St. George’s Free Range Culture:
Thus far in this series I have alluded a number of times to what my high school classmate Dyche Alsaker has referred to as the “free range” nature of St. George’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Free range is exactly the right phrase here, and a number of factors contributed to the free range, sometimes free-for-all, nature of the times. In no particular order, here are five incidents or examples which I feel exemplify something of this culture. I wonder if readers who didn’t attend SGS will find these strange or more or less normal given the time period.
The Smoking Shack:
When I was first in the lower school around 1981-83, there was a smoking shack for high school seniors just behind the high school building. Seniors, and perhaps juniors, essentially earned the right to smoke on campus by virtue of age, and the smoking shack was deemed official, ordained even, by the school itself. The smoking shack was not just an area, it was a physical structure as indicated by the name, potentially purpose-built for students to smoke in.
Even as a small child, I found this interesting, because by the 1980’s smoking was not as common among adults, at least on a regular basis, as it seems to have been 20 or 30 years earlier, a fact I somehow intuited. The smoking shack was torn down shortly after this time, probably in the mid ’80s, and smoking on campus was no longer allowed (although students would still smoke cigarettes, and other items, in some of the more discrete and far-flung areas of the campus environs). By the time my classmates and myself became high school seniors, we too had a senior lounge, a smallish two-room shack also behind the high school that I believe was once the headmaster’s office. We didn’t smoke there; instead we played mammoth games of Risk and Diplomacy, watched Seinfeld, and played street hockey against Mason Anderson who would do his best Ron Hextall impression. It amazes me to this day that smoking seniors were not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, during my time at SGS.
The Janitor Hangs J.T. and I Up by Our Necks
Way before sugar cubes, pithing needles, or any other of this sort of action, J.T. and I set out to bedevil the middle school janitor. As I mentioned above, both of our fathers coached sports, and therefore we were at school until 6 or 7 PM most days throughout the year. This left ample time for us to get into trouble, which first involved stealing the bucket and mop of the janitor (a tallish bearded dude as I recall) and hiding it, thereby preventing him from doing his job. Naturally we thought this was hysterical. He disagreed, and would curse us, with semi-good humor, as he located and re-secured his equipment. This was when we were in second or third grade I would guess.
One day, after weeks of bucket hide and seek, the janitor had seen enough. He decided to take drastic action. The boys bathroom of the middle school had a set of coat hangers about six feet off the ground, and these must have been pretty sturdy because this dude hung both of us up by the backs of our sweatshirts and left us hanging there as he completed his cleaning rounds. This, as I recall, was pretty unpleasant, and also worrisome–how long did he intend to keep us there? To my recollection this only happened once, and we hung for 15 minutes or so before he let us down. I went home and complained to my parents–the janitor hung us up on the coat hangers! Well, my parents said, did you do something to him? We just hid his bucket like always, I replied. That seems like fair treatment then, said my parents, maybe next time don’t hide his bucket.
Even at the time I actually felt this was a reasonable response on the part of my parents. I mean, we knew we were looking for trouble, we knew we were inconveniencing the dude–getting a reaction was the whole point. So, mission accomplished, although I think we did back off the janitor after this incident. He had made his point, and established himself as a worthy adversary. Respect my dude, respect. It is a little hard to imagine the hanging of children just flying under the radar like this today, but at free range St. George’s in 1983 it was simply par for the course.
The Phone Room:
When my classmates and I were in fifth grade we had a homeroom teacher called C.F. At the time, I thought he was a great teacher. Looking back, I reckon he was probably just super lazy, but also just a little creative in his laziness, a pretty good combination for 11 year olds. Whole lessons would be given over to thought experiments like “imagine you are stranded on a cliff with a sheer drop on either side with one friend. How do you get off the cliff?” Every suggestion was met with dismissal by C.F.–nothing would work. We would go on and on to no conclusion, and then class would end. Or, he would just play the Beatles for the whole class. Stuff like that.
C.F. was pretty even-tempered most of the time, but from time to time he would get mad at a student. This was usually not me, although on a few occasions it was. When he would get mad, he would put the offending student in the “phone room.” The phone room was just what it sounds like–a very small room with a phone that dialed off-campus. This was in the mid ’80s, and cell phones were not yet a thing. The phone room had a single chair, the titular phone, and various phone books. I have no idea if the phone room was ever used by a teacher–certainly I never saw this. Instead, it seemed to exist solely for the purposes of punishment.
C.F. would stick students in the phone room for the length of a class sometimes, but other times he would leave them there all morning or longer. A really bad student might spend 4-5 hours chilling in the phone room. Now today, I believe, this is considered really bad practice. Just locking a student up for hours on end for supposed recalcitrance is not a recommended method for student discipline and rehabilitation. But again, this was the ’80s and things, as I hope I have made clear to my younger readers, were just different back then.
However, the funny thing about the phone room punishment was that off-campus calls from the phone room’s phone were free, and there were phone books. So naturally students with nothing to do and hours at their disposal would make prank call after prank call, calling pizza delivery, other businesses, and, in a precursor to E.P.’s dirty calls to mothers, parents of classmates. I don’t know if C.F. or the other teachers knew about these calls, but all the students did, and some may even have looked forward to a stint in the phone room to operate the phone and raise a little hell.
C.F. ended up having an affair with another teacher and checking all the way out of his job a few years later, before leaving the school and moving to Idaho. Before this, however, we graduated from the lower school to the middle school, and one day I bumped into him and said hello. He said something to the effect of “I won’t talk to you anymore because you and your classmates are bluebirds who have flown away.” What he meant was, I guess, he had done his job and we were someone else’s job/ problem/ business now. Fair enough, perhaps, but still a little odd. All in all, C.F. was a good teacher because he was different and took chances, although his methods would not even begin to stand the scrutiny of a modern school, at least I wouldn’t think. And I never did figure out how to get off that f*** cliff.
Pithing Needles in the Biology Room:
In high school we had two main science teachers. The first was J.T.’s dad E.T. who taught Physics. E.T. was also the assistant baseball and girl’s basketball coach for my father, who was the head coach. E.T. passed away recently, so rest in peace to a mediocre science teacher, an excellent first base coach, and an awesome right hand man.
The second was our Biology teacher, an older woman who had taught, perhaps right there at SGS, as far back as the 1960’s. She would tell us stories of how in the 60’s she would tell the class “any of you who are on acid, just take the class off and go outside,” so she’d seen it all I guess. Nonetheless, we managed, sans hallucinogens, to vex her on a regular basis, and when mad she would cross her arms, stare at the ceiling, and repeat the phrase “bad words, bad words, bad words,” a reasonably inventive way to avoid telling her students what they could do with themselves.
Now, she was probably a perfectly competent Biology teacher, but we were not, as 10th graders, a very receptive group. To be honest, Biology was boring. But one thing the biology room had that held potential were the pithing needles. Pithing needles, for those who don’t know, are thin, very sharp, needles about three inches in length which are attached to a wooden handle. They are, I believe, intended for use in dissections, however J.T., Kelly, and myself found other uses for them. We would sneak back into the Biology room after school and, holding the needles by the handle, fling them up at the ceiling, which was made from soft plaster board or some such material. With the right touch we could stick the needles in the ceiling, and although I only remember doing one dissection (the fabled frog dissection) in biology class, there were copious needles to throw. After a couple hundred attempts, we would manage to stick fifteen or twenty needles in the ceiling, which was quite high up, maybe 20 feet or so. The next day in Biology class the teacher would point out the needles, say her bad words, and threaten us with retribution if we were found to have been involved. What we were really waiting for was if a needle would get loose and fall down during Biology class, which would have been a bonus. (We were not bad kids; Biology was just super boring–what can I say?)
In any case, after weeks of needle flinging the pithing needle supply was pretty much exhausted and the teacher, possibly with some other adult backup, singled the three of us out (she would have known the responsible parties all along of course).
“Alright boys, you are going to climb up and get those down.”
“How are we expected to do that? They are way up there.” No protestations of innocence, just practical objections to the task at hand.
“I don’t care,” she said, “you put them there, you get them down.” One way or another, perhaps with a borrowed ladder, perhaps with a long broom or something, we managed to clear the ceiling of the deadly needles. All in all, sure we stole sugar cubes and ammonia packets, broke and entered into the headmaster’s house, and filled the biology lab’s ceiling with deadly projectiles, but at least we were sober. So, we had that going for us.
We Graduate with Blank Diplomas and Miss Prom:
Like many schools, SGS sent us seniors on a senior trip just weeks before graduation. Senior trips, through normal enough, are invariably a bad idea because students will, nearly without exception, attempt to drink on the trip. And so did we, however our experience was a little different as our drinking was directly facilitated by one of the three adult chaperones on the trip. And yes, we got punished, losing prom and graduating with blank diplomas, which might have been fair in some circumstances but hardly in these specific ones.
I won’t enumerate the exact circumstances of the alcoholic consumption on the trip because I don’t wish to engage in any under the bus throwing, even at this remove, however suffice it to say liquor was provided through a large legal purchase by said chaperone. Another chaperone discovered the drinking after some of my classmates were, let’s say, less effectively clandestine than myself and my own little group (we were trained in spy craft from way back), and the matter was reported to the then headmaster who was called George Swope. George Swope was no George Edwards, despite the shared first name, and was in fact pretty ineffectual in all areas. He called us all into a room with another administrator as backup and lectured us about drinking.
“What I think is fair is we take prom away for all of those who have admitted to drinking, and also you will graduate with blank diplomas. You will have to work off your debt to the school after graduating as well.”
Now really, this was some bullshit. The prom ban was fair enough, but the idea of working off some supposed “debt” after graduation was ridiculous, and I, with my big mouth, said as much in the Swopester’s little meeting.
“We accept (I began with the royal we, because why not) the prom situation, but you can’t take our diplomas away from us. And anyway, the booze was supplied by a teacher, as you well know.”
It didn’t matter. Some of us graduated with blanks, and I looked through the rolled up paper dramatically on receiving it, just to be a d***. Our valedictorian, Matt Carpenter, who always claimed never to study, which I think was also B.S. (although he was super smart so who knows), was under strict orders not to mention the incident in his graduation speech. As I recall, he did a perfect job of alluding to it without saying anything provably related. I was proud of him.
Why would a teacher supply booze to students? Well, because he wanted to be liked. It’s not that complex. Again, if this happened today I imagine the parents of the students in question would raise holy hell, and the teacher would be terminated. None of this happened; his involvement was swept under the rug, and life moved on. J.T. and I did expunge the “debt”, which, karmically, I guess was pretty fair given our earlier transgressions, by clearing a bunch of logs from the river while I played Dylan on a boombox with an extension cord (not the same boombox or extension cord my brother Mike played Richard Marx on). Some of the richer students (I’m just going to call it like it was, and almost everyone there was richer than J.T. and I) dodged log clearing duty to no consequence. That’s the class system–fuck that, by the way.
OK. That’s all I have. There are many, many more examples of free range culture at St. George’s, however my memory and creative vein are tapped out for the time being. If you attended SGS back in these days I hope these reminiscences bring back memories, on the whole happy ones. If you are reading and didn’t attend SGS, does all this sound pretty out of control, or pretty much normal? Leave a comment either way–I’d love to hear from you.