Only a few city blocks from where I sit, a Disney film crew is shooting a movie: HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2. East High is my son’s alma mater, and, leafing through his yearbooks, I see nothing that would inspire a teenager to break into song. Alex is equally perplexed. Did he miss something? The most dramatic thing that happened when he was enrolled at East: a mob of irate parents picketed in protest of an extracurricular social club known as the Gay-Straight Alliance.
I suppose there are some who may look back upon their time in high school as happy days. For instance, boys who were endowed with athletic ability and girls who were blessed with athletic ability’s feminine counterpart: pep. But what about students like me, who had neither athletic ability nor pep? Mostly we brooded, daydreamed and doodled. My notebooks are filled with crude maps charting various escape routes via which I hoped to make my way home from school without being captured and tortured by free-ranging toughs and bullies.
If someone were to make a movie based upon my high school experience, I imagine it would look a lot like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. I remember very clearly a newly minted, idealistic teacher like Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, who, after being torn asunder by the wolves, gave up teaching for coal mining—in his opinion, a much less hazardous occupation. Indeed, my music teacher Alvin Wardle always used to say that the mortality rate among high school band directors ranks only slightly below that of military test pilots.
Some critics have pointed out that the actors who portrayed teens in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE were a bit long in the tooth to still be in high school. Vic Morrow, for instance, was 26 and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Still, he bore an enormous chip on his shoulder—just like the grown men I used to sit next to in Remedial Shop. The median age of my classmates was approximately 25, all of them having been held back, there being no such thing as a social promotion in those days. So, naturally, as they approached diploma-less middle age, they became embittered and mean. After hours, like Sidney Poitier (age 28), they worked as grease monkeys and auto mechanics, barely earning enough to support their true passion, which inevitably was a car. Parked beside every shanty and trailer in Carbon County was a gleaming hot rod. Each and every Saturday night said hot rods could be found cruising up and down Main Street—burning the midnight oil and rubber, so to speak.
As it happened, this particular era in American life would later be celebrated in the movie AMERICAN GRAFFITI. And each of us who saw it recognized immediately a character we knew, or were, back in 1961.