher's fault.
In today's Philly public schools, kids not only rule but they call all the shots. "The only time administrators pay any attention to foul-mouthed unruly kids is when one of the administrators is physically or verbally attacked. Then they pay attention, but teachers do not count."
When I was in high school, if you challenged a teacher you were suspended or expelled. Calling a teacher a four-letter word would have been a major scandal. We respected teachers because they were our elders, although that didn't mean we had to like them. Student-on-student bullying that's become commonplace today did not exist at Great Valley, although shunning students who did not belong to your clique was a common occurrence. High school cliques have always existed, and at Great Valley there was a heavy caste system where membership in certain cliques determined your social success or failure till graduation.
At Great Valley, if you were a C-student you could not belong to the upper clique, which included some jocks, cheerleaders, class officers and members of the National Honor Society. The upper clique teens had their own parties and sat with their own kind in the lunchroom, while the lower cliques had their own lunch areas. (Loners and misfits sat alone, or sometimes floated among the lower cliques while never actually belonging to them). The lower cliques included non-contact-sports "jocks," as well as fast girls in large hoop earrings and teased sprayed hair with a penchant for cracking their gum while reading soft porn novels like William Goldman's Boys and Girls Together. Boys in the lowest clique were often referred to as hoods. They were overly macho greaser types who wore tight, short pants and shiny pointed shoes. (They may have been hoods, but they carried no knives or guns).
At Great Valley, there was some overlap among the various cliques, but if your clique was too far down the totem pole, there was no overlap at all. In all of the cliques except the one with National Honor Society members, the big thing among the boys, including the hoods, was to bleach a section of your hair blond. It was considered cool to have a blond streak falling over your eyes or textured into your pompadour. Many of the blond streak guys were athletes, which upset our gym teacher, Mr. Al, who happened to be the brother of singer Perry Como. In fact, one day Mr. Al was so upset by the high number of blond streak guys that he lined them all up for a swat or two from The Paddle.
Mr. Al's paddle was an oversized Ping Pong paddle with an oak base and a thick handle. Twenty or more boys lined up on Blond Streak Paddle Tuesday, this writer included, for one big derriere-reddening swat.
Any public school teacher who did something like this today would be hung out to dry on Action News or philly.com, but in yesterday's kinder and gentler -- and less politically correct -- era, theatrical punishments like this were considered normal. In fact, not only didn't the paddle hurt, but the process was more like an initiation or ritual which had most of us laughing, including Mr. Al. Mr. Al was well liked, especially since his famous brother Perry had most of our mothers swooning. Mr. Al had many of Perry's qualities, too -- namely gentle-looking eyes despite his macho gym teacher pose.
Nobody, you can bet, ever called Mr. Al a four-letter word. And not one parent ever came into his office, complaining, "You paddled my sweet little Johnny. I'm taking you to court for ten million dollars!"
In fact, Mr. Al was so sensitive he was known for allowing the non-jock, bookish boys to use his gym class as a study hall. He'd let you sit and read at his desk in the gym, a gesture I now attribute to his having had an artistic singing brother who was probably anything but a jock.
One day while seated at Mr. Al's desk, I opened a drawer, ostensibly to look for a pencil, and found a rosary. "Mr. Al, the brother of Perry, says the Rosary," I said to myself. This meant something to me because my mother was always going on about what a good Catholic Perry Como was, and now here was proof: Perry's brother said his beads between paddles!
At Great Valley high school dances, we did the Twist and shook that part of our anatomy that all dancers shake: their derriere. While some adults then may have harbored a dim view of the Twist (and The Beatles as well), they knew better than to go to the School Superintendent and file a complaint stating that kids on the dance floor were shaking their derrieres inappropriately. Not one parent or teacher said, "School dances involve too much shaking of unseemly body parts. This is an outrage and it must stop."
In some high schools, it's the kids who are abused by the administrators. I'm thinking of the big twerking incident in San Diego's Scripps Ranch High School. Twerking, in case you don't know, is when one or more students, male or female, stands on their head against a wall and shakes their derriere Twist-style to brash and brassy music. When the San Diego student twerk dance was posted on YouTube, everyone associated with the video was suspended. San Diego School Superintendent Bill Kowba stated that the upside down dance moves were "deeply offensive with implications for lewd conduct and sexual harassment."
Can we repeat Mr. Kowba's charge with a straight face? These allegations are an insult to real sexual harassment cases.
When I went to Great Valley High, the world was not perfect but at least teachers and school administrators, and even most parents, had a shred of common sense.
Imagine a Mr. Al trying to use his fun paddle today at that San Diego school. Think of the newspaper headlines: "Teacher abuses students with Guantanamo-style torture," or, "Teacher, with the intent to kill, persecutes students with blond streaks."
Once again, it goes back to school administrators -- the same out-of-touch people who won't do anything in Philly's public schools when ordinary teachers are attacked with insults and four-letter words but who will climb Mt. Everest when one of their own is a target.
The real dangers lurking in schools are guns, drugs and violence, but doing the Twist while standing on your head with your body against a wall is not one of them.