Presenting another excerpt from my Memoir Workshop with Suze Allen—an example of channelling early consciousness-raising through reckless teenage behavior.
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Cussing at a bunch of parents at a small town PTA meeting might not have been my smoothest move. Especially when I was a loud-mouthed 9th grader in an army uniform barking about patriotism and bravery in battle.
Let me back up.
It was 1971. The Vietnam war was not going well, and would continue for years. Richard Nixon was in office stoking the divide between young and old with his resistance to everything the 1960s promised. “The Generation Gap” was a very threatening rift between parents and their children.
I was relatively lucky, for someone living in an under-educated New Jersey factory town full of Polish and Italian immigrants. My dad was a NYC transplant who was a college professor. Well-read and more cosmopolitan than most of my friend’s fathers, he taught his sons to read from a very early age.
As the oldest, I was used to taking the lead, and was drawn to performing. So when I heard about the New Jersey Teen Arts Festival, I was keen to sign up. I thought it would be cool to do a monologue from one of my favorite movies. The drama club advisor invited me to join the students for a preview at the next PTA meeting.
So on a chilly Monday evening in the high school cafeteria, I found myself waiting for my turn to perform, after the sincere folk singing guitarists and tap dancing cheerleaders. The smiling, sleepy crowd applauded in turn, until my name was called.
A titter arose from the audience as I stood in full general’s regalia, wearing a combination of 1940s army surplus and my own hand-drawn medals and patches, paper curling on my chest and sleeves. The chatter was cut short as I barked “Be Seated!” and launched into George C. Scott’s intro from “Patton.”
“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for HIS country.”
The effect was electrifying, but not in the way I had intended. The speech contained at least half of the seven words that George Carlin said we could never say on television, much less in the MHS cafeteria. And when it was all over, there was a pause, before the perfunctory applause. My fellow students cheered me on, and I was thrilled.
No one else was thrilled. The next morning I was asked to come to the principal’s office. Robert B. Mendenhall was a tall, crewcut administrator who seemed to be 100 years older than I was. He informed me that my performance was unsuitable for students, and reflected badly on the high school and community. I would not be permitted to compete in the Teen Arts Festival on Saturday.
Looking around at the country for inspiration, it seemed I had only one alternative. Fight back. At the suggestion of that same drama club advisor, and encouraged by my dad, I wrote a seven-page complaint to the local American Civil Liberties Union office, stating that the principal was infringing my freedom of expression. I declared loudly and obnoxiously to anyone who would listen that this decision was unfair, and I would fight.
The town paper, starved for any sort of controversy, wrote an article, which led to some heated phone calls on a local radio station. I was warned that if I was to perform on Saturday I could face suspension. My mom was concerned, but my dad was a bit of a troublemaker himself and suggested that “I do what I felt was right.”
This was a heady moment for a 14-year old kid. I loved the attention and felt increasingly righteous. But the ACLU hadn’t responded to my request, and I felt alone. However, the promise of an audience was too much to resist. In a town where sports fans outnumbered arts enthusiasts 100 to 1, this real-life drama was attracting a crowd.
So that Saturday I suited up and cued the musical intro. A substantial audience to turned up, probably hoping to see me thrown in jail. I launched into my performance, in character, fist raised, and delivered a newly-written harangue against small minds in small towns and how free speech would endure.
The response was a combination of applause and heckles. It wasn’t the show they hoped for.
Eventually, someone from the ACLU did call the principal, and he agreed to let me participate at the county level. It was easier than embarking on any sort of legal action. I performed in the “dramatic interpretation” category and lost to a modern dancer.
I learned two big lessons: First and foremost, pushing back against the establishment was possible. That paved the way for me to be a thorn in the side of the status quo in high school and college. As I became more politically savvy, I became more progressive (I was literally a card-carrying member of the ACLU for years), studied journalism, and stood up for the “little guy” where I could. I ended up where I belonged, in San Francisco.
The other lesson? I learned that a gimmick isn’t enough in art. You have to learn your craft. I’m still working on that.