As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same, trends come and go and technology evolves, but the social hierarchy of high school is a tried-and-true standby of American life. Today’s author takes us back in time with the class of 1969.
Hi, welcome to the Storyworth Podcast. We're glad you're here. I'm your host, Krista Baum, co-founder of Storyworth. On this podcast, we feature true stories written by Storyworth writers. If you're new to Storyworth, we help people write their life stories, the big stories, and the small ones.
Once a week, we send our writers a question to help inspire their writing. They reply to the email with an answer or a story that comes to mind. At the end of the year, we print what they've written into a beautiful keepsake book.
Every story written using Storyworth is private. But for this podcast, the writers volunteered to share their stories publicly with you.
As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same. And that could not be a more accurate descriptor of high school.
Trends come and go, and technology evolves, but the social hierarchy of teenage society is a tried and true standby of American life. With its jocks, cool kids, and weirdos, just to name a few.
Larry Dennis, today's author, is here to share his recollections of his California high school in 1969. But before we talk to him, we're going to hear Larry's story as read by voice actor Josh Perelman-Hall, as Larry answers the question, what were you like in high school?
I graduated from Warren High School in 1969. The school was named for Earl Warren, the former California governor and 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As Justice Warren was finishing his long arc through history that year, I was just beginning mine.
1969 was a turbulent year. Richard Tricky Dicky Nixon had just started his occupation at the White House. The Beatles gave their last public performance on a New York City rooftop, and the Zodiac Killer murdered his final victim and then vanished.
But I was well prepared to face the topsy-turvy world around me. Anything's possible when equipped with the wisdom and comradery of high school friends.
Besides the mandatory academic pursuits, we had other critical lessons to learn in the walls of Warren High. Knowing our place in the hierarchy of high school society, who to avoid and how to avoid them.
Understanding the double-edged sword of procrastination and the mysterious and indecipherable enigma of girls.
The first lesson of high school was to know your place. In most high schools, incarceration is a three or four-year sentence. The inmate population quickly undergoes a sort of social mitosis, splitting into various groups with distinct characteristics.
At Warren High School, among the 650 quasi adult humans, they appear to be five subspecies.
First, the jocks, they were always guys. There were no girl jocks. Those would come a bit later. These were the ones on the sports teams who shot the most baskets or scored the most touchdowns, or at least they were just too handsome to ignore.
Then there were the fashionistas. They set the standard for what was savvy and acceptable to wear. It was V-neck sweaters with tan jeans and red tennis shoes for the guys. Unless you were a jock, then you always wore your letter sweater.
There were even some hybrid jock fashionistas. The kids who scored high on the jock scale and could afford brand name clothes.
The female fashionistas dictated hairstyles, which was either a straight blonde surfer cut or the page boy bond girl look. They also, managed the Color Du Jour for dresses. But bear in mind, you could not become a fashionista by simply wearing the wear. First, you had to be invited in.
Next were the cool ones. This was an especially small group whose magical mix of humor and self-assuredness combined with an honest to goodness I really don't give a attitude to find their rarefied status.
The cool ones broke the normal formula for success. Attributes like good looks or athletic prowess or nice clothes weren't required. It was their vibe that made them. Their presence was felt with an effortless magnetism that couldn't be imitated.
And unlike the other social groups who ran in packs, the cool ones were respected lone wolves who roamed where they pleased.
Next in the social stratosphere were the geeks. This group's constituents were unconcerned with the strict codes of the high school caste system. They were too busy with math club, or choir, or band to trouble themselves.
Their defiance or ignorance of the prescribed social norms drew the animosity and criticism of the other groups, and this made them outcasts.
Some were condemned to geek dome based superficially on their physical appearance. The other groups were not known for understanding the meaning of true beauty.
The final group that grace the halls of Warren High School can be described as the great unwashed. Not particularly handsome or beautiful by the exclusive standards and lacking the budget or inclination for the compulsory red tennis shoes.
They liked sports well enough but didn't expect high praise for shooting a three point or in a pickup game. They liked chemistry, but not because it was technical, but because there was a slight chance you might make something blow up.
These were my people, the just plain folk that I hung out with. I didn't have to stay after school for football practice, I saved a fortune on clothes, and I avoided the algebra junkies who held meetings to work through math problems just for the fun of it.
In this vast ocean of sharks, and lionfish, and electric eels, I was just another mackerel. But even us mackerels were a diverse lot, and as a mere fingerling freshman, I soon learned that the big fish often devour smaller fish, even those of the same species.
Gym class at Warren High was the Roman Colosseum of high school life. It was a hot, sweaty, physical competition among peers, some of whom were much larger and stronger.
While very short in stature, Mr. Padilla was incredibly strong and presided over the gladiatorial arena with a commanding presence.
Among my fellow gym mates, was another fairly short but strong and determined young man named Conrad. At 17, he had piercing Rottweiler eyes that seemed to convey deadly intent, and his entire body pulsed with restrained rage.
He knew the power he held and wielded it to intimidate a relentless succession of victims whose only misstep was landing in the same class and proximity to him.
Eventually, his dark gaze fixed on me. But by this time, it occurred to me that he hadn't moved beyond the death stare and actually hurt anymore, not once. It was our fear of his potential fury that he fed on. He was all bark and no bite.
So, after a week of Conrad's intimidation, I found myself squaring off with him one-on-one in a wrestling exercise. The whole class was there in the gym spectating. Being by far the strongest in the class, he dominated the match.
He pinned me fairly quickly and we broke off and went to sit on the sidelines. He wore the usual self-satisfied glare that read, “I could have broken your neck if I wanted to.” He had his chance and he didn't take it. This was the proof I was looking for.
I felt emboldened, and I turned to look right at him, which he clearly wasn't used to. And I said, “I know a secret about you.”
His dog eyes narrowed at me. “Oh yeah, what's that?” He demanded. “You aren't really a murderer. You just like to scare people.”
Without skipping a beat, he reached his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know the difference, man. That's good.”
I learned an important social lesson that day, that exteriors could be deceiving, and what we all really want is to be seen and understood.
After that, Conrad and I became real friends. Although in many ways, it was a little like having a pet snake.
Normally at Warren High, each of the five subspecies siloed within their own group with little association with the others.
However, there was one exception. Olivia. She was allied with the jocks by virtue of being a cheerleader, and yet we were friends. How was I able to breach such an immense social chasm? You might ask.
Simple. Olivia and I had been previously married.
Let me explain. Way back in second grade, two of my classmates, John and Sandy, decided they would plan and execute a wedding during first recess. They had a parson who presided with wedding guests in attendance and vows exchanged.
There was even a small stash of See’s candy for the reception. This was much more interesting than kicking a ball around the field for 20 minutes. So, the idea caught on among the second graders.
I had some thoughts on the perfect wedding and wanted to run these ideas past my best girl buddy, Olivia. She was game for a recess wedding of our own. So, we set a date and procured our supplies.
We were married under a Japanese elm tree between building A and building B. My Jewish friend, Marvin, officiated. And I offered Olivia a ring I wove thoughtfully out of crab grass. We offered our guests Winchell's Donuts and Hawaiian punch.
But unbeknownst to us, our clandestine ceremony was observed by a tattletale teacher. Word went out to all parents of the illicit matrimonial shenanigans taking place during recess, and the practice was forbidden.
Still, eight years later, the fond memory of that event was strong enough to breach the social barricade of high school and unite the jock cheerleader bride with her mackerel former husband.
In high school, I had more than a few friends in the geek squad since I possessed a few geek qualities myself.
My friend, John was a different kind of geek. The kind you took seriously. We became friends in chemistry class. Turns out he too wanted to see what he could blow up in the lab.
But most of our exploits took place on the weekend since school policy was very clear on the subject of explosives.
Like many young men of our time, we had a fascination with the kinetic nature of firecrackers, but getting our hands on them was difficult.
Usually, one had to rely on an older brother of a friend who was old enough and mobile enough to get in and out of Tijuana, Mexico with a cash of cherry bombs or even bigger, the M-80.
This pathetic and unreliable supply chain was simply not acceptable to us. So, naturally, only one solution came to mind. John and I needed to build our own [foreign language 00:11:12].
The recipe for gunpowder was not hard to uncover, and the ingredients were readily available at the local hardware store. The one exception was a key ingredient, potassium nitrate.
But ever resourceful John managed to find some in a hobby shop that sold chemistry sets. Feeling smugly equipped, we were good to go.
Aided by our knowledge of high school chemistry paid for by our parent’s tax dollars, we created a respectable amount of black powder.
We manufactured a blockbuster firecracker, filling a two inch by five-inch cardboard tube with our carefully prepared powder. Primed it with 12 feet of waterproof fuse and dipped the whole thing in hot paraffin wax to steal it from the elements.
We scheduled a backyard camp out at John's house, which was right across the street from a public golf course.
When the fateful night came, we waited until three o'clock in the morning to execute our plan. We stealthily exited the tent, retrieved our projectile from its hiding place, and made our way to the golf course.
We slipped in through a maintenance gate and crept out to the middle of a wide-open area. We buried our device just under the surface, deployed the fuse and lit the end. Then we ran.
The explosion was far beyond our expectations. After a quick flash of orange light, the boom was spectacular.
Within minutes, a firetruck arrived, and soon after a few police cars assembled. Lights blinked on throughout the neighborhood, and the responding officers spoke with a few concerned citizens.
Fortunately for us, there was nothing to report apart from the noise and the rude awakening for the neighbors. Eventually, law enforcement and first responders left and the episode was over.
I consider myself lucky that this indiscretion of youth went undiscovered.
In recollecting the rigid social groups of high school, it occurs to me that one individual held court in her own category altogether. Her name was Sophia.
She was an exchange student from Brazil who appeared midway through the school year. She spoke perfect English with an exotic accent colored by her native Portuguese. Warren High was home to many cute girls, but in my teenage opinion, this bronze skinned beauty put them all to shame.
I recall the legions of post pubescent boys literally standing slack jawed in awe of her as she passed in the hallways. But her stay was short-lived, and after just a few weeks, she was gone. Some say her banker father had been transferred yet again to another country, taking the family with him.
I always suspected that the sheer tension of her presence walking among us was more than what school administrators could tolerate.
I did have one brief encounter with Sophia. We were paired up in science class for a few days to complete the high school rite of passage, that is frog dissection. While it wasn't the most romantic of activities, it was really enjoyable, and I still recall the experience all these years later.
Sophia had patience and humor along with her astounding physical presence. Our thoughtful and methodical dissection of that frog was a textbook example of the scientific method. Had I been paired with one of my buddies, our dissection more than likely would've resembled the Spanish Inquisition.
I like to think that we could've been good friends. Even now, more than 60 years later, I can close my eyes and see her smiling face with those sparkling green eyes and impressively white teeth.
In 1979, my high school class held its 10-year class reunion. I waffled for a while, then finally decided to go.
The day before the event, I pulled out my 1969 yearbook and studied the photos to help me identify my classmates and recall the familiar names.
As I scanned the rows of smiling faces, the old social hierarchy and group dynamics clicked back into focus. I was curious to see whether a decade of lived experience might challenge the old social order and how our interactions might be different without the petty rules of our high school stint.
The party attracted a good turnout with several teachers in attendance as well as former students. Unlike the graduation party 10 years prior, we were allowed to drink at the reunion, and many did.
I did not. I never developed a desire to ingest alcohol once I learned it was a flammable substance. I guess some attributes of my geek status never died.
A crowd of my old school friends were there. Many of them were already married, some of them were already divorced. Others even had baby pictures to share.
There were a few conspicuous absences. The big man on campus who had been a first string quarterback, homecoming queen escort, and student body president was not there.
Also, missing in action was the class clown and resident stoner. We learned he allegedly fled the ire of a drug cartel near the border and was living out of state for his safety.
This and other minor scandals fed our conversations and eased our laughter. It helped cut the tensions of an event hall full of adults slowly breaking free of the old social rules. The faces were a decade older, but somehow just the same.
There was a small but fierce contingent of single people hoping to find an old flame or perhaps rekindle the fire.
I was still very much single, but blissfully unbound to the social pressures and the urgency to fit in that once dictated my high school experience. I was content to sit my punch and mingle until I found myself on the fringes of the crowded room.
I was in my own world fondly recalling earlier times, and my mind settled on Sophia and our brief chapter that could aptly be titled The Princess and the Frog. I smiled to myself realizing that this mackerel was still thinking about the one that got away.
Reading your story, I felt like I was reading a script for The Wonder Years. I think you're a really gifted writer. I thought it was a very kind of fun read.
And I think it was also just like the universality of it. What is it about this experience that just doesn't change?
There's a lot of commonality in people's experiences, and that's how you make friends to share life experiences from either right now, the present, or how you grew up, or where you think you might be in 10 years.
I was really impressed with the explosion that you guys made.
Oh yeah, it was definitely criminal.
Was there any damage?
It left kind of a small crater. Essentially what we made would be classified as black powder, which is what they use in musket generally, and things like that. It's not like modern day explosives.
The noise like was truly amazing. Partly because it was three o'clock in the morning and it was dead quiet. And whenever it's dark, it just seems to amplify anything that happens. This giant reverberating boom.
And as soon as that happened, we looked at each other and thought, “That's it. We'll be in prison by dawn. There’s no way. I mean, they're going to find us somehow.”
Somebody saw us running down the street, even though it's three in the morning. There were never any consequences.
But there was probably two or three weeks where we were looking over our shoulder thinking, “The police are going to come into school, into the classroom and take us away because we blew up this bomb. And then they're going to think, ‘Wow, those kids are really delinquents.” But we got away with it.
Yeah. Round up all of the A chemistry students who were capable of it.
So, nobody ever said anything?
We knew this had to be a secret mission to begin with. The moment of truth really was after it blew up, wow. And then we thought, “It's going to wake everybody up.”
So, we went back to the tent and we were going to get in and his dad was already coming out the back door into the yard to see what the heck was going on. He might be a responsible parent, so, “I'll go check, make sure they're okay.”
And we're outside the tent standing in the yard, and we felt busted. There's really no way he can know that we had anything to do with that. He just looked at us and said, “Are you alright?” And we went, “Yeah.”
And we were both thinking, “Oh yeah, we're really scared.” And he thought, “Well, I guess you can go back to bed unless you want to come in the house.” We go, “No, I think we're okay.”
And then we moved as if we got back in the tent. You would think that you'd want to just sit there and giggle, but we were still like frozen with fear. It’s like next visitation will be the gate opens and the police come in.
So, changing gears here for a second. I'm curious, do you keep in touch with Olivia, your grade school bride?
No, I really have not seen her since high school. She was one of my best girl buddies in first grade, and we went through all of elementary school, and middle school, and high school together. But in high school it, there's more of a social order as the story kind of implies.
She was always a nice-looking girl and she just became a cheerleader and hung with that crowd. And I was a mackerel, so I just kind of stayed over there. And we were still friends, but we weren't close friends.
So, after 1979, did you go to another reunion or was the 10-year reunion enough?
I went to my 20-year, but I didn't stay too long. I almost didn't go. I mean, in the first reunion, there were already people who had been married, and divorced, and married again in just 10 years.
At the 20-year reunion, there were people who had gotten married four or five years after high school and they had three or four children. Some people had been really successful, some people had not.
Some people were trying to play that down. Other people were trying to make as much of it as they could.
And it seemed like it was kind of an effort on everybody's behalf too, to just kind of say, “I'm doing okay.” With some people it was not, and you could tell.
It was interesting to see the cross section of people that were like the big man on campus and the cheerleaders and the ASB presidents and stuff. They were just regular people with regular jobs, experiencing all the regular stuff.
One guy named Dave, who was the ASB president, and was the first-string quarterback, and was the homecoming queen escort, (I mean, he was at the top of every list) he didn't show up because he was in Chino Men's Prison for embezzlement.
Any surprises from the 20?
There was one woman named Barbara who I'd been like goofy buddies with in high school, where we just kind of pal around and do silly stuff together. I can be really clueless about women.
My friends thought it was amazing that I finally got married. They didn't think I would ever notice that somebody was getting that close to me. And apparently, she had been trying for years to get close to me, and I just was totally oblivious.
And then when she saw me at the 20-year reunion, even though her husband was 30 feet away, she came over and gave me a big hug and a big wet kiss on the mouth and these sparkly eyes. And I thought, “I'm happy that you're so glad to see me, but my goodness.”
And then ran over and got her husband and brought him back and introduced him. And goes, “This was my best friend in high school.” And it's like, “Wow, did I miss something?”
Did you have any regret when you figured that out where you're like, “Oh man,” or did it never even occur to you and you didn't have any feelings for her?
I felt bad that we could have had a different relationship way back when. And then the other thing is how much else did I miss?
Yeah. Well, again, everything seemed to work out okay. How did your family react to the story when they read it?
My wife had not heard those stories before. So, when she read them, she was amused and she was also, kind of like, “Should I sleep with one eye open because I didn't know that you did stuff like this?” I go, “No, that was years and years ago. I think you're safe now.”
How did you get started with Storyworth?
It was my daughter. She had read a couple of my limericks and was entertained and thought, “He likes to write, and this would be perfect for him.”
Plus, I mean, it's hard to get people to write down family histories and outfits like ancestry. And others are getting people to create their family histories and codify them and store them so that future generations can enjoy it.
And I thought, “Well, you're right. This would be a neat way for me to tell all kinds of stories about you guys and get away with it and make it permanent, so that later when your son grows up and he reads this book, he can be amazed by the crazy things his grandpa did when he was young.”
It's a whole lot better than giving somebody a cardboard box full of faded photographs.
Thanks for joining us today. If you want to get started writing your life stories or want to give the gift of Storyworth to a loved one, head over to storyworth.com/podcast.
In our next episode, we're back with a trio of short stories read by their authors.
Storyworth is a production of Evergreen Podcasts hosted by me, Krista Baum, and produced by Hannah Rae Leach. We get production help from Jill Granberg and our mix engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman.