FIFTY YEARS AGO tonight I walked across a makeshift stage in the center of the dilapidated gym of my high school to receive my diploma.
When I walked out of that gymnasium, I never looked back. I never went back to visit my teachers and I never went back for a reunion. Our class never had a reunion – or maybe it did and I just wasn’t invited!
The reason I never returned had nothing to do with how I viewed my time at Crystal City High School (Hail to thee, our Alma Mater. Praise we offer thee. Something something something la-la, for ole Crystal High.) While those four years were not exactly the best of my life, neither were they the worst.
No, I stayed away simply because I believed that a high school belongs to high school students — and that there’s nothing to be gained by going back.
Following are some thoughts on this momentous anniversary:
RECENTLY, I CAME across in my old files a copy of the mimeographed program of that ceremony from 50 years ago. Among other things, such as class officers and faculty sponsors, it also listed the class colors (blue and white), the class song (“Maria Elena”) and the highly original and provocative class motto, “Every day gives you another chance.”
We also had a class flower, and it was the ranunculus. Really. Why would we pick the ranunculus? It’s a big mystery. I guarantee you that 99 percent of my classmates had never heard of such a flower, much less seen one.
I’VE THOUGHT a lot about my classmates over the last few weeks. There were 78 of us who got diplomas that rainy night, but there were many more who dropped out before graduating, mostly girls who married young and quit school. I know where a few of them are, but I have completely lost track of the majority of them.
Only one of my classmates is a Facebook friend. I’ve tried to do Internet searches on a few of them but I quit that after I hit a scam site that was trying to convince me my computer had been infected by a virus.
At least 13 of those of us who graduated are now dead. Three of them died in Vietnam. One of them, Juan García, was the first Crystal Citian to lose his life in that conflict and they named the town’s main park after him. He was a good, decent and intelligent person. We were not close friends, but we had a good relationship. Because he too came from a migrant worker family, he went to same elementary school for migrant kids that I attended. I think he and I were in the same class from the third grade to the eighth grade.
Another classmate died when the Air Force jet he was flying on a training mission crashed in Europe. Yet another became a deputy sheriff and was killed while on the job.
Fourteen of my classmates were Anglo. One was African American, one was Japanese American (how an Asian American ended up in Crystal City is a mystery but I would imagine that his father worked at the Del Monte cannery) — and one was half Mexican and half Anglo. The rest of us were Mexican.
The Mexican group was about evenly divided between those of us who came from migrant families – and who often entered school in late September or October, or whenever we came back from up north — and those from families who stayed in Crystal City all year and were able to start school on the first day of classes.
Almost all of us migrant kids went to two elementary schools that were called Airport 1 and Airport 2, because they were close to the town’s airport. They occupied school buildings that were part of the World War II internment camp. The others went to Grammar Elementary, with the Anglo students. Although I got along with students in both groups, and liked most of them, my heart was always with the kids I had gone to elementary school with.
There was not much socializing between members of the different ethnic groups, either on or off campus. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were some romantic/sexual trysts between Mexicans and Anglos, but they certainly did not take place in the open and they were never talked about widely.
LOOKING BACK, I have to say that ours was an unremarkable class. None of us went on to become famous or (as far as I know) super rich. Probably the most successful classmate is Frances Acosta, who became a medical doctor and practices somewhere in Nebraska. She was one of the migrant kids.
ALTHOUGH THE POPULATIONS of the schools and the town were predominantly Mexican American, the Anglo establishment controlled the school district and other local governments, and the overwhelming majority of teachers and administrators were also Anglo.
There was unabashed racism and discrimination. For instance, the faculty, not the students chosen the cheerleaders and band majorettes, and every year they selected only one Mexican cheerleader and one Mexican baton twirler. While they let us select our class and student body officers, they drew the line when it came to the selection of certain school and class “favorites.” They changed the rules so that only Anglos were selected as “most beautiful” or “most handsome” or homecoming queen.
We put up with it because we didn’t know it was possible to change things. All that was to change a few years after I graduated as a result of the Raza Unida revolution that led to the Latino takeover of the schools, the city and the county.
But at the time, most of us felt helpless. We grumbled about it but none of us was sophisticated enough politically to try to lead a drive for change. One time, during either my junior or senior year, I wrote a petition demanding changes in the system and I secretly circulated it. I managed to get a good number of signatures on it until one day my history teacher, Mr. Martínez, saw me with the petition. He immediately told the principal and before the day was over I was in the principal’s office, turning over my petition.
WHAT KIND OF student was I? I was a decent student (graduated 6th in my class). I enjoyed learning, but only about things that I found interesting. That did not include biology, chemistry or physics. I enjoyed history but I was turned off by having to memorize dates and battles and names of generals, and I was even more turned off by teachers who didn’t appear to give a damn about what they were teaching. I became a political junkie very early in my life so I thoroughly enjoyed civics, as they called government classes.
I liked math and was intrigued by the challenges of algebra and the pure joy of solving a plane geometry problem. I had a great teacher for both of those subjects. Unfortunately, those challenges became overwhelming when I got into advanced math and those joys became infrequent when I moved up to solid geometry. Unlike many people who swear they cannot find any practical applications to what they learned in algebra, I still use the algebra rules taught by Mr. Ray to solve some everyday problems.
But I think my favorite classes were English, both the grammar parts and the literature segments. There too I had good and challenging teachers. Learning and applying the rules of grammar and how to spell words were tasks that never proved difficult for me.
What I liked the most about English was writing “themes,” which is what our short essays were called. I often found a way to sneak in my political views into my essays, which did not please Mrs. Lunz, especially when I criticized the Anglo power structure that ruled the school system. She could not criticize my writing skills so she often resorted to put-downs intended to let me know that I was getting too big for my britches. Her favorite was “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”
As for my relationship with my fellow students, I was neither a leader nor a follower. I was never part of a clique and I never sought to be; I was comfortable in my independence.
The only time I became part of a group was my junior year, when I hung out with Tavo and Joe, whom I’d gotten to know over the summer in a migrant camp in Wisconsin. Tavo was a mechanic, like his father, and he loved cars. I spent many an afternoon in his back yard watching as he tinkered with his ’56 Ford, or other cars. In the evenings, I would join Tavo, Joe and others as we rode around town in that Ford, or park at the Dairy Kreme while shooting the breeze. Sometimes other drivers would challenge Tavo to a drag race (or he would challenge them) and we would all go out to the countryside to watch the two cars zoom down the narrow roads. That was probably the most scandalous thing we did, for we didn’t drink and we definitely didn’t do drugs.
By the next year, however, Tavo, Joe and the others had started dating girls and the group broke up and I again retreated to the comfort of my books. I loved books, and had since I discovered that there was such a thing as a library, in junior high.
In addition to being a loner, I was also an individualist (which caused me to have a brief flirtation with Ayn Rand and Goldwaterism, but that’s another story for another time). I sought desperately to be different from all the others, but not so different that I would open myself up to ridicule or abuse.
While I was not a “cool” kid, I was not a nerd. I didn’t go around with pencil holder in my front shirt pocket or a key chain or slide rule hanging from my belt. While most of my classmates saw me as one of the smarter students and often asked me for help, I generally tried to maintain a modest attitude towards grades and intelligence. I don’t believe I ever tried to show off, but I may be exercising selective memory here.
This is not to say that I was a silent presence in my school. My classmates could always depend on me to get our civics or history teachers to set aside lesson plans to talk about current events. I liked playing that role and I thrived in the attention it got me. I have always craved people’s notice and approval, and my classmates would probably tell you that I also took pleasure in drawing attention to myself by being a smart-ass to my teachers, especially those for whom I had no respect. Like Mr. Martínez.
While I was not a popular student, I don’t believe I had any enemies, and I don’t think any of my classmates disliked me intensely.
I think that if I played a “role” of any kind in high school, it was that of “the judge,” or “the wise one.” People mistook my relative silence for wisdom. And they mistook for impartiality my reluctance to get involved in matters that did not directly affect me. Constantly, I was asked to be a mediator in schoolyard arguments or debates. “Let’s ask Juan,” they would say, and it would be up to me to decide who was right. (Actually, they would say, “Let’s ask John,” because that’s how I was known in high school.) My decisions or responses were not always correct, but my classmates seemed to trust me.
I NEVER DATED in high school. While I knew early on in my life that I was different, I didn’t really know what it all really meant. I didn’t know whether my sexual attractions would stay with me all my life or whether I would outgrow them – or suppress them. I did have feelings for several girls, although in retrospect I realize they were more emotional than sexual.
The closest I came to having a “girlfriend” was my relationship, during my junior year, with a girl several years younger. Her name was Alma. She was the younger sister of a classmate who had run off and got married the year before Alma entered high school. Their parents were so upset by the older sister’s marriage that they forbade Alma to date or to go out at all without a chaperone.
We were both in band and I guess that’s how I got to know her and became attracted to her. We saw each other during lunch break. After we ate, we’d go to the auditorium or to the library where we would sit next to each other and talk quietly. We also sat next to each other on the bus during out-of-town band trips. What we talked about, I don’t remember. All I know is that I enjoyed being with her and that she seemed to enjoy being with me.
But the next year, when school started, Alma was not there. Her family had decided to stay in Washington state, where they had been going to work in the summers. I never saw her again.
I DID NOT play sports but I was an avid fan of all high school sports, baseball in particular. I loved baseball and I went to every single home game. The highlight of every spring was the annual baseball tournament. I would always buy a ticket for the entire tournament, which entitled me to skip classes to catch the afternoon games.
I was in band. I played clarinet, then oboe and finally the tuba. The tuba was the only instrument I could play relatively well. Why the director allowed me to play the oboe, one of the band’s most important instruments, for three years, I will never be able to figure out. I got all A’s in band (everyone did). Had it not been for band, my GPA would not have been as high and I’m sure I would not have graduated sixth in my class. It took me 50 years to realize that. Wow!
IF I HAD to pick a most memorable moment of my high school years, it would have to be that early Friday afternoon in November — during my sophomore year — when I was walking down the hallway that connected the auditorium and the main hallway. Our lunch hour had ended and we were all heading back to our classes. In the middle of that hallway I saw Kathye Briscoe heading in the opposite direction, with tears in her eyes.
“They shot him,” she said.
They cancelled classes a few minutes after that.
I STILL HAVE my high school diploma, somewhere in my files. It’s never been up on a wall. Along with it is an autographed photo of Lyndon Baines Johnson. When he was a senator, he would send a letter of congratulations and a picture to every graduating senior in the state, and I guess he never could bring himself to quit once he became vice president and president. I’m surprised I didn’t throw away that photo. Although I now believe he was one of our nation’s best presidents, I back then was not a fan of LBJ. He represented the Texas Anglo establishment and everything that was wrong with the state.
I DID NOT leave Crystal City right after I finished high school. Like most of my classmates who went on to college, I enrolled in the junior college in Uvalde and commuted to school every day from my home. It wasn’t until two years later, when I entered in Southwest Texas State College (Texas State University now) that I left my hometown.
I’ve never been back for more than a few weeks at a time. And, as I said, I never returned to good ole Crystal High. Why? Because every day has given me another chance, that’s why!