High school in the 1950s. A long time ago. Well, not so long for those of us who lived it. “Tempus fugit,” as Miss Ulrich, my Latin teacher used to say. She married Mr. Stillwell, a math teacher, and became Mrs. Stillwell. Last I heard they were retired from teaching and raising some exotic breed of dogs. Ah, well. Tempus fugit.
While writing my high school mystery, The Hayloft, I had to think back and remember what those years were like.
Students then were not so different from students now. They strived for grades, laughed, had crushes, gossiped, played sports, drank, did stupid things. Just like today. In New York we even had to take standardized tests—the dreaded state Regents exams. However, the teachers geared the class work toward those exams and passed out booklets with previous exams in them. If you paid attention, they weren’t so bad.
Some of the teachers were good and some were terrible. Some were highly educated and had a superb grasp of the subject matter. Others took the easy way out and used the same homework assignments and tests year after year. They could run off copies in September and their work for the year was done. Lesson plans? Who needed them?
Of course, the behavior of the teachers was above reproach. No scandals at our school. What’s that you say? There was one who took freshman boys up on the catwalk and had them sit on his lap? Don’t breathe a word. Let’s hope he got married and the problem went away.
World events played in the background and affected everyone. The Korean War, so soon after World War II. Our boys were dying abroad—again. WW II cast a long shadow. When it ended, Americans took their hoarded savings and went on a spending spree. Real estate prices skyrocketed. During the war, rationing had left the stores bare. And ration coupons were doled out for necessities in miserly fashion.
But the cold war settled in and was to last for many years. The fears it engendered allowed for excesses. In the early fifties, Senator Joseph McCarthy was still looking everywhere for Communists. For most people this was just part of the daily news, but if somebody you knew was targeted, the consequences hit home.
Another product of the cold war was bomb shelters. A place you could retreat to when the nuclear war started, filled with all the necessities you needed to survive. Well, almost all. Thank goodness nobody actually had to live in them.
But back to the students. A Time Magazine article of the period told us that we had nothing to lose but our conformity. It’s true we all looked pretty much alike. The girls with their long skirts, short hair, blouses or sweaters, saddle shoes and bobby sox. No pants or shorts in school. And definitely no minis. Even cheerleader skirts fell below the knees. The boys with their khaki or corduroy pants and sport shirts. Neatly cut hair. Brush cuts in summer. Only the hoods or hood wannabes wore their hair longer, with DAs.
The girls wore ugly bloomers for gym class. It’s no wonder a clothing revolution was on the way. The boys wore neat shorts and T-shirts, but they took swimming classes naked. Naked? In the fifties? Surely you jest. I’ll bet they don’t do that now.
What about sex? You must kidding, as a Chinese friend of mine used to say. The closest most high school students came to sex was slow dancing to Nat King Cole. There were lots of teeth marks on bedposts. Well, drive-in movies existed then. What happened inside the Fords and Chevies with the bench seats? I’ll get back to you.
On the conformity issue, it’s true there weren’t a lot of revolutions going on. If a student decided to break out of the box and, say, publish a magazine imitating the then popular Confidential Magazine—you know, the kind of magazine you buy at the supermarket checkout counter containing salacious gossip about celebrities—he was in deep doodoo. Perhaps he wouldn’t actually get kicked out of school as my protagonist, Gary Blanchard, does in The Hayloft, but the consequences would not be pleasant.
But then, this was the era where, when the powers that be adapted the musical South Pacific for the big screen, they changed the words of the song, “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” from “What don’t we get? You know damn well,” to “What don’t we get? We don’t get well.” And speaking of “damn,” the director almost closed down a play at our high school because one of the student actors said “damn” instead of “darn,” as he was instructed.
And where does murder fit into all this? I have to admit that there weren’t any murders at my high school. But there could have been. Our high school did have a balcony in its auditorium. Somebody could have been pushed off.
I had much fun writing The Hayloft because it took me back to my school days, although they are perhaps best remembered from a great distance. I attended the 50th anniversary reunion of the graduation of my high school class sometime during the course of writing the book and that helped put me in the mood.