Monday, August 9, 2010

On being a baby - over and over and over!

I recently found an old essay tucked in a box of mementos. It reminded me of some Bainbridge Island (high school) history. Best forgotten in some minds I'm sure but interesting nonetheless. The words follow:

The last few days of the school year - eighth grade - Commodore William Bainbridge Elementary School where one wing was designated as the "Junior High School" - seventh and eighth grades. In fifth grade we had ridden the school bus for the last time onto the dirt driveway at Lincoln Elementary School. I think it was just before Thanksgiving that we started at the "new school." Gee - we called it the "new school" - it didn't even have an official name yet. There was some sort of contest to pick the school name. But flash forward about three years, here we were ending eighth grade and hearing all about going to high school. The driveway that led up the hill to the high school was right outside our classroom windows. The hill looked steep - forbidden. Sometimes, high school students walked down the driveway on some errand or other. They looked so much older, and, somehow, so different - even strange - maybe like stars. They drove CARS! Some of them SMOKED! Mr. Inch, the eighth grade math and P.E.teacher, taught gymnastics in after school sessions and once in a while, a couple of his former star athletes, now Juniors and Seniors, would help. I was the "runt" and silently terrified of those big guys - and, oh yes, of course, they were objects of my secret crushes.

My terror was constant. I was a year younger than my classmates because I had "skipped" first grade. I just knew everyone ridiculed me because I was such a "baby." I was skinny and small anyway but I shrunk as much smaller as I could so no one would notice me.

The tables were set to be turned - a bit. My whole class would once more be at the bottom of the totem pole. Not only would we be cowed by those "upper classmen", we would have make it from classroom to classroom in two to three minutes, store our stuff in lockers, make life changing class choice decisions, and answer to teachers who we'd been told had no patience with "baby ninth graders."

On the other hand, we might bump into the Queen of the Cheerleaders, the Senior Class President, or even the star of the football team. Those days, high school sports' heros (the big "3" being football, basketball, and baseball) were the Island's darlings. Over the summer break, the excitement took on an urgency. The girls fretted about their new wardrobes; how many and what color(s) of the Pendleton stitched-down and reversible plaid pleated skirts, coordinated color sweater sets and ankle socks, and white buck oxfords to get. Page boy hairdos were a must - you know the style set on orange-juice-can-rollers - and bangs plastered to our acne-inclined foreheads in Mamie Eisenhower fashion. Boys had to wear gabardine or corduroy slacks and button-front shirts (NO Tee-shirts). The two or three guys who cared about what they wore, chose black slacks and pink and white striped, button-down-collar shirts. The boys who were "jocks" wore their hair sliced straight across the top of their heads in a crew-cut. The "cool" guys slicked theirs back into a "ducktail." Regardless of the so-called style, boys' hair was SHORT. Girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. And jeans for both genders were not only strictly prohibited, but considered "farmer" clothing.

Me, I couldn't afford the Pendleton stuff so I baby sat all summer, bought a Penney's skirt and sweater outfit and hoped no one would notice the difference. My hair would not hold a curl in spite of sleeping on metal rollers and bobby-pinned bangs every night. The walk to the bus stop in the fog every morning left my hair looking like cold spaghetti dangling over my ears - not even the ubiquitous wool bandana tied babushka-like, tight on my head could save my pageboy. BUT - my biggest trauma was that I'd never sprouted real breasts. I couldn't even pretend to wear a bra. Today what I wore would be called a tank top or maybe even a camisole - then it was an undershirt. It wasn't so bad in junior high school because lots of other girls wore them, too. But I KNEW I was going to be the only one in PE class who had to strip down and show my UNDERSHIRT before taking a shower. I sat mesmerized in my girlfriend's bedroom, staring at the cone-shaped, circle-stitched bra laying on her bed. Would I ever be able to wear one of those?

The summer ended and high school began. There was about seventy of us new high schoolers. We managed to stumble through the first week of school, finding our lockers, and then lost them half the time, located our various classrooms, and were relieved when the first week finally ended. The "upper classmen" thankfully seemed to ignore us. Little did we realize we were being sized up for the traditional initiation rites due for us the following week. Our first Freshmen assembly was in the tiny gym that occupied half the main floor of the old brick building. There were rumors a new, modern, standard-sized gymnasim was soon to be built. But we were not concerned at the moment. At the assembly the rules we were to strictly follow for a week were gleefully announced. Babies - not just as an idle reference to our standing as newcomers - but we were to behave like babies. It was supposed to be funny for the freshmen to have garlic cloves shoved in their mouths and their faces washed with icy cold water. It was mandatory to bow and say "goo-goo" to all the upper class students. Penalties for non-compliance were assessed by the student jury. Some poor kids had to sweep the hall with a toothbrush or bark like a dog all day instead of speaking. By Friday the youngsters were bedraggled and faced the worst day - it was a sporting event like the ones Romans enjoyed in the Coliseum; Christians being ripped apart by hungry lions. First we had to sing baby songs in front of the whole school. Then the fun really began. We pushed peanuts with our noses across the football field and crawled on all fours in races and tug-o-war. And we had to be DRESSED like BABIES.

So came Friday. I wanted to be sick - actually I was sick - with anxiety, sick with anticipation of more ridicule. There was no way my mother would let me be sick. I wore a ruffled blouse, a full, short skirt, and the requisite bib and bonnet. Through the back of my blouse, my undershirt was plainly visible. I didn't get to second period before some wiseacre boy made a smart aleck remark. I was mortified. I turned beet red encouraging a whole platoon of fourteen year old boys to harass me. I almost threw up. I don't remember the rest of the day. I know it was capped with intra-mural field games and I also know that too must have been difficult since I was too shy to display any kind of athletic ability.

Finally, it ended. I thought it was over. But - the next week, on the paper's front page, a photo memorializing a bunch of bibbed and bonneted freshman girls stared out at me - I was one of them. The editorial merrily reported the hazing and teasing. There was no admonition of bullying or any mention of any kind of fear or humiliation. Instead the activities were lauded as normal and healthy activities. Thankfully I can report that was the last year of initiation festivities (a word I use advisedly). Not because of any concern for the mental well-being of the targeted participants. Rather it was the toll on class time that spelled the demise of "Freshmen Initiation." Whatever the reason, I silently applauded the decision. Today's attention to the damage caused by bullying and verbal abuse is long, long overdue.

There were lots of signs that in retrospect glaringly highlight the unenlightened times. Every summer, itinerant berry pickers would throng to the Island and in two to four weeks, assure the harvests made it to the berry stands and the markets. Lots of kids also made pocket money picking strawberries but it was the Indians who bore the load. The pickers, often entire families, were housed (to use a term loosely) in sheds, shacks, near the fields. There was more often than not, no electricity, running water, proper toilets, or baths. Group sanitation facilities were provided as regulated but the poor people were ostracized, shunned, and feared. Indians were rumored to be hiding in every ditch waiting to attack any lone person. A special deputy made rounds where any Indians gathered to "keep the peace" and let them know they were being watched.

When two Indian children died when a shack burned down, there was a loud movement to ban strawberry farming. The claim was that stopping farming would stop shootings, fires, and fights. No move was made to regulate safe and hygenic living conditions for the farm workers. But the sale to Indians of alcohol, including alcohol-based vanilla extract, had already been banned in righteous indignation ignited by the fear of those poor people.

Being a victim in those days was the crime. Prevention more frequently was in the penalizing of those upon whom crimes were committed.

1 comment:

  1. Good memories. I had forgot about the hazing as I was the class of 59. By the way....the only reason we walked down the hill from the High School was to check out next years crop of fine ladies!!!