Back to school
RN&R editors and contributors reflect on five decades of school
When you stop to think about it, we all seem to think our own high school experience is the high school experience that defines the American school experience. But when you get right down to it, not a lot has changed. School is mostly about reading, writing and arithmetic. Yeah, right.The Kids are alright:
The outer world was in tumult in 1968, the year I graduated from Reno High.
What we think of now as the “Sixties” were really the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. But inside the walls of RHS, things seemed little changed. We were into studies, romance, music, all the usual high school concerns. I had the impression that the larger world’s turbulence seeped into Wooster, Hug and Sparks earlier than it did Reno High. Our school’s district was more affluent and comfortable.
There were those who tried to keep RHS in its traditional place. At one point I published a letter to the editor in the Red and Blue from Joe Reading and Mike Echeverria that called for reducing athletic funding and shifting it to other programs such as speech. It’s hard to believe after 45 years that have made protest more respectable, but a vice principal hauled the two pleased students into his office to berate them! They loved it.
There were signs of what was happening outside. It was particularly difficult for boys to warm up to principal Bill Bowden. He was chair of the local draft board and his signature was on our draft cards. On one side of Booth Street, he educated us. On the other side, he shipped us off. I don’t know if I knew the term conflict of interest then, but I understood the concept, thanks to him. Example is the best teacher.
If we needed any other reminders of the times in which we lived, they could be found. There was a fallout shelter in the depths of the school. I had one of my reporters on the Red and Blue, Meredith Roelofs, go down and see it and write about it. Right across the street was the federal building, where the draft board had its offices and where draftees had to report every time there was a human shipment out of Reno. And, of course, there was the ever constant reminder that we had to get into college fast after high school graduation. I think it’s really neat that boys today have control of their lives so they can take time off after high school to work or travel or whatever. We didn’t have that ability.
The drug war had not yet started, so drug use was still negligible. But there were always those who occasionally stirred up public panic on the issue. Washoe County District Attorney William Raggio at one point claimed that a third of local students had tried pot, and high school campuses should be closed. Reno’s campus was open, and I ran an editorial with an accompanying drawing showing Reno High surrounded by a moat. Years later I told an amused Raggio that the first thing I ever wrote about him was a critical editorial. He was also an RHS grad, class of ’44.
My name did not appear as editor on the masthead of the Red and Blue until the last issue of the year. Our great journalism teacher, Rex Daniels, knew a vice principal was targeting me, so he had me keep a low profile.
It was 1968. Martin King died during the spring semester, then Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had been so unpopular with Nevada big shots and the casino industry—he had tried to wipe out the Nevada mob—that some friends of mine and I set up a campaign committee for him so he would have at least some visibility in the state.
It was amazing how the school changed in that year from spring semester, class of ’68 to fall semester, class of ’69. During our class, the outside world seethed, but inside the school the signs of that turmoil were below the surface. We graduated in June 1968. I returned for a visit in December, and the dress code, if it still existed, was ignored. Girls wore short things below, boys wore facial hair above. The school newspaper was stirring things up. Rebels were about. The world had come to Reno High.School's out:
Let me say this from the outset: I hated high school. High school in the 1970s was barbaric. I can’t think of another word to describe it. I went to a small Catholic high school in Nebraska. It featured a systemic structure of bullying with the seniors at the top and freshmen at the bottom. You never knew at what moment you’d be walking down the hall, and one of those beefy Cornhuskers would slap you on the head with his school ring turned outside in. We even had a special night where the seniors got to take us out in the back of a pickup, drive us to a remote country spot and torture us with fun games like making us eat a bar of Exlax or forcing down cherry vodka or spitting something that was supposed to be a tobacco chaw into our mouths while we wore blindfolds and underwear. All this stuff was supposed to toughen us up for football, as I recall. I guess it worked in a Dexter sort of way. I believe they canceled the tradition a year or two after I participated.
Even the teachers got in on the act, in some cases actively encouraging picking on certain individuals to help them manage their ADHD. I had a teacher who forced me to take a university correspondence course rather than teach me grammar.
And to our detriment, we passed the bullying on. I’m sure the people who followed me still think of me as something between Vlad the Impaler and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. There are some apologies I’ll never be able to make. I can barely bring myself to visit my home town because of those school years.
Students in the 1970s saw the end of the analog age. We saw the possibilities of the digital age, but we didn’t get the benefits. For example, I think we had two semesters of typing. The first, my entire class was on manual typewriters. The second, some of the girls got electric ones.
The ’70s were a combination of big-hair rock, punk and disco. I don’t know if I would have survived high school without the Cramps. Of course, the drugs and alcohol helped a lot. But we did not see any irony to dancing to “Turn the Beat Around” at the Oasis on kids’ nights and driving home listening to “Pretty Vacant.” Or Waylon Jennings, for that matter.
High school in the latter part of that decade, probably because the late ’70s followed the cultural rebellion of the late ’60s and early ’70s, was designed to stomp out any trace of individuality in children. And you know what? I was one of the lucky kids: Smart, rebellious, weird. But it was my experience in grade and high school that informs my ideas of what schools should be, and makes me sensitive to the plight of square pegs in the 21st century school system.
Maybe that’s the takeaway for kids who’d rather wear a plastic bag over their heads than take one more step down that tiled hallway: High school is only four years, but the scars last forever. Just kidding. High school may be four horrible years, but things almost immediately get better—as long as you make it past graduation.Rock 'N' Roll High School:
In 1987 when I began high school, hair metal bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe dominated the air waves, acid-washed jeans and big hair were in style, and the mall was the place most teens hung out. We didn’t have smart phones, Facebook or other forms of “social media.” You just called your friend on a land line, arranged to meet at a certain time and waited for them to show up.
Being part of a subculture was a little more dangerous back then. If you were a punk rocker, a goth or were just a little different looking, you were seen as bizarre, scary or even subversive by some people. You were likely to get your ass kicked if you went to places frequented by folks who weren’t used to seeing teenagers dressed in black with green hair. Today, hardly anyone bats an eye if you’re walking down the street wearing bondage pants, dread-locked hair or multiple body piercings. Of course, there are still those types who will pick on others who look different, but overall Reno has become a little more tolerant of the “freaks.” I wonder if Burning Man has something to do with that.
There weren’t as many places to hear “underground” or “alternative” music, unless you lived in big city with a college radio station that played that sort of music or had a hip record store that offered a selection of releases from those sort of bands. Back when MTV was a music channel instead of a “lifestyle channel,” you could see music videos by up-and-coming bands: 120 Minutes if you liked alternative music and Yo! MTV Raps if you preferred hip hop. Fortunately, there’s YouTube for those of us who still like to watch music videos.
Back in late the 1980s, students had to go to the library and check out books for research papers. We had to navigate the Dewey Decimal system and thumb through the index cards to locate books. Today, loads of information is available on the internet with a click of the mouse. I was probably a bit behind the curve, but I don’t recall hearing the words “world wide web” or “the internet” mentioned until 1991. While we still don’t have transporters or replicators like those envisioned in Star Trek, today’s internet would seem almost like something out of a sci-fi novel to people back then. Of course, we didn’t have to worry about the downsides to technology or the ways it can be used to harm people such as cyber-bullying, stalking, identity theft or loss of privacy.
There are other things about being a student or young person back in the 1980s that are different than today, but I don’t think today’s teenagers are inherently different. The fashion, music and technology have changed, but teenagers are still trying to find out who they are and where they fit in this world, and I imagine tomorrow’s young people will still be doing that 20-30 years from now.Smells like teen spirit:
Unlike most American teenagers, I had very little interest in getting a driver’s license. This was partly because I wanted to drink and do drugs. And I knew, at least, that drinking and driving do not mix. I ended up finally getting my driver’s license in my mid-20s, but even now I still prefer to drink rather than drive. Support your local cabbies.
Anyway. I went to Reno’s Galena High School, graduating in 1998. My teen years were fun, because there was a near constant sense of discovery and self reinvention. And, for the most part, I have nothing but positive memories of high school. There was an unusual number of creative students in my class and the classes a year ahead and a year behind us—wannabe artists, writers and musicians. Great people, many of whom I’m still friends with today.
But there were a couple of negative emotions that felt consistent. The first was a sense of cultural isolation. I felt like there was a big beautiful world out there that I didn’t get to be a part of because I was trapped in the dehumanizing institution of school. I’ve always loved learning and always hated being forced to follow rules—especially rules that made no sense, like those dictating when it was acceptable to eat food or go to the bathroom. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I often felt like school was getting in the way of my education.
The other negative emotion I closely associate with high school is a feeling of sleep deprivation. I think school started at 7 or 7:30 a.m., which is ungodly early for those of us who are naturally nocturnal. And for those of us who lived far away from campus and had to either chase down a school bus or mooch a ride from a friend, it meant having to get up before 6 a.m. (I became a much, much better student when I got to college, where I avoided signing up for any class that started earlier than 11 a.m.)
So to combat the sensation of being forced to get up unnaturally early and told exactly where to go and what to learn—which interfered with my own interests in learning—I took to substances: Coffee to help with the sleep deprivation, alcohol and marijuana to combat the institutional control. They might have been able to dictate where my body was, but my mind would be elsewhere.
This was, of course, a terrible tactic. And it misfired badly when I showed up to sophomore chemistry class too drunk to stand, promptly vomited on my desk, and had to be rushed off to the hospital to get my stomach pumped.
So, that was awkward. My poor parents thought I was suicidal or something, which I wasn’t at all. I loved life, then as now, but had no use for institutions that told me how to live it. Honestly, I think if school had started later in the day, or if I had been allowed more choice in my education—what classes to take and when—I wouldn’t have been going to class drunk and on drugs.
It’s all about a yearning for freedom. For some kids, freedom is defined by the ability to drive. For me, it was about freedom of consciousness. I believed as a teenager, and still do, that drugs should be legal, that the drinking age should be lowered to at least 18, that the driving age should be raised to at least 18—cars are more dangerous than beers—and, perhaps most important of all, that high school should start later in the day.Thnks fr th Mmrs:
A city like Las Vegas isn’t well-known for its wonderful education system, but it does make a nice place for memories. Vegas may not have the best education in the U.S., but at the same time, I’m grateful for what I learned and experienced there.
I graduated in 2012, and I know what you must be thinking: “That was so long ago!” I mean, talk about a blast from the past, right? Time to break out all the old Grumpy Cat jokes along with Internet sensation Ridiculously Photogenic Guy and to remind ourselves of how great it was to live in the good ol’ days of 2012.
I don’t imagine going to school in the 2000s wasn’t much different than attending school in the ’90s or ’80s. The only difference was the technology available. Technology was becoming more and more advanced, and it seemed like it was going at a much faster pace than before, and there was this rush of wanting to implement it in all schools.
Elementary school was nothing memorable, really. Middle school was just awful. When has anyone ever had a decent middle school experience? Never trust someone who says they have. Mother Nature decides to mess with your body, give you a face full of acne and makes you feel just generally awkward.
High school is sort of a nice change. I went to a magnet high school and majored in Japanese all four years. It was interesting not having any sports teams, but sports were never my thing so I didn’t really care. I was on the newspaper staff in my high school and my first year on the paper I won an award from the Las Vegas Review-Journal for Best News Story. That, along with my Japanese major, helped me figure out what I wanted to major in at college.
Those four years did go by fast and classes became more technologically interactive too, with Smart Boards in the classrooms and electronic quizzes. But I never believe a person when they say that high school, or college even, will be the best time of my life. High school is only a step up from middle school and isn’t much of an improvement. College falls under that category, too. It’s only a step up from high school.
When I tell non-native Nevadans that I’m from Vegas, the assumption is that I had a subpar education and struggled due to budget cuts. The budget cuts part is true, but my education never “suffered,” really. My school district didn’t struggle to the point where we had to use textbooks from 1896. Like any school district, we made do with what we could. The things I learned outside of the classroom—how to interact with people and handle difficult situations—have helped me more in life than anything else.