I started high school in the Fall of 1956 in the Bayside High School class of 1960. It included the good Jewish kids (at least good on the surface). That was my clan. Then there were the mostly Italian and Irish Parochial school kids who were so “unruly” their previous schools would no longer have them. I think of them as the P-kids (for “Parochial”) which included equally outrageous P-boys and P-girls. For sure, not all the P-kids were maniacs, but the maniacs are the memorable ones with their rule-breaking ways like smoking wherever and whenever they could (including turning the school bathrooms into something akin to opium dens), making out in public, and the P-Boys walking stealthily behind a quiet kid like me and pounding a lung-collapsing and vertebrae-crushing fist into my back just for fun. Ah, those were the days.
The P-kid mob was like alcoholics and sex fiends who had been deprived of both for a very long time—and then were unleashed into a sheltered population. The result was mayhem. The best thing we good kids could do was get out of the line of fire and try to stay safe. It didn’t always work. Like at the pool in gym class.
The Damn Pool
On the first day of gym class in Freshman year, the gym teacher said we’d be going swimming tomorrow in the school pool. First reaction: Yay! But then came “Prepare to get naked, boys, for tomorrow’s gym class.” What??!! Maybe it wasn’t a problem for everyone, but for this 12 year old—a member of the “Small Dick and Hairless Balls Society”—it was a big concern.
Many people are surprised and even shocked to learn that New York public schools had mandatory naked boys swimming. It was actually a thing that started in the 1800s for many schools throughout the country. (Be sure to check out the history of naked swimming at the end of this story.) But at the time, I didn’t care when the damn thing started or why. Naked swimming just created a lot of problems for me . . .
Despite my fervent prayers that tomorrow wouldn’t come, it did, and it unfolded just like the gym teacher promised. And when the naked frenzy began, my red-faced embarrassment was compounded by the opportunity it gave the P-boys to perfect their naked shower, wet-towel-snapping skills in the pre- and post-swim mandatory naked communal shower. And perfect they did. Never tiring of their grinning and laughing glee every time, they raised huge red welts on my naked ass accompanied by my loud “OUCH”es and whimpering. As if that wasn’t torture enough, next was the thrill of the swim.
Yep, we were a bunch of buck naked boys diving and swimming laps under threats of punishment by the gym teacher if we didn’t “get with the program.” As far as I was concerned, drowning was the better option but unfortunately, I had learned to swim by then. I endured the weekly naked water torture for the entire duration of my four years in high school.
Eventually over the years, the P-boy population slowly dwindled as they were sent to reform school, and then later to prison, the army, or back to the Parochial schools that had realized they needed the P-kids’ tuition money. Or they just dropped out and disappeared into “life.” Some did mellow out and melded into our nameless, faceless crowd of 4,000+ high school students.
Fun Times at Bayside High
In contrast to the embarrassing naked swimming and (painful!) communal showering, and regardless of the clans, we all loved a good prank. Like the now-famous Mrs. Flagg episode.
Somehow I survived tortuous subjects like geometry with Mrs. Flagg. Not a day over 116, she was skinny as a broomstick. Her false teeth clicked loudly as she spoke. And there was a strange odor from her mouth that smelled like a musty attic. I constantly worried that her teeth would come flying out of her mouth and land in my lap. But the most distracting thing about her was her uniform.
Almost every friggin’ day she wore the same outfit. It was a black skirt like Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oil. But unlike Olive Oil, Mrs. Flagg’s top was a sheer white blouse that allowed you to see almost everything. Even if, trust me, you didn’t want to.
One day Mrs. Flagg made a huge and rare blunder: she left the classroom for a few minutes. When she came back, a window was halfway open and a red jacket was hanging half way out of our second story classroom window. As she entered the room, somebody shouted, “Tommy jumped!” Poor Mrs. Flagg went screaming out of the classroom and down the hall. The funny thing is most of us kids didn’t see who pulled the prank. It was a fine example of the fast-acting mind of a bored teen sitting by the window. The prank became legend and it was decades later that someone ‘fessed up on Classmates.com.
The notorious Mrs. Flagg jumper episode was reenacted for my Bayside High School Class of 1960 Yearbook:
There were more escapades to come, including my infamous standoff with my Spanish teacher, another story of my high school misadventures told here.
A History of Naked Swimming
For those of you who think I make this shit up, I present for your viewing pleasure, a history of naked swimming in schools.