Pioneer high school was a big public high school with over 2000 students, one of two at the time in Ann Arbor, located on the southwest side of town about a mile and a half from my house. It was a sprawling building on an even bigger campus of lawn and parking lots looking more like a high-tech business campus than a typical high school. When I first entered to register for classes the week before school started the main hallway was broad and institutional with what I remember to be a polished formica or marble-like floor, nothing to give the place a sense of a human scale. The school was a string of buildings connected in an L-shape, maybe at least a quarter of a mile from one end to the other.
Registration included a long row of tables on the side of the broad main hallway of the school. Hundreds of newly enrolling kids were milling about trying to figure out which line to queue up for next, with adult school staff stationed behind the tables to assist the next in line. I signed up for the standard required tenth-grade college-prep classes - geometry, English, biology, physical education and foreign language. Like my junior high they offered Russian, which I had gravitated to the previous year after briefly taking Latin. With the Soviet Union much in the news and Detente between the Cold War adversaries in the works, Russian seemed like a much more exotic yet pragmatic language choice than French, Spanish, German or Latin.
For my one elective class I signed up for stagecraft, which happened to be taught by the same person who had been my substitute speech teacher in eighth grade and given me a brief but memorable experience in theater. Performing in that musical number, “Sargent Krupke” from West Side Story, with four other male classmates had been the highlight of my three years of junior high, most of the rest of which I would just as soon forget.
Even though my new school was a huge impersonal institution, when I started classes it felt better than the puberty-racked pressure cooker that had been junior high for me. The exception was my new homeroom, where all of us spent 20 minutes each day being bored and I had some fellow students who looked to embarrass a gullible shy kid like me. I just never expected my first interaction with a fellow new student in my homeroom to put me on the wrong end of a stupid sexual practical joke.
The kid behind me tapped me on the shoulder, and I eager to engage with one of my new peers in my new school turned and willingly engaged him without caution. He held his hand in an open fist and told me to do the same, then move it up and down. I was incredulous. He goaded me again and again. I couldn’t believe I was going to be the butt of a crude stupid masturbation joke, so I moved my hand up and down as instructed. “Feel better?” he asked and laughed derisively, along with several of his friends snickering nearby. I was speechless and duly embarrassed. Luckily we did not have assigned seating in homeroom and I made a point subsequently to sit as far away from him as possible.
As that incident illustrates I was still shy and did not have my “street smarts” yet and was still easily intimidated. So initially I just mostly sat in my classrooms listening to teachers or working individually, reading the required texts, doing my assignments and taking tests. The only students I interacted with at school were the ones from my neighborhood that transitioned with me from Tappan Junior High here to Pioneer.
Though I got good grades in my academic classes that first semester, I don’t recall anything in those classes being particularly engaging to me. I recall in biology class dissecting a frog and then a fetal pig, and remember being at least somewhat intrigued actually reading a short story in Russian by Pushkin, where he followed the 19th century Russian literary convention of not referring to towns by real names but only by letters... “Town A” and “Town B”. But I also remember my public speaking class where I painfully watched my classmates get up and awkwardly speak, while experiencing increasing dread that I too would have to get up in front of everyone else and do the same. All told the semester was mostly routine semi-boredom, punctuated by moments of dread or drudgery and the occasional bit of interest.
What really interested me at the time, way more than my academic classes, were the military and other simulation board games that I had been playing, with friends or often solitaire, since I was about nine years old. I was always lobbying my neighborhood friends to play them, and had found a couple who were game nerds like me willing to try even the more complicated ones that might take many hours to play. Among my neighborhood friends I had two, Burton and Carl, who was a game nerd like me and were eager to play all the new games Avalon Hill was coming out with. Carl in particular had the perfect basement for playing these games, set up like a rec room with a ping pong table where we could lay out the big game maps and charts and leave the thing set up so we could play it from one weekend to the next (not much ping pong being played I imagine in the meantime.
I was drawn to these games for several reasons. First of all I had always been interested in history, which seemed laced with these military conflicts and all the issues that swirled around them. Second I also loved maps and geography, and playing the games generally involved gaining an intimate sense of the geography of the particular campaign theater and how best to traverse it, whether France, Russia, the Eastern U.S., or what have you. Sometimes I would stare at a gameboard for hours just taking in all the nuances of the geography. Third was an underlying desire to have an impact on something important in the world, and even though these were just games, I had the thrill of at least pretending to change the course of history or what have you. Fourth, and perhaps most significant to my future paid work, I was fascinated by all the components of the systems - rules and charts - that were used in each game to create the simulation and make it as realistic as possible. A great game struck that perfect balance between relatively simple and intuitive systems that still accommodated a broadly realistic simulation.
Though my academic school work did not engage me at anywhere near this level, the exception was my stagecraft class. My teacher Michael was in his late 20s, a generation younger than most of my other teachers and had a certain charisma about him, having been a child actor and spent his youth and young adulthood in the entertainment business. He made more of a personal connection with me than any of my other teachers throughout my K-12 years of school, which drew me to him as a mentor. He acknowledged me as a talented person, which was a recognition that I craved more than anything. In his class, I learned mostly about set and lighting design and the various aspects of the backstage functions that went into a theatrical production. As a side benefit from having taken the class and acquiring the basic skills, I was able to work on the student stage crew for the numerous rentals of our high school’s large auditorium and smaller theater, actually getting paid for my hours worked.
I also got recruited to work on the backstage crew for my school’s student production of “A Thurber Carnival”, which was essentially a series of sketches combined into a theatrical revue. The set for the show featured a row of three rotating panel frames across the back of the stage. Removable panels could be hung on each side, one facing the audience and the other facing back stage so it could be changed for another and then quickly rotated into position between scenes to provide the new scene’s backdrop. Back there in the dark, with several of my fellow students, wrestling with those four by eight foot panels, building the camaraderie of a “stage crew”, was an experience like nothing else I had had before. Particularly for me, getting to work in close quarters with a couple of my female classmates who I would be way too shy to even say hello to in the halls was particularly thrilling.
By the time we got to second semester, Michael asked me if I would like to design the lighting for the spring school play, Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”. This involved coming up with a paper plan showing each lighting instrument and what area of the stage it would cover. Then actually setting up and using scaffolding and ladders to get up to the ceiling of the small theater to hang and position the lights. Next I was working with the director to identify all the lighting “cues” throughout the course of the play, including scene changes and the sort. I got to “run lights” as well, working from the lighting booth during tech and dress rehearsals and performances to pull the dimmer levers to execute those light cues.
Another thread that wove itself through the year were weekends visiting my dad. He and my mom had divorced four years earlier, after she had discovered that he had had an affair. He had recently gotten a job as a professor at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and had moved to Xenia Ohio.
Though he now lived 200 miles south of Ann Arbor, he continued to make the effort to spend at least one weekend a month with my brother and I. He would get a colleague to cover his Friday afternoon classes, leave work at Noon and make the four-hour drive up to Ann Arbor to pick us up after school. Then he would turn around and drive us back down to Xenia, stopping for dinner at Big Boy or one of our other favorite fast food restaurants along the route. Arriving back at his small apartment around 9pm, We’d hang out together for what was left of Friday evening, maybe all watching TV, or maybe him grading papers at his little desk in his tiny kitchen while my brother and I entertained ourselves. Saturdays we would usually go out and play baseball, tennis, football or basketball, depending on the time of year. Maybe even drive down to Cincinnati in summertime to see the Reds play baseball at old Crosley Field or wintertime to watch the Royals play basketball, or just watch a game on TV. He would usually make dinner at home that evening and we’d hang out some more. Sunday morning we’d get up, go out for breakfast and then he’d drive us the four hours back up to Ann Arbor, and then drive back home alone, a total of 16 hours back and forth twice in a weekend.
Though I probably did not appreciate it sufficiently at the time, it was an important aspect of my budding sense of self that my dad cared enough about my brother and I to make this happen at least once a month. The weekends generally had an emotional undercurrent of his love for us but also a sense of shared sadness. They were often an introspective time for me, captured best by the music of Simon and Garfunkel, which my brother and I were big on at the time. We had several of their albums, including Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, the songs on that album, listened to over and over on my dad’s record player, in particular capturing that mood. From “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall”...
Through the corridors of sleepStill to this day when I hear songs from that album, all the emotions of that time surge through me.
Past the shadows dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don't know what is real,
I can't touch what I feel
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion.
So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.
Back in Ann Arbor, having gotten the political bug from being brought into my mom’s political activism, I recall it was in May when I got word that some of my fellow students were going to walk out of classes to protest the Vietnam War (still going strong in the new Nixon administration). Though I don’t recall any of my other school friends or acquaintances participating, I was somehow moved to join about 100 other of my fellow students who walked out of school. I knew my mom had been inspired to get into politics to keep me from being drafted some day and sent off to serve in the military in Vietnam. Given her effort on my behalf, and my support of that effort, it seemed hypocritical for me not to join this “strike” by my fellow high school students. Maybe if I had been confronted by a teacher or a principal telling me I should not leave campus, I might have chickened out, but in the very liberal town of Ann Arbor, I suspect most of the adult staff supported the effort against the war.
I recall getting in the middle of the group that exited our school and walked the mile and a half down to the University of Michigan campus for a big rally. As we got to the campus environ we mixed with older college students with their long hair, facial hair and wild hippie clothing. I recall during the rally being offered marijuana a couple times but refusing, not on a matter of principle, but just because I was freaked out to step that much outside the “box” or my life. But the whole gestalt really got my wannabe revolutionary tendencies juiced up and I at some level was starting to become comfortable, surrounded by all these older youth and young adult “freaks”, with being more of a non-conformist myself.
Music, whether played on a radio, stereo, or occasionally live, has always been my “Greek Chorus” and framed or otherwise captured most of the key emotional moments of my life. Certainly so in this case, where I recall that the band playing at the rally was the MC5 (Motor City Five). The band, I would later learn was managed by a local leftist radical activist John Sinclair, who that same year was sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of marijuana. But on that day his band captured my radical zeal with their proto-punk counter-culture hit, “Kick Out the Jams (Motherfuckers)”.
From the rally stage they called out that there was going to be a meeting of the “Student Mobilization Committee” at the University Student Activities Building. I was actually one of two dozen people that actually attended the meeting (of the hundreds at the rally), perhaps the youngest person in the room (but certainly hoping I would not be identified as such... I wasn’t that brave yet!). I recall there was a lot of talk about organizing this or that sub-committee of the group, it all kind of going over my head, me with zeal but no sort of activist chops yet.
I returned to classes the next day and noted that there was no mention of my absence from my afternoon classes, let alone any repercussions. It was a very different time than today to be in high school in 1970. Though school had required classes, the “college prep” track was an option and not a universal mandate. And even within a required class, particularly the English and social studies classes, teachers I recall had a lot more control over the curriculum they presented to students. The whole system was much looser, with laxer rules for class attendance and roaming the halls during class sessions.
When the last day of school came that June, it still felt to me like a day of liberation, but it was a somewhat different creature now being uncaged and unleashed for the summer. In my larger life outside the classroom, I had now had these additional experiences of doing something real and meaningful to a larger community. Though it was just one afternoon, participating in the student protest had been a heady new experience for me. But most of all, playing a key role in a real theatrical production with an audience to please and a circle of comrades counting on me to perform my technical function integral to the production’s success. As a still shy person, it was a tremendous boost to my self-esteem that I was no longer just one of 2000 random and unimportant school kids. Theater in particular would be an opening to a new world that would become a major theme in my life in my next Junior year, and for the rest of the next decade.
And the summer ahead was likely to be quite a different sort of adventure as well. My mom with all her ingenuity had engineered, despite limited funds, a deal where we would trade houses and cars with a couple in England for the summer.