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The Personal HIstory of Michael F. Nyiri

Celebrating My first half century on this Planet.

 

Chapter Eight: Junior Highjinks

My elementary school years hold fond memories still cherished. I learned much, with a reach always exceeding my grasp, gaining the respect of my teachers, who publicly gushed over my progress. I made a few real friends, but since my parents kept my siblings and I on a tight leash, these friendships weren't secured by the bonds that cement a lot of childhood kinships. For the most part, "life at school" ended with the three o clock bell. It was a short walk but a long journey home. At home, we inhabited an isolated, completely different world, with many rules and boundries which weren't to be broken, and Mother, always involved in multiple "projects" for the PTA and in the home, constructed a "progress board" out of construction paper which held a place of honor on our kitchen wall above the dining table. This board was inspired by our family's love of the sport of baseball. Each child had a section, with a cartoon representing us as a "ballplayer". If we were "good", the ballplayer hit a "home run". If our behavior for the day seemed problematical from my mother's viewpoint, we got a "foul ball". Misbehaving, which also would result in having to be disciplined with the "spanking stick", a 1/4" dowel about three feet long my mother always had at the ready, would result in the "strike out." When Father arrived home from work, a "foul ball" would initiate harsh words from the head of the household, and a "strike out" would gaiin the unlucky child a spanking from him as well as the earlier disciplinary action from my mother. Fear would grip the child whose behavior resulted in anything other than a "home run". Diplomatic negotiation, pleading, begging, and temper tantrums, might goad our mother into changing our status before Dad opened the front door.

As I grew up and grew more aware of the world outside the front gate, I began to relish my walks around the perimeter of the Shirpser School playground. Some afternoons at school, after lunch, I would begin a "tour" of the back yards of the homes and businesses ringing the playground, walking slowly around the schoolground, noticing the differences in each yard, cleanly separated by the fences which enclosed them. Each backyard seemed to tell it's own story, and my imagination would swell with the details of the unknown lives of the people who lived in these spaces. Each moment away from the home was a moment on my own, immersed in my own individual thoughts and dreams. Someday I would grow up and own a home, with a back yard much like the back yards surrounding the perimeter of the school. I could gaze into my own future, and think about the times when I would be able to escape the tightly tied apronstrings of my mother.

One lazy afternoon durning the summer of 1965, bridging my graduation from childhood, with the anticipation of junior high and young adulthood on the horizon, I lay spread out under the apricot tree in our backyard, watching the clouds gather and pass overhead. For some moments, time seemed as if to slow and almost crawl to a stop. The garden sounds of birds and insects, and the low grumbling of traffic in the distance seemed to soften and disappear. I had the first of what would become many life affirming epiphanies, in which the unheard voice of the Universe informed me of my place in the overall scheme of existence. I knew that the scant twelve summers I had experienced were each special and significant, and was given the realization that with many succeeding summers in my future, I should cherish this moment above all, and remember the experience of childhood, which would never be repeated. This epiphany that afternoon gave me renewed insight and understanding. Unlike a lot of children about to enter the uneasy hormonal imbalance of their preteen years, I knew for certain that I had a purpose for my life and a reason for living. It wasn't yet revealed as to what this purpose might be, but the existence of the purpose was quite enough to encounter at this point in my life.

As soon as summer ended, the first of many abrupt changes in my young life was about to occur. Shirpser School was only two blocks from our house. I would attend junior high at Gidley School, about three miles north of our neighborhood. I had never needed to ride the school bus before, but now I had the chance of either riding the bus, or walking the seeming long distance to the new school, opening another world of discovery and possibility. There was a railroad running north through the backs of the industrialized area north of our street, and I could follow the tracks right to the back of Gidley's schoolyard. Sometimes I would ride the bus, but most of the time, I would leave the house early, and walk up the railroad tracks to school.Mike in 7th grade, in front of the El Monte Drive In

To this day, I feel something wonderful and indescribable in the pit of my stomach when I see a schoolyard. Southern California schools in the early and mid 60s were built open, with multiple single story buildings, consisting of about four or five classrooms each. The doors are lined up on one side of the building, along by which runs the outside "hall", a covered walkway. On the other side is a wall of glass windows. Usually, the classrooms are clustered in rows, and there is an auditorium and cafeteria on one end, and the vast expanse of the playground on the other. There is a large square patch of macadam filled with basketball and handball courts, then the baseball diamond, and an area of grass striped for football. California is blessed with moderate weather almost year round, so there are outdoor eating areas, with dozens of benches and "picnic tables" arranged under canopies. Even when attending my first year at Garvanza school for the first grade, I can lucidly remember this remarkable feeling upon encountering the campus for the fist time. The feeling followed me to Gidley School, along the railroad tracks as I walked forward into my future as a young adult. As the mile markers passed, so did my seeming tightly bound connection with my mother. In Junior High, I was about to be "on my own" actually, for the very first time in my young life.

From first though fourth grades, I had one teacher every year, and she was usaually an elderly lady. In fifth grade, I had a "homeroom teacher" and would attend class with a different teacher for math and science. This scenario was repeated in sixth grade. Gidley was a K-8 school, and the seventh and eighth grades, which made up "junior high" followed multiple class schedules. My "home room" in seventh grade was with Mr. Gardner, and I had different teachers in different classrooms for social studies and for math and science. Mr. Warren, a somewhat bombastic blowhard with low hygiene who was given to reading the teacher's instructions in his textbooks to his classes, taught social studies. Mr. Aberle taught math and science. Although a few students from Shirpser attended junior high at Gidley alongside me, I lived in the northernmost part of the neighborhood, and most of the kids I knew in elementary school went to another junior high farther south of town. Entering junior high for me was to begin a new phase, with an entirely new set of friends.

I enjoyed having male teachers. Mr. Gardner taught creative writing as part of English studies, and in this subject I found a calling, filling notebook after notebook with writing assignments and poetry. Mr. Gardner introduced the thesaurus to the class, a reference book which opened up vistas of synonyms, antonyms, and foreign phrases. In academic studies, as in elementary school, I remained at the top of the class, and endeared myself to my teachers with extra credit writing assignments. I fell in love with Susan, a tall unattainable "popular" girl, and because of my pursuit of her, I got to know the more popular guys in the seventh grade, who liked to ridicule short academic types like me, stuffing me in trash cans whenever the opportunity arose.

Unlike elementary school, junior high was more like a small microcosm of society. Some kids grew into puberty more graciously than others. Some were tall and clumsy. Some, like me, remained short and underdeveloped. The good tidings of skipping kidnergarten in the early part of my educational upbringing developed into the bad news that I was a half year behind everyone else in age, so it was going to be some time before I "grew up" if in fact, this was to happen. My father was only 5 and a half feet tall, and he towered over my mother. In junior high, I began to get the picture that my parents, who always "seemed" tall to me, had passed to me their "short genes", so besides the inconvenience of wearing glasses and braces, I was always picked to stand in the front in group photos, because I was the second shortest person in my class. At least I wasn't the shortest. This gave me someone to "kick around" myself if I wanted. Although I struck up unlikely relationships with the miscreants and losers in the school, while secretly aspiring to become one of the gang of popular kids, who were wont to lump me in with the outcasts.

Soon after school began, I began to hang out with a group of kids which would become my social peers for most of the next two years. A guy named Steve became my best friend, and his buddies Ron and Rick were part of the gang. We also had a few girls in the group: Judy, Susan, and Criss. Steve and I shared an interest in automobiles, and we each "designed" cars for our own respective "car companies.". I built model cars, and found that this hobby helped to bring me into this group of friends, who knew each other in the sixth grade. Rick and I traded car magazines like Road and Track and Cartoons. Since I was finally allowed a modicum of freedom in junior high, my parents allowed me to accompany my new friends to their houses after school, and I developed a rather healthy social life with my "gang."

I won the first "award" ever given to me for "first place" in a poster contest for the school dance program, which was held on Friday nights. While designing the poster, I got interested in the idea of the dance classes, and asked my father and mother if it would be okay to attend the dance classes, after which the students were allowed to socialize, with dancing, punch, and refreshments. My father would pick up another school mate, Sonia, and drive us to the school, dropping us off, and then picking us up a couple of hours later. Sonia was a skinny girl "from the wrong side of the tracks" and I didn't socialize much with her, but when I got to the school, I would join Steve, Ron, and Rick, and after we were taught a bit of the waltz, the two step, or the black bottom, we would hang out as a clique, and dance with our distaff members. I began to develop a crush on Criss, a robust, dark haired girl who already had the largest breasts in class. At one dance, I borrowed Ron's St. Christopher medal, and offered it to Criss to "go steady". I and Criss shared a kiss, my very first, and we spent a lot of free time together.

An 8th grade portrait backed with the Matterhorn at DisneylandI remember "free rules football games" during recesses, and had to suffer the humiliation which arose from having some of the "bullies" play "keep away" with me. In eighth grade, my mother had bought me some new shirts which had "dickeys" or false turtlenecks. It didn't take long before the bullies were pulling my dickies off of my head and throwing them around. I grew a little physically in the eighth grade, but not enough to give up my position as second shortest person in the class. I had my share of good and bad times, but when it came to my studies, I received high marks and great citizenship scores. I adapted quite well to taking multiple classes, and knew I was going to really like high school. My strengths were in English and social studies. I didn't do that well in math and science, but still received A's and B's.

In eighth grade, my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Gardner, wanted to stage a school wide play, and he picked Tom Sawyer. His conceipt was to stage the play with modern rock and roll music as themes for the characters and actions. I was happy to be included in the company, but disappointed in the character he chose for me to play, Sidney Sawyer, Tom's insufferable younger brother, who is always screaming "Aunt Polly" and getting pies and cakes thrown at him in the movie. My "theme" was to be the Beatle's "Nowhere Man". I think I still have negative feelings concerning this decision by my favorite teacher, and it is probably good that the school didn't have the budget to stage the play and cancelled the performance before we even got to the second rehearsal.

At home, my brother and I could be found on Saturday afternoons around the table in my mom's 'sewing room' illustrating and writing magazines. I had a car magazine, and my brother had a horror magazine. We stapled our creations together, and shared them with our friends at school. I began making "collages' using images cut out of old magazines, like Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. At the same time, I read the articles in these magazines, obtained from my mother's PTA cronies, and began to develop a grasp of local and world events. During 1967, our family went on our first trip to Disneyland, located in Anaheim, a short freeway ride from home. Dad was a member of the Teamster's Union, and his Union would "rent" Disneyland for one night each year, and Union members and their families would be able to go on the rides without having to buy tickets. We started a tradition of going to Disneyland each year, and it wasn't until I went to Disneyland for Senior Ditch Day in high school that I ever had to purchase the "E" tickets to get on the rides. On Union Night, there were hardly any crowds, either, so I got to know the park in a decidedly different sort of atmosphere than most children.

Two years after stepping into the schoolyard of Gidley for the first time, I stepped out of it, as a graduate, with a new suit and a diploma. During these two years, my home life took a rear seat to my school life, with it's new social circuit, and increasing cadre of friends and acquaintences. A couple of the school "bullies", when signing my autograph book prior to graduation, congratulated me on being such a good sport when it came to their shenanigans. I didn't suffer a lot of the angst associated with being a preteen. If there was any angst, it quickly worked itself out in the many poems I wrote in my notebook. I had to break up with Criss, as we were going to attend different high schools, but we were really just good friends and not that romantically linked. I said goodby to Steve, Ron, Rick, Criss, Judy, and Susan. Again I found myself in a situation where most of my friends would go to Arroyo HIgh School in North El Monte, but I would be going to Rosemead High, a long way to the west, separated again from the students with whom I associated. I looked at this next move with great anticipation. World events, and especially those playing out in the States as a result of the anti war sentiments shared amongst most college students and the momentum of theyouth movement which would shepherd in a goup of people known as hippies, were at their most volatile and uneasy than at any time in my short life. The times were exciting, scary, and full of both dread and optimism. Much like experience itself.

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