A look back at high school writing

The 1960s were a great time to be in high school, as opposed to, say, fighting in Vietnam or dying in a race riot. Sure, we had the rumbles and shoulder-punch-outs that seemed earth-shattering to us, but it was mostly a time to try being free and creative in ways we were never allowed before.

My senior year at Miami Norland High School was when I first got interested in creative writing. Mrs. Massey taught a journalism class that seemed to cover everything but journalism. Inspired by the ground-breaking social upheaval of the times, she didn’t take attendance and she didn’t mind taking guff from her precocious students, most of whom were Jewish, upper-middle-class and looking for intellectual trouble.

She ran her class as something of an educational experiment, giving us the freedom to talk and write about whatever we wanted. My first essay for her was a call for America to give equal rights to broccoli. Later, I attacked a grading system that allowed me to get a 93 while my friend scored only a 79. “Does this make me 117.7% better a person than he?” I asked, quite the profound question when you stop to think in those pre-calculator days that I had to use long division

And then there was the horrible but creative (but, more than anything, horrible) poetry. A favorite stanza I wrote still lingers in my memory over 40 years later.

When I at last have breathed my final breath
And my remains are lowered in the ground
I wonder what will people think of me?
When I like them had walked upon the earth?

Heavy. And not at all like the man I’ve become, who doesn’t even care what people think while his remains are still up and walking around, cutting people off in traffic and sighing loudly as that lady in front of him pays with a check check in the supermarket.

Little of that early writing has survived. However, I think I can create a replica, and thought it might be fun to try. What follows is the essay I might’ve written for one of her final assignments of that last year of high school: Pick a topic, any topic, and write a minimum of 500 words.

+++

Any topic, you say? ANY?

“Any” is such an expansive word and yet also so limiting, a mere three letters in a language replete with words of considerably greater length. There’s an “A”, and then there’s an “N”, and then there’s a “Y”. Why, indeed?

(I’m assuming that letters count as words in your arbitrary call for a minimum of 500 of such fleeting entities).

Webster defines “topic” as “something dealt with in a text or in discussion.” He tells us to also “see subject, theme, matter or issue.” But one must ask, who is he to be telling us what to see, with his eighteenth-century perspective and prejudices?

No one is really sure who he is anyway, whether he is Daniel or Noah or perhaps another Webster entirely. Or maybe he is some yet-to-be-conceived Webster, a man-child who will inhabit a space in the media of the future, perhaps an urban Chicago setting in which his parents were recently killed in a car accident and he’s adopted by George Papadapolous, played by Alex Karras. And perhaps he shall be known as Emmanuel. You never know.

These are times that demand more focus than to throw open a discussion such as this to the whims of high school seniors. We are but buds, still unformed, still uninformed, still uniform in our adherence to societal demands, not to mention the school dress policy. Mere buds, I say!

Speaking of nature, we should consider the moon and the stars and the galaxies that swirl around us in their impromptu dance of celestial wonder. They would qualify as a topic, certainly, but what good would it do to attempt to put them into the categories, the restrictions that language demands? Plus, it’s daytime, and even if it were dark out, my telescope is broken, and my stupid younger brother now uses its tubular length as a baseball bat. His naivete is so sad that it makes me weep.

I qualify not, though, as a crybaby, for I am a sensitive lad. Even my mother says so.

You label this class as “journalism”. I repudiate your labels, as we have not been asked to keep any journal whatsoever. (I’m not suggesting it; I’m just making an observation.) I heap derision and disgust on your provincial concepts of “objectivity” and “facts.” I do this by putting certain words in “quotes,” as is the literary fashion. Fashion, though, is of little concern to me and my generation, as the afore-noted reference to the dress code infers.

In closing, I stop to take a look at myself in the mirror and at the mask I wear which society — and my acne — has demanded. I see in the reflection a challenged soul, a primordial man, an adolescent in a shirt that is really too tight, though it claims to be a husky. In the background of the reflection, I see a can of Right Guard deodorant next to the bathroom sink, and its implied assertion that I need to eliminate all traces of nature from my essence. It’s an effort that is doomed to failure.

Maybe I should switch to a roll-on.

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