Howdy girls and boys. In the previous episode (The Phone Call That Changed My Life) you learned about my NYU acceptance interview. It ended with the Dean saying there were three criteria I needed to satisfy: show up for the start of the Fall semester (easy), pay the tuition (not my problem thanks to mom and dad), and graduate high school.
That last one gave me a bit of a chill. I couldn’t think of a reason why I wouldn’t graduate with the Queens New York Bayside High School class of 1960. But I also knew I would be facing an intense battery of final exams and New York State requirements that were formidable. And I had to pass Spanish where my grades were very marginal. So anything could happen. But I knew I was doing the necessary things to prepare for graduation. I was getting my year book signed. I was wearing my senior hat and having it signed. And I was planning for the senior prom.
Rather than worry myself to death about graduating, I decided I’d turn myself over to the teachings of an up-and-coming 50s thought leader, Professor Alfred E. Neuman and his “What me worry?” philosophy. Professor Neuman was regularly featured in a popular monthly journal, Mad Magazine.
The Neuman philosophy gave me the mental freedom to de-stress and focus on more important things than exams. I read classic literature, like Peyton Place.
I also threw myself into figuring out where I’d take my Catholic-Italian girlfriend June after the Senior Prom at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. We would be double-dating with my wacky friend Lou and his sexy girlfriend. (If you’re a 17-year-old male and you don’t think a prom dress with a nearly see through top is sexy, well I don’t know what is.) June would be sweetly and discretely attired. The after-prom venue choices came down to the Latin Quarter or the Copacabana. The Latin Quarter won out, it was closer to the Astor, and cheaper.
(I love my wife but I have to admit, looking at this long lost prom photo of June and me all these years later has me falling in love all over again. Or, maybe I’m just in love with the idea of teen love.)
June and her family, including her mother, father, and grandparents (direct from Sicily and barely speaking English) moved into the house across from the two-story house where we rented the second story apartment. At first June, Billy (who also lived across the street), and I were constant buddies but June and I “evolved.”
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Sure enough we became teen lovers making out in every possible corner of our Queens New York universe. But June (being a good Catholic girl) and I never went all the way. She was torn between the idea of marriage (possibly to me) and becoming a nun. We made a pact to keep her a virgin so that her options could remain open. It took monumental will power but through many torrid make-out sessions our pact held. And believe you me, it definitely took a team effort. I settled for walking around with a boner most of the time. The embarrassment didn’t outweigh the thrills.
June and I were both subjected to not-to-subtle pressure from both our families to stick to our own kind. One time, my folks pulled me aside and said they thought June was a lovely girl BUT, “She’s not Jewish. You wouldn’t marry a non-Jew would you?” Thinking fast I said “Oh no, I have my heart set on a negro girl.” (The term “black” had not come into common use in those days.) My reply turned out to be a great conversation stopper, one that I put in my hip pocket in case I ever needed it again.
In the end, June opted for secular life. She dumped me that summer of my senior year. Sweet June did it gently, even lovingly, but I was dumped and it hurt. She was a year behind me in Catholic school and her path was going in a different direction with different friends. She ended up going to nearby St. Johns College where she met one of her “own kind” and they eventually married. I truly hope June has had a long and happy life with the many bambinos and bambinas she dreamed of.
The End Nears
The months passed from my NYU interview to the soon-ending (hopefully) last semester of my (hopefully only) four years of high school.
Finally, the time for escape from the regimented, stifling high school torture was very near. Just a few more weeks and I’d be OUT and off to college in the Fall,. College had to be better than high school. It certainly couldn’t be any worse.
My grades overall were still OK and it looked like I’d ace a C in Spanish, so graduating seemed a virtual certainty. Completing the two-year language requirement in Spanish was taking me four years but I was completing it. No, I was not exactly a language scholar.
With just weeks to go to graduation, I got into a bit of a tussle with Mrs. Rhodes, my Spanish teacher. Even though I had fine-tuned my ability to be nearly invisible in Spanish class so as not to be called on, that didn’t stop her from yelling at me on the very last day of class to “Turn around and stop talking.” Mrs. Rhodes was exercising her eyes-in-the-back-of-her-head super power. Regardless of the teacher-student hierarchy, I didn’t take kindly to being yelled at.
Showdown at El Aula (the Classroom)
Being a mature high school senior I knew exactly how to handle the situation. I stood up and we faced off in the end row of wooden desks by the classroom’s giant windows. I looked her squarely in her beady eyes and recited the teen boy mantra:
“Go fuck yourself.”
A unified gasp arose from my classmates as the oxygen suddenly got sucked out of the room.
An eerie calm came over Mrs. Rhodes. Her eyes narrowed to slits like Gort in the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still. At that moment I suddenly knew that the Gort death ray was about to strike.
She took a moment and said calmly:
“You’re a senior, aren’t you?”
Starting to shake and piss myself I quavered and said:
“Your graduation is in a few weeks, isn’t it?”
Then she calmly hissed:
“You’re graduating over my dead body. You need to pass Spanish to graduate, and you’re getting an F.”
She then did a snappy about-face that would make a drill sergeant proud, said “Class dismissed,” and Goose-Stepped out of the classroom for the last time that semester. It looked like this college-bound kid was now headed to oblivion. I would not graduate. But then something interesting happened.
Exams From Hell
Besides passing major subjects like English, History, Math, Science, and a foreign language (in my case, Spanish), you also had to pass the state-wide Regents Exam in those subjects.
Regents Exams were mind-blowingly challenging and stressful for me, but a genuine Spanish miracle happened. Somehow I got an 83% in the Spanish Regents Exam. To this day I have no idea how I got 83%, but I did. (If you’re thinking I cheated, I didn’t. I never cheated.)
It turns out there was a rule that if you got higher than 75% in the Regents Exam you passed the subject no matter what your class grade was. So my final report card sported a glorious D-. But I couldn’t care less, I had passed Spanish. Oh happy day. It wasn’t an F. I could graduate, and my parents would be proud. I was college bound, off to the little-known NYU University Heights Campus in the Bronx where I’d be molded into an engineer.
As I write about the episode with Mrs. Rhodes some 60 years later, I’m struck by what a little shit I was (and for all I know, still am). Adult Steve can clearly see that, regardless of whatever teen angst I had, I had no business taking it out on my teachers and poor Mrs. Rhodes. I don’t know anything about her outside of my classes, but being on a faculty that had to try to educate over 4,000 1950s nut-basket teens is a calling that would reduce lesser people to a quivering mass. Teachers are special. I know that now.
Mrs. Rhodes, wherever you are, I hope you will consider accepting my apology for how I behaved. It may comfort you to know that I would soon undergo a major attitude adjustment. But I had to experience college for that to happen.