By Maria Lagalante Schulz
As strange as it is for me to actually say this, I now have a daughter in high school. She started 9th grade just a few short weeks ago, and it feels pretty strange.
I can still remember the sheer panic that I felt as the nurse handed her to me and wheeled me out to the front of the hospital, where my husband was waiting for us.
“How can you send her home with me?” I asked. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
The nurse laughed. “You’ll get on-the-job training,” she said. “Don’t worry, no one knows what they’re doing in the beginning.”
Those early days were thrilling, terrifying, and sometimes terribly boring. I never thought those years would pass. But then, all day Kindergarten started for my older daughter. When we put her on the bus, I didn’t cry. But her little sister sure did.
When I went to Back to School night for my Kindergartener, I heard “Welcome to the Class of 2015” for the very first time. That night, all the parents laughed. 2015 was so far away! It sounded crazy and distant, like a bit of dialog out of a Star Trek movie.
But now, 2015 is so close I can touch it. And I’m not really laughing anymore.
Of course, my daughter’s forays into the new and uncharted world of High School immediately brought me back to when I entered high school for the first time.
Having come from a very tiny school that was one step above the one-room schoolhouse of the 1800s, I viewed Benjamin N. Cardozo High School the way a newly convicted prisoner views the State Penitentiary. I was terrified.
It seemed obvious to me that sadists designed my program and probably spent their days laughing as they watched me run from one end of the school to the other, frantically searching for my classes.
I had never seen so many students crammed in such small spaces before. When the bell rang, a crush of humanity would come spilling out of every doorway, vestibule and staircase.
Despite the fact that every other person on earth seemed to be there, I rarely saw my twin brother Chris in the throng. Sometimes I’d see my older brothers Joe and Paul, but they would run off quickly and disappear, like a mirage.
The halls reeked of Love’s Baby Soft perfume, Halston cologne, cigarettes, food, sweat, body odor, bad breath, Clearasil, chocolate chip cookies from the SO Store, and the occasional whiff of McDonald’s French fries that was smuggled in by a student who came back in after cutting classes.
It was a remarkable time of discovery for me. For instance, did you know that:
1) Gym classes often resembled scenes from The Lord of the Flies and/or Star Wars. The creatures that populated my classes came from all walks of life and were very often scary looking. The locker room was an alternate universe where you could be minding your own business one second and trapped inside your locker the next. Heaven forbid if someone wanted lotion or baby powder and you had some.
And the teachers? Let’s just say that they made Attila the Hun seem like your cuddly uncle.
It was clear to me that a terrible mistake had been made when I landed in a class called “Leaders in Training.” Young women whose athletic prowess made Dave Winfield look like some sort of pathetic, sickly loser surrounded me.
As I listened to Miss Berger introduce us to the class goals, a cold bolt of fear ran through my bones.
“Here in this class, I will train you to be the kind of elite athlete I know you can be. I handpicked you for this class. You’ll run until you think you can’t run anymore—and then I’ll have you run some more. You’ll do double flips off the horse and create gymnastics routines that will make Nadia Comaneci jealous. You’ll play soccer like an Olympic Gold Medalist. And then you’ll spend the rest of your high school years inspiring other young women to be as athletic as you.”
Now, since I can’t run without getting a stitch in my side, have never successfully completed a vault or gymnastics routine, or even played soccer, I sensed my ultimate doom.
“Ms. Berger,” I said, “I’m in the wrong class. Obviously you didn’t mean to pick me as a Leader in Training.”
Ms. Berger sized me up and nodded her head. “You’re probably right,” she said. “But if I sign you out, I don’t have enough kids for my class. So you’ll have to stay.”
I would like to say that Ms. Berger helped me discover my inner strength, realize my great athletic potential, and inspire legions of other young girls. But then I’d be a liar.
Instead, Ms. Berger used one of my classmates whenever she wanted to demonstrate how to do an exercise the right way, and then had me come up to show everyone how to do it the wrong way.
Well, at least I inspired people in some way.
2) Mechanical Drawing served no earthly purpose for the likes of me. It was held in a class in the basement, which was nearly impossible to get to. There was only one staircase that you could use to get to it, and no one ever told you where that staircase was located. I spent my first week trying every door to the basement until I came across the right one.
When I got to the class, I found 25 students flying paper airplanes while Mr. Luhrs, our teacher, said helpful things like “You’ll never learn Mechanical Drawing that way!”
The classroom was dank and musty smelling. We sat at long drafting tables on hard stools that were so high that my feet didn’t touch the ground. I felt like Lily Tomlin from Laugh-In every time I had to climb up in that chair.
I sat there an entire semester, and try as I might, I never learned a thing. The man never taught a single lesson. He basically sat at his desk and played with his protractor.
The rest of my classmates were thrilled. They played pranks on Mr. Luhrs, taped signs to his back that said “Kick Me” and “Mr. Loser,” and generally had a great time. One of their favorite tricks was having a student from the class next door telephone our class and pose as a guidance counselor.
“Hello? Why does Johnny have to come now? Why do you guys always pull kids out of my class?”
Mr. Luhrs would hold the phone away from his ear as the kid yelled things like “This is very important and I need to see him immediately.” If you listened closely, you could hear the kid talking in the next room. But Mr. Luhrs was oblivious.
Johnny would pack his things up, meet his friends from next door, and disappear down the path that led to Springfield Boulevard, lunch at Joe’s Pizzeria, and ultimate freedom.
Meanwhile, I would watch him walk away and feel my heart sink to my feet. No one would be calling to spring me from this Purgatory that was Mechanical Drawing.
I only had one friend in the class, and that was Dorothy. She was friendly with the kids who liked to pull pranks on the teacher and she spent a lot of time laughing. Meanwhile, I sat there wondering how I was going to get through this.
I finally asked the only kid in the class who knew what he was doing to help me.
“How come you know what to do?” I said. “Mr. Luhrs never teaches us anything.”
“Oh this is easy, and fun too! Just draw your angles like this,” Robert replied.
So, I would draw things and hand them in.
In the beginning, I would get comments like “Nice work!” and “Good Try!” But as the semester wore on, Mr. Luhrs would scribble things like “You obviously don’t have any idea what you’re doing!” and “Why do you bother coming here?” in angry red pen.
It was sort of like being stuck in a dream world. You’re conscious of the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t stop you or help you in any way.
I got out of there with a 65, and I was never so happy in my life.
3) Art Class should be fun. Notice I said “should be.” Mr. Dorrin was about 100 years old and enjoyed asking the girls to come up to his desk to show him what they were working on. Then he’d peer down their shirts or make some crack about their bodies.
Since I was fashion-challenged, I wore black t-shirts beneath flannel shirts over carpenter’s pants. He wasn’t going to get a look at anything I had unless he possessed Superman’s x-ray vision.
The one time I stood next to him and felt him smelling my hair, I drew back in horror. “Listen buddy,” I said. “Stop smelling my hair.”
“You’re crazy,” Mr. Dorrin said. “I’m not smelling your hair. And if I was, what would you do about it?”
That was a good question. I wanted to tell him I’d punch his false teeth down his throat, but sensed that I wasn’t the right material for detention. So, I smiled my most charming smile, drew my papers away from him and said, “I’ll have you put where you belong. The nursing home.”
Luckily, Mr. D laughed heartily, and never smelled my hair again. I started wearing a sweatshirt that zipped up to my head and stayed as far from his desk as I could.
4) High School is the place where dreams are made…and crushed. On Career Day, I would always sign up for the work shops on how to be a Disc Jockey, Photographer, Teacher, Writer, or anything else that I thought sounded like fun.
The DJ workshop was great, because Carol Miller came in and gave out 45s and signed photos. The room rang with laughter as she talked about her life as a kid, her early years in the industry, meeting and loving The Beatles, and that even her worst days were her best days. Everyone came out of that room with a smile on their face and goodies in their hands.
I missed some of the fun because I’d signed up for a Photography workshop next door. I loved taking photos and dreamed of being a world-class photographer. I thought going on photo shoots would be exotic and developing your own photos would be really cool.
The man who was teaching the workshop turned to us and, without even a smile, began to tell us what life was like as a photographer.
“Do you have loads of money? Do you have connections? Do you like spending countless hours doing thankless jobs and then having people complain about the work you produce? Do you think traveling to exotic locations is fun, even when the local wildlife traipses through your hotel room and the insects are bigger than your head? If you answer no to any of these questions, abandon your dreams of being a photographer. You’ll never make it.”
I raised my hand. “Don’t you find it fulfilling to create something beautiful?” I naively said.
The man snorted. “Creativity is overrated.”
The enthusiasm and energy left the room like it was a giant space bag that just had all the air sucked out of it by a vacuum hose.
I heard everyone laughing next door at the DJ workshop, so I got up and left. Sure, I might never have Carol Miller’s voice, talent, or outlook on life, but at least I could get a free 45.
5) Sometimes, teachers can see into the future. I will never forget how excited I was when my Social Studies teacher told us to read a book about an important moment in history and do a book report on it.
I read Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. This novel had a special place in my heart because it was the basis of the last movie my grandmother and grandfather ever saw together.
I’d heard Nonni mention the beautiful story a number of times, so I started to read it and I couldn’t put it down. I spent the entire two weeks writing the book report. I wrote, revised, and wrote some more, until I had a project on my hands that I was sure would get an A.
A few days after I handed it in, I came into Mr. Levine’s class and recognized a paragraph from my report written on the board. I was delighted! I was sure he was going to tell everyone what a great job I’d done.
“So class,” Mr. Levine said. “I want you to read this paragraph and tell me what you think.”
Everyone read it and said, “it’s great,” or “it makes me want to read the book.”
Mr. Levine turned to me and smiled. “Now Maria, I have a question for you,” he said, as his smile vanished. “Did you actually expect me to believe that you wrote this?”
I was startled. “But I did write it! I spent two weeks writing it.”
“I think you just copied the book jacket and didn’t even read the book.”
Now I started getting angry. “Here’s the book,” I said. “You can read the jacket yourself. I didn’t copy it. I read the whole thing! Ask me any question or give me an essay to write and then, if I don’t nail it, you can accuse me of cheating.”
“Oh please!” Mr. L said. “So what am I supposed to believe, that you’re going to grow up some day to write book jackets? That you’ll be able to make people want to buy the books someone else is selling?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Why not?”
I didn’t know it then, but I would spend a lot of years writing book jackets, advertisements for new books, “Coming Next Month” press releases and lots of other materials that helped sell books.
So I guess I should’ve said “thank you” to Mr. Levine for giving me some direction. If I didn’t have this burning desire to prove him wrong, I may have never discovered I had a talent for that sort of thing.
6) Those scary, unfamiliar faces would become people I loved seeing for the next four years. When I got to Cardozo, I missed my old friends from St. Robert’s so much it was like a physical ache. The building was gigantic and lacked charm, the teachers were mean and heartless, and none of the students seemed friendly. I was certain I would die of loneliness.
But then something funny happened. After about a month, I knew where the classes were. The big “penitentiary” that I was attending suddenly became manageable, and had its own peculiar charms.
I found out-of-the-way spots like the SO Store, where one of my new friends got me a gig selling cookies, Combos, sodas and warm pretzels during 6th period lunch.
Yes, I had loads of teachers like Mr. Levine, but I also had teachers like Mr. Reines.
The first time I met Mr. Reines, I thought he was just like the rest of them. He read us the riot act the first day so we would know who was boss and tried to scare us by telling us all the hard work we were in for.
He wore glasses that could’ve brought outer space into focus and wore clothes straight out of the late 60s. I thought he was going to be boring.
Instead, he had a wicked sense of humor and I laughed all semester long. The books he assigned were interesting and complex, and I learned to love the written word thanks to him.
Mr. Reines let me eat my lunch in his classroom every day when he heard I didn’t have a lunch period. He used to stand there in mock horror as he watched me devour the Special from Slim’s Bagel’s: a sesame bagel with cream cheese, fruit punch, and a boston crème donut.
“You’re eating all fat! That can’t be good for you,” he said.
“You said that yesterday. You’ve got to work on your material,” I replied.
He pushed me, demanded that I do good work, and teased me relentlessly. And then, I was delighted when he became my teacher for a second semester.
As far as my “not so friendly” classmates were concerned, I discovered that many of them were really a lot of fun. Pretty soon, I recognized people from all of my different classes, and while I didn’t love everybody, I didn’t hate them all either. I made friends and did not in fact die of loneliness.
I even made some friends for life.
7) Change is good. If I had been given a choice, I would’ve stayed at St. Robert’s for the rest of my academic life. It was safe, and familiar, and welcoming. I knew everybody and everybody knew me.
That’s exactly why I needed to leave.
As my daughter gets used to High School life, I hope she enjoys every minute of it. That’s right—even the heartbreaks, the injustices, and the challenges of finding the things that make you want to get up every morning.
It’s hard work, but it’s always worth it.
I can’t think back to High School without remembering Joe’s Pizzeria. There was a reason that the lines stretched out the door and we waited anyway—even though we only had 41 minutes for lunch. Crispy crusts, the perfect amount of cheese, and a tangy, sweet sauce made it the only pizza for me.
I don’t live near Joe’s Pizzeria anymore, but I do like to make pizza at home every once in awhile.
You’ll find 14 different pizza recipes, from Carbonara pizza to Margharita, to Coppa, Ricotta and Arugula. Delish!
So, hungry lifers…what’s your favorite memory from high school? Was the transition easy or tough? Leave a comment below and let us all in on the fun.