Junior High School was a terrible experience. It did not help that I was combating other changes beyond my control. I was not just entering a new school; I was entering puberty. My body was altering in ways I didn’t understand and I was gaining a great deal of curiosity about girls I’d never had before. I was plagued with strange new sensations that pleased me at the same time they scared me.
I was picking up bits and pieces about sex that were generally wrong and not appropriate, but I still did not know how babies got inside mothers. I had no idea of any role I might play in the baby scenario. The birds were creatures that sometimes made washing the car necessary and bees were insects I pinned in cigar boxes.
One day it dawned upon me I did not know what girls looked like “down there” below the navel. I knew there was something different and boys and girls weren’t supposed to see that difference. We had separate restrooms at school for some reason. I could certainly see girls' bodies were becoming less like mine. They were becoming more like my mother’s. Their chests were growing lumps and their hips were rounder than we boys.
girls wore dresses to school and sometimes one would hang upside down by her legs on the Monkey Bars or a March wind would blow a skirt high. I saw my briefs had a slot down the front; their panties were completely smooth with no such slot. So, how did a girl urinate? You may think these were weird questions, but when nobody has ever explained the real differences between girls and boys they aren’t. I had never played “Doctor”; had never engaged in the “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” routine, so I didn’t have a clue what the differences were. But those differences must be important because I was beginning to react to girls in a new way.
Let me count the ways.
In grade school seeing a girl’s underwear brought giggles and a jingle about seeing London and France, but little else. By the time I entered Seventh Grade seeing a girl’s underwear or even a good bit of her upper thigh sent some kind of shiver through me and I didn’t get the giggles; I got the chills. I actually found something exciting about seeing a girl’s underpants as irrational as that was. I also found myself staring at those lumps on their chests for no good reason. It was as if something in my eyes automatically turned my gaze to a girl’s chest.
Even at that youthful age there were a couple of girls who showed some cleavage. If you were talking to them and glanced down you might even see a little of the roundness of those lumps. Remember that Michelle, the girl I kissed in grade school that upset her father? Notice her to the right? That viewpoint meant nothing at the time the photo was taken, but now seeing something like that would cause that strange little tingle inside me.
Most my female Seventh Grade classmates were still flat and not yet in training bras, but dress code did required them to wear skirts or dresses to school, so they all presumably wore panties. I asked myself, “What if they all didn’t?” That thought brought on that tingle and the tingling felt good. I began checking out the girls’ legs, especially when they sat down, to see if I could glimpse anything.
I employed an old routine, although at the time I thought it was an original and cleaver ruse. Walk past a girl’s desk and drop something, typically a pencil. As I picked it up I would try to see up her skirt. Pretty much 99% of the time you couldn’t see very far, but that tinkle came anyway just with the anticipation. Once in a while you caught a glimpse of some material, usually pink or yellow. I never found a girl sans panties in any of my classes. What was hidden there would have to wait and I would have to wonder.
Don’t think I was the lone 12-year old pervert. It is lucky I didn’t bump heads with other sudden pencil droppers. There was a rash of butterfingers among boys and a particular habit of reaching down to find a dropped object while the head was bend facing to the side.
After a time Seventh Grade was throwing enough scares at me to take my mind off girls. Shop was another class I dreaded almost as much as Gym and I had to take it all three years of Junior High. I should have known my way around tools because of my heritage. My mother’s family was builders. My grandfather was a master carpenter. My father was a truck driver, but he knew mechanics. He could fix truck and car engines. They should have passed on these skills to me, but neither had the patience to teach a kid. My grandfather considered me in the way if he was constructing something. My father seemed to think I knew an open-end from a box wrench or a Phillip’s Head from a slotted screwdriver by osmosis. Both men would quickly tire of trying to explain anything to me and send me off to play. Of course I was happy to oblige, especially with my dad. I never wanted to be out there “helping” him anyway, but my mother often told me, “Go help your father.”
Helping dad mainly consisted of my standing nearby and handing him a tool I couldn’t recognize when he asked for it. This usually took three or four tries until I selected the correct object along with a comment about how dumb I was. Even more upsetting was when I grew old enough to drive and he would send me to an auto store to buy a part. No matter what I was to get once at the store the clerk would ask me a question about the part that I couldn’t answer, like do you want a left-handed floozle handle or a right? I would now face the choice of taking home the wrong facing floozle handle or nothing and have my father go get it himself. Either way he would remind me once more of how dumb I was and probably call me Gertrude in the bargain. I much preferred to avoid my dad than to play out such scenes.
My shop teachers were like my dad and grandfather, although they never called me Gertrude. I have never understood why certain people become teachers. I have had too many in my life who expect the students to know everything the moment they walk into their class. If you don’t know or have any difficulty understanding something, they have nothing to do with you. They spend their time with the students who already know and don’t need them. Meanwhile those who could really use some close-up and personal instruction are left to flounder or fail. If I all ready know everything, why am I there?
I’ve had opportunities in my life to teach and train people. I had two rules. First, I never assumed my class knew anything until I determined exactly what level of knowledge they had. Second, my object was no one failed. No one of normal intelligence should ever fail a junior high school class, unless the kid just doesn’t care. If students are flunking a class, then it is the teacher who is failing. You are there to teach these children, not to exhibit your superior knowledge or to take the easy way of concentrating on those already able to achieve. True, you can’t always motavate a student, but you oughta try.
Mr. Elmer Hemberger (pictured right) gave us a quick tour of the shop, pointing out all the power drill presses and band saws, planers and lathes that could do us serious damage. He certainly must have been familiar with such dangers seeing as how he was missing a couple fingers. Those missing digits didn’t particularly instill confidence in me. He then pointed with a remaining finger to a large pegboard full of various mysterious hand tools. Finally he had us select a project to work on. I picked out a bookend lamp, which seemed a practical project for an avid reader. It looked simple enough, four pieces of wood and a lamp. But I quickly showed my ignorance of which tools to use or how to use them and so Mr. Hemberger seldom came over to me to give any advice. I completed my bookend lamp off in a corner alone. It was a little uneven on one end, but it served its purpose and I got a passing grade in wood shop.
As long as I looked occupied and wasn’t bleeding purfusely Mr. Hemberger didn’t care what I was doing. I was a kid who didn’t know a ball peen hammer from a claw, so I wasn’t worth wasting much time on. Somehow I received an overall Grade of C in shop for the year, probably an act of mercy. I even had Bs in two marking periods. I must have gotten good at making magic belt hooks.
Well, I was getting pretty good at making those belt hooks, but more likely I got my Bs in metal shop. You see half a year was metal and half a year was wood. Mr. Raymond Kipp (pictured right) was the Metal Shop instructor. He was a short man and like a lot of men of small stature, had a slight Napoleonic approach to teaching. However, he didn’t seem to mind that his incoming pupils didn’t know much about working with metal. After all, the average home didn’t do much foundry or sheet metal work at their basement workbenches. Melting down metal always included the off-chance someone might burn the school down, so he gave us all a bit more hands on attention.
Schools didn’t allowed Girls to take shop in the 1950s. Shop was men’s work! Girls had to take Home Economics during those periods. I have the feeling a lot of girls would have liked to take shop just because Mr. Kipp was the teacher. He was what women would call cute. By the time my own daughters were in high school girls and boys both had to take Shop and Home Ec. My daughters loved shop, but then they were better at it than I was.
I was a bit more accomplished at metal shop, but not great. I pounded out some ashtrays and metal candy dishes, but my best project was pipe holders. Pipe holders shaped like shoes became my belt hooks of foundry work. My father smoked a pipe so they made handy birthday and Christmas presents. You can mold a lot of pipe holders over a three-year span.
My best subjects were Science and the creative ones: Art, Music and Reading. I still had some interest in the sciences at the time. I also had my Homeroom teacher for General Science class. His name was Ray DiSerafino (pictured right) and I would bet every person who ever had him for a teacher admires him. Everybody knew him as Mr. D.
He was truly a teacher who cared about we students. His classes were always well behaved because the pupils respected him. He had time for everybody. In Stuart’s memoir, after telling some of the negative prejudices he had suffered, he writes of Mr. D under the heading, “The opposite of anti-Semitism at DHS”.
"There is one teacher who stands head and shoulders above all the others at DHS, and I have just recently learned that they named the football stadium in his honor. Without any question, Raymond DiSerafino (Mr. D) was one of the finest teachers (if not the finest teacher) I ever had. Interestingly, I have no recollection of any courses that he taught. But I do know that he, and he alone, made me believe in my own abilities to get into college. I was sure that I would not get into college because I was Jewish (I still am) and I assumed that colleges were as anti-Semitic as DHS. One time I specifically asked Mr. D if he thought I had any chance of getting into college. He was surprised at my question wondering why I would ask such a question. My response was that I did not know if colleges admitted Jewish people. I recall clearly his surprise at such a question. He was not able to think in such biased terms, and he assured me that I could and should apply to any college I want. He was right! He literally opened my eyes to a world of people who were not anti-Semitic. Where ever you are, Mr. D, 'Thank you!'"
Mr. D also coached sports teams at Downingtown and eventually he became the Principal of the high school, during which service he was named one of Chester County’s Top Educators of the 2oth Century. He died in 2009 at the age of 83. Thank you for the soul you were, Mr. D.
One of those rare people who encouraged my writing ambitions was Mrs. Jean Pollock (pictured left), although the Lord knows why she did. I had her for my aforementioned disaster, Spelling. She also taught English and Reading. My English marks were not very good. I finished with a C after receiving D for each of the first three periods. Yet she still sensed something worthwhile in the moody, skinny kid sitting in the back of the room. She always took time to talk to me and tell me not to give up. You wouldn’t think a guy who couldn’t spell and was barely getting by in English was a prime candidate for a literary career, but she believed in my dreams despite that.
I wish I’d had more teachers like Mr. D. and Mrs. Pollock.