The Lighter Side of High School

This is me at 16. Whodathunk that innocent face could stir up such trouble for unsuspecting Western Civilization Instructors?
This is me at 16. Whodathunk that innocent face could stir up such trouble for unsuspecting Western Civilization Instructors?

So what was I like in High School?

 I wasn't exactly a trouble maker in high school. In fact, I'm proud to say that I made it through four years without ever receiving one detention (although there was one time that springs to mind when I should have been suspended, because I took out a detention slip for a friend of mine when asked to return the attendance envelope to the main office....sorry Mrs. Lawrence, and no, I'm not going to reveal who benefited from my actions....although I'll bet if I asked him, he would remember the event as clearly as I do!)

I did, however, like to have a good time, sometimes at a time when I would tell my son today would be inappropriate.

Let's take Western Civilization, for example. This was a required class for Freshmen at Greenfield High School, and my teacher was named William Tenney. Mr. Tenney and I had a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, I was one of his better students, a fact that he probably despised, because I also loved to, shall we say, liven up his lectures.

Imagine this scene for a moment. Mr. Tenney is standing up in front of the class asking us to explain why the 100 years war went on for so long. Most of the class has that glazed look in their eyes, and I say most of the class because there were a great many who had their eyes closed, so I couldn't see whether they were glazed or not.....I would guess they were beyond glazed.

Now, I am hearing impaired in my right ear, and as a result I needed to be placed in the front of the class on the right side of the room, so my good left ear could hear the lecture. So there I am, sitting in the front row of the class, and as soon as I heard Mr. Tenney say the word "War," I immediately sprang into action.

In one movement that I would be entirely unable to make today, I leapt out of my seat, landed on the floor with a moderate-loudness thud, and immediately began shooting my imaginary machine gun at all the sleeping guys in the back of the room, complete with sound effects. I'm surprised poor Mr. Tenney didn't have a heart attack the first time I pulled that maneuver, and although he gave me hell about having disrupted the class, secretly I suspect he appreciated it, because A) he never gave me detention for it and B) he suddenly had the full attention of everyone in the class!

My Private Hell

 Tenth grade was a rough year for me. I had done exceedingly well academically for the first time in my life in my freshman year, and so the pressure was on. It didn't help matters that I had a serious bike accident during the summer (not wearing a helmet) that gave me a serious case of amnesia. It took time, but eventually I relearned everything I had forgotten, but 10th grade was a disaster.

It was also the year that I crossed paths with a teacher who made Mr. Tenney look like a cute little bunny rabbit. He was chairman of the English Department, and in 10th grade, he taught me English Composition.

Now, I had done reasonably well with Mrs. Corbier my freshman year, but I don't think I can blame the disaster that was English Composition II entirely on my amnesia. Richard Russo would see to it that anyone who entered his class thinking they knew how to write would leave feeling like babbling idiots. I think he actually reveled in exposing us all for the incompetent frauds of writers that we were in those days.

Half way through that semester, Russo (who, appropriately enough, prefered to be called Dick) assigned us a paper in which we had to describe the three things that comprised our Private Hell. I decided that honesty was the best policy, and since my grade couldn't suffer any more, the main topic I wrote on in that paper was.....Dick Russo!

I was calm, cool and collected as I outlined the many reasons why he was the bane of my existence. In the columns he wrote comments like, "I had no idea I was such a tyrant."

Yuh. Right. Dick, I didn't buy it then, and if you ever stumble across this hub while surfing, I still don't buy it!

So you might be wondering what good ol' Dick gave me for a grade. I figured, as I turned it in, that he would invent a new grade, like Z, because simple failure was not nearly enough of a retaliation for my truthful but scathing attacks on him.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Dick Russo liked to beat up on people who let him do it, probably to see if we had the brass cahoneys to stand up to him. In this paper, I stood up to him, and he rewarded me with the best grade I got in that class - a B.

I wound up getting a C for the class, which was more than acceptable to me (I still believe to this day that I learned more in his class earning a C than I did with other teachers who had given me an A in their class To this day, Dick Russo is my greatest influence as a writer. I'll never forget his comment one day, after reading a student's essay aloud (Dick always said everything you write is public....and then he would find the absolutely worst essays to read, just to embarass the puss out of the writer) when he said to the class, "But folks, I have good news for you. Even with your skill level, if you really want to write, there's always a future for you writing Romance Novels."

To this day, I can honestly say, that if I were ever so desperate to have a book published that I would write a Romance Novel, I would have to ask someone to shoot me, and it was because of that comment by Dick.

The Exponent - Dick Redux

 Most of my classmates had the good sense to stay as far away from Dick as possible after the disaster that was 10th grade English Composition. I can't begin to fathom how many grade point averages Dick destroyed, but it must have been in the thousands.

But there was this little problem. I was an aspiring journalist, and Greenfield High School had a newspaper called The Exponent. It was run by students, in theory, but the faculty adviser was none other than Dick Russo. Not surprisingly, we got off to a rocky start, as he was brutally honest, and I was brutally undertrained in the nuances of being a journalist. Of course, I could hardly be held accountable for that, since this was my first newspaper writing class I would take.

During my junior year, I was a nobody on the newspaper. There were far more talented writers who were slated for important positions like editor in chief (Erin Fanning), Sports Editor (Mark Johnson) and a variety of other positions. I did my best to stay out of Dick's way, which was actually an important part of survival. You see, we did everything the old fashioned way on that newspaper. We did not have computers at our disposal, so we wrote all our articles on 8 1/2 x 11 inch pages of paper that we would tape end to end, so Dick could mark them up like a Christmas Tree with his red pen, before we did rewrites. Then, after the rewrites, the revised articles would be shipped downtown to the local newspaper - The Recorder (where I would one day work) - and a gem of a lady named Dolly Gagnon would typeset all our articles, headlines, advertisements (newsprint wasn't free, and the school committee was cheap), before shipping the galleys back to us to do layout.

Layout involved cutting and pasting our long strips of text into columns of equal length, doing what seemed like complex mathematics at the time by sizing pictures and then cutting red window paper to paste down onto the page, where the photograph would eventually appear, as if by magic after the press run. We used to use exactoblades to cut the columns, and it was not uncommon for Dick and I to get testy when we were doing layout. One off-colored remark by either one of us might very well have resulted in an open exactoblade flying through the air at the offender!

Near the end of Junior Year, we went to a high school journalist conference at Holyoke Community College. My mom, who had a huge van that was big enough to transport the whole staff, volunteered to bring us there. After winning several awards, we were all in a great mood, as we approached exit 26 of Interstate 91 in Western Massachusetts.

Then, from out of nowhere came this state police cruiser going by us with its lights flashing, siren blaring, and the driver must have been going 100 miles per hour. Much to our surprise, he got off at exit 26, which is where we were heading. You can imagine our shock and dismay when we saw this cruiser come flying down the ramp, cutting off traffic in the rotary so he could make a quick right turn off the rotary, and get into line at a car wash. Apparently his cruiser wasn't pretty enough, and he needed to spend taxpayer dollars to get the deluxe wash at the car wash.

Well, this cop picked the wrong van to go flying by, because as soon as he did, immediately we all took out our notebooks and wrote down his license plate number. After seeing him pull into the car wash, well, let's  just say that I felt moved.

The result of that event was a column that appeared for the rest of that year, and all of my senior year, named I.M. Complainer, and in this column I would write about things that bugged me. The first column appeared a few weeks later, and told of this story, complete with the police cruiser's license plate number, the date and time of the event, and the purpose of his high speed jaunt. Oh, and we also sent a complimentary copy of the newspaper when it came out to the State Police Barracks in Northampton. I don't know if they figured out why they were getting a copy of a high school newspaper in the mail, but if they did read the article, we never got a response.

His coarse generalizations of team and parents represented a high temper and a low I.Q.

 Senior year was a big year for me on the staff of the Exponent. It seems that all the senior writers of a year ago had graduated, and the few underclassmen that had lasted the year with Dick had chosen not to subject themselves to another year of his torture. That left me as the most experienced member of the staff, a columnist, and the odds on favorite to be editor. The problem was, at least at the beginning of the year, I didn't want the job, so we muddled through without one.

In the spring of that year, as senioritis was hitting me hard, a student named Bill, who was a football player, wrote an editorial column on the sports page, lambasting a football coach. It seems that after the season was done, as was customary, there was a party at one of the team members' homes. And it also seems that, as was customary, shortly after that party, where copious amounts of beer were imbibed, there was a banquet, to celebrate another successful season for the Greenfield High School football team.

Well, it was supposed to be a celebration, until this coach got up to speak. He proceeded to slam everyone in the room - players and parents - for the party (probably because he was bent out of shape for not being invited). He so outraged this young writer, Bill, that Bill decided to write a column with a proportionate amount of venom as was displayed in the speech the coach gave.

The headline for this section is an actual quote from the editorial Bill wrote, and it is the line that got him and Dick in a whole lot of trouble, and got me thrust into the middle of the greatest pissing match you could imagine.

First, the coach demanded that Dick be fired for allowing this slanderous remark to be printed, a fact that we disputed at the time because truth is an absolute defense in any libel or slander case. Dick ended up resigning as the adviser to the Exponent, but was able to keep his job as chair of the English Department (something tells me the teachers' union got involved on that issue, though I have no direct knowledge of it). It was also decided by the staff that we needed to have an editor, and it was their decided opinion that I should be that editor. I felt like Daniel being thrown into the lion's den, and said I would consider taking the job as co-editor, if someone else would serve with me, dividing the tasks (and presumably dividing the heat that we were feeling from this scandal.)

This issue became front page news for a week, not on the pages of the Exponent, mind you, but on the pages of The Recorder. Suddenly, I was thrust into the limelight, having to answer questions from reporters assigned to cover the story as it unfolded. My co-editor was convenienty never available when the press came calling, so even though I had nothing to do with the initial editorial (and didn't even read it until it came out) I became inextricably linked to the issue.

To make matters worse, I had spent the past two years as a non-voting student representative to the School Committee, and the coach decided to take his case to the School Committee and the Superintendent of Schools. Despite my best efforts to convince the School Committee that this was an isolated incident, they decided to pull whatever funding we got from the school department (with the majority of our revenue coming from ad sales) unless we wrote a front page apology/retraction of equal size as the original editorial in our next edition.

Needless to say, we complied with their demand, because the reality was that they were really angling to have a reason to shut down the newspaper for good, for reasons that were beyond me. Our little paper was recognized annually as one of the top high school newspapers in the Pioneer Valley, stretching from Springfield in the south to the Vermont border in the north.

So on the day that we published our subsequent issue, we also ran an article written by me, announcing that the Exponent had won several awards at a high school journalism conference held at American International College in Springfield. Among the numerous awards we won included the Best Editorials award, The issue we submitted for the contest? The one with the controversial editorial in it!

We ran that little story directly next to our front page apology, not at all by coincidence.

The Rest of the Story

Shortly after the Exponent editorial fiasco villified me in the eyes of many because of the terrible coverage given the issue by the local press, I applied for a scholarship through the Valley Press Club. I had to write a 300 word essay on why I deserved to be given one of the three scholarships the press club had to offer. I wrote about my experience in this baptism by fire, and was fortunate enough to win the second place scholarship of $750. That money was critical in piecing together enough money so I could go to the college of my choice - St.. Joseph's College in Maine. So in the end, the fiasco worked to my benefit. It also taught me at a very early age that the mind, in the wrong hands, can do incredibly terrible things (reference coach......if you had just ignored it, no one outside the school would have read the article).

I graduated exactly in the top third of my class, not because I was particularly gifted as a student. That freshman year anomaly skewed the rankings, but for the rest of my years at good ol' GHS, I was average to below average in most of my classes. Despite this, come graduation day, much to my surprise, my name was called out by the Principal Edward Jones when he announced the winner of the Frederick W. Porter Award.

The award hanging on the wall just inside the front entrance to the high school said the Porter award was given annually to a student who exemplified, "sterling character, average academic achievement, and outstanding leadership ability." I can only assume that it was my role in resolving the mess that came as a result of that editorial. Whether I realized it or not, my career as a journalist was well on its way.

Today, I see that the Exponent has gone online, probably so they can avoid having to pay the exhorbitant cost of newsprint. A link to their blog is included in the links section below.

So that pretty well sums up my high school career. It wasn't always pretty, but it was a hell of a ride. But it is nothing like what I did to poor little St. Joseph's College from 1985 until 1989. But then, that's another story....

Comments 15 comments

deccasandy profile image

deccasandy 7 years ago from Belmont

If you would have added more pics then it would have been wondeful. Otherwise you have written so well. Specially your pic is cute.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 7 years ago from Florida Author

Yeah, I'm looking for more pictures. I may contact the alumni association. Thanks for the note deccasandy.

Jim


Constant Walker profile image

Constant Walker 7 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

Wow, Crash. Impressive. I haven't had the chance to read the whole thing yet - but I will. I loved the imaginary machine gun bit. And the paper? You've got brass ones! I think the B might have been for brass ones, and good writing.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 7 years ago from Florida Author

You know Ronnie, when I think back to that time, I think I just did what needed to be done. But I didn't feel like a leader. That's probably the reason I wanted to have a co-editor, because I was a bit too timid to stand alone. As it turned out, I wound up being the focal point, regardless of the "co" in front of my title. However, the experience prepared me for a much stronger role in college. You think I had brass ones in high school, wait until I write about college!

Thanks for the comment........

Jim


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Fascinating story, Jim, and well written. Dick Russo reminds me of a journalism instructor at NYU who enjoyed telling his students how little they knew. But he didn't have anyone like you in his classes who would return fire. Deflating some of the bravado of authorities and politicians is one of the fringe benefits of news reporting. I always advised those who felt that could do battle with reporters and editors that it was a losing cause -- the newspaper always wins! I look forward to reading of your exploits at St. Joseph's College.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 7 years ago from Florida Author

An old editor of mine had a poster on his office wall that said, "Don't screw with anyone who buys ink in 100 gallon drums." Another editorial writer's office had a poster saying, "The true measure of a newspaper's worth is based upon the number of people who are pissed at it."


Neil Ashworth profile image

Neil Ashworth 6 years ago from United Kingdom

That's really useful content and good writing too.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 6 years ago from Florida Author

Thank you Neil, on both counts!

Jim Henry, aka Crashcromwell


Neil Ashworth profile image

Neil Ashworth 6 years ago from United Kingdom

Nice hub. Some good information here. Thanks for the info..


Cheryl Cotton Garfinkel 5 years ago

Hi- I graduated GHS in 1970. I also had Tenney and Russo my sophmore year of high school I earned an A from Russo in writing that year. After many years teaching school myself, I am still proud of that life changing honor. One teacher can make a huge difference Dick Russo was my inspiration.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 5 years ago from Florida Author

Cheryl - Thanks for writing! It's been a long time since I have had cause to read this hub, and your comment inspired me to do so.

I still reference Dick Russo to my University of Phoenix students. Dick could never do what he did that made me crazy (reading our papers aloud in class, and identifying the authors) due to the FERPA law, but even without FERPA, I doubt I could be so mean.

Just curious - were you related to Henry and Ruth Cotton? We were neighbors on Pierce Street. Two nicer people I could not have hoped to have for neighbors growing up!

Jim


Cheryl Cotton Garfinkel 5 years ago

Hi Jim- Yes, Henry and Ruth Cotton were my grandparents.

You are right, Dick Russo could never teach today in the manner he did those many years ago. But, I still respected him as a teacher whose unconventional ways spoke to me- though I admit he could embarass a lot of students and turn them off to writing entirely.


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 5 years ago from Florida Author

Cheryl:

Your last comment really resonated with me, but I was so stubborn that I really wanted to prove him wrong. But it was hard. No doubt about it!

I have nothing but fond memories of your grandparents, and I even came to have a relationship with Sandy Cotton, as he came to our home to sell us clothes for years. I think I recall that Henry did the same thing for work, although he was well past retirement age when we moved to the neighborhood. Thanks for writing again!

Jim


Cheryl Cotton Garfinkel 5 years ago

Hi Jim-

Sandy is my dad. It is so good to know that you remember him. He is now 88 and is not in the best of health, but is living at home with my mom. I left Greenfield so many years ago, but I do come back a couple times each year to see my folks, and they travel to Atlanta is visit us whenever they are able. You are a connection to my long ago life.

I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist in high school and college, but dropped it when I realized that teaching would probably pay better. (LOL) I teach language arts to 8th graders with processing disorders and other learning disabilities. Retirement is lurking in the next couple of years, and maybe I will investigate journalism again- while collecting my pension. Thanks for keeping up with these comment. What exactly do you do now?


crashcromwell profile image

crashcromwell 5 years ago from Florida Author

It would be hard to forget Sandy. I had a sense that his health was declining, because it had always been my sense that he would work as long as he was able, and I understood from my folks that he was retired. If he would remember me, feel free to pass along my well-wishes when you speak with him next.

I presently teach for the University of Phoenix online, teaching English and Communications classes. I am also writing novels, though mostly for fun. I have two books - Antiquity Calais: Standing at Armageddon and Antiquity Calais Ascending Olympus - out on Amazon.com. I am presently writing the third book in the series - Antiquity Calais and the Children of Light Vol. I and II. With any luck, I will begin writing the next book in November, as part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Contest.

Jim Henry

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