This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.
1948 – 1952
Sequoia High was a large, two-story quadrangle constructed in 1927. Each of its eight hallways, four on the ground floor, four on the second, had to be about eighty feet long. Numerous doors along the walls opened to classrooms and laboratories, the spaces in between lined with lockers where students stored their belongings. Though initially designed for twelve hundred students, the student body had swelled to nearly eighteen hundred by the time I arrived because of the post-war boom. The year before I graduated another building had been constructed to handle the overload. Two years later an entirely new school opened in nearby Atherton.
In the meantime bulldozers were clearing away huge swaths of vegetation stripping the ground bare. Frequent winter rains turned everything into rivulets of mud washing away what little topsoil remained. Not for long, as miles of dirt roads morphed into miles of asphalt replete with sidewalks, streetlights and utility poles, curbs and driveways leading to nonexisting houses. Neat rows of foundations sprang up followed by walls, windows and doors topped by roofs. Finally moving vans arrived and automobiles were soon seen parked in driveways; it wasn’t long before an ugly brown smog obliterated the surrounding mountains from sight. The world I had known as a child was fast disappearing.
I hated the transformation, ignoring the fact my parents had also come to California seeking a better life. I rationalized we were different from the others because we came before the war, not after like other migrants. I felt the pressure of too many people, too many cars, too many new houses and buildings usurping the once-open land, too much noise and now air pollution. I felt boxed in, particularly in my neighborhood with forests of new houses springing up like weeds. Going, going gone were the limitless open spaces I’d explored as a child and still dream about.
The closed-off inner space inside Sequoia’s quadrangle was a garden perpetually off-limits to us students and probably faculty as well since I never saw anyone out there save an occasional caretaker. By the time I graduated it had devolved to little more than a weed patch.
I came to know the upper reaches of this inner garden well because it was about all I could see from classrooms whose windows faced inward. Much of the time my gaze was directed at the treetops as their leaves turned color and dropped off. Bird-watching saw me through many a boring class. I’d take in the teacher’s words while observing a gracile avian preening itself or flitting about.
Classrooms whose windows faced outward afforded a splendid view of manicured grassy stretches dotted with magnificent evergreens or eucalyptus whose curved leaves rustled softly in the wind, a familiar and comforting sound since we had two such trees in front of our house. I loved their faint whisperings in fair weather, their roar whenever a storm blew in from across the Pacific.
Window shades were fastened to the bottom of the window wells. A long slender rope attached to each shade led up to a pulley on the frame’s underside and looped back down to within reach so anyone pulling down it made the shade go up, darkening the room or blocking the sun. At a desired height one had only to move the rope’s free end slightly to the left or right, allow it go back far enough to catch in the angled reverse groove of the pulley. To free it or lower the shade one pulled straight down.
I suspect the purpose for this arrangement was to prevent the shades billowing and flapping in the wind when the windows were open. Sometimes when alone I’d pull a shade all the way up, let go the rope to see how far back down the shade could get on its own. I never succeeded in getting one to go all way down by this method. It often took several tries before anyone, teachers included, managed to ease the shades all the way down by paying out the rope judiciously; sometimes I’d show them how.
Each window was divided into three panels, whose bottoms swung outward at the turn of a crank. Since all three were ganged, they opened or closed in unison whenever the crank was turned. I inadvertently memorized each crack in the glass, each ripple, places where paint had been splattered on the glass and not scraped off. I knew which windows were hard to open or did not close all the way. I particularly enjoyed the sound of rain beating against the glass, watching rivulets trickle down as I guessed their routes. And I was entranced seeing trees bowing under the wind during storms, wondering if one might go over.
Another diversion was observing clouds drifting across the azure sky. A particular cloud might grow bigger or smaller, split into two smaller ones, the smaller enjoying a brief existence before melting away. Clouds approaching from the south often meant rain within twenty-four hours. Each configuration was unique, no two alike since Day One. I read about meteorology, tried my hand at predicting the weather based on cloud formations and wind direction. On rare occasion I’d get it right when the Weather Bureau got it wrong. Not that I was a better forecaster but because of the intricacies and variables no one really understood; flipping a coin would likely have done as well.
A longer-term project involved observing the sun’s shadows lengthening or shortening with the progression of the seasons. Since I was in the same classroom at the same time each day, it was easy to track week to week variations. I tried day-to-day at first but the variations were too small. Sometimes by close observation I could see the sun’s shadow moving albeit just barely if I concentrated hard enough. In my own way I came to celebrate the winter solstice—still do—because that meant the days would start getting longer pointing in the direction of increasing light and warmth. February was my second-favorite month with the rain, grass turning green accompanied by rapidly-lengthening days. June was my favorite: long warm days and plenty of sunshine with more to follow and best of all no school until far-off September.
Glass panels in doors leading outside looked as if someone had placed chicken wire inside. Wire mesh cemented between two panes of thick plate glass made it shatterproof, a necessary precaution with hundreds of students passing through hourly. By law all outside doors opened outward allowing quick egress in the event of fire or other emergency. One thing that concerned me was heavy masonry crashing down on our heads during an earthquake. I don’t recall any at school, though we rode through several temblors elsewhere. I’d occasionally be awakened during the night by a shaking, holding my breath waiting to see if it was going to get stronger. Our house was constructed of wood though the walls and ceilings were lath-and-plaster. The ceiling in one room had worked loose, eventually crashing down during a temblor, fortunately during the day when nobody was home.
The typical classroom contained six overhead lighting fixtures suspended at the end of slender rods, each terminating in a half-silvered 1,000-watt lightbulb mounted upside down encircled by a three-foot-diameter saucer-like reflector directing the light upward. Though inefficient, indirect lighting eliminated shadows and made it easy to see, the blackboard in particular. Florescent lighting hadn’t arrived yet so it required six thousand watts to light each classroom, horribly inefficient by today’s standards. Six thousand watts per classroom, sixty or more classrooms added up. Third of a megawatt to light up just one school.
Desks were made of what appeared to be walnut or oak stained dark brown, solidly constructed with wrought iron frames. To each was attached a curved seat in front which could be raised or lowered facing the desk in front. Ten to fifteen of these seat-and-desk arrays were bolted to two long strips of well-worn beveled oak so the whole assembly could be moved yet remain in alignment. A round hole about 2½” in diameter had been cut through the upper left of each desk’s surface, serving as a receptacle for a bottle of ink. I never saw one, a relic from earlier times. When I returned for my senior year I saw a huge pile of these old-fashioned desks stacked at one end of the hall. They soon disappeared, replaced by the kind typically seen in today’s classroom.
These ancient desks sported a treasure trove of names carved into their hard surfaces, of John loves Mary or Hirsch is a creep, et cetera. One could still be entertained by comments made about teachers long departed. Among the graffiti were the usual swastikas, hearts pierced by arrows, taboo body parts. One desk acquired a lovingly crafted outline of the planet Saturn thanks to me. Other students depicted more mundane objects like aircraft, automobiles, bombs and so forth. Of course the usual four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon ancestry abounded, typically placed where they were more likely seen. The more taboo a word in supposedly polite society, the more frequent its appearance on those hardwood chronicles of bored youths.
The high point would come when the teacher, or a student not in our class rolled in a cart containing a 16-mm movie projector, unwound and plugged its power cord into an outlet in the rear of the room. He then placed the speaker up front, set up the screen and connected everything together.
On Teach’s command students nearest the windows leapt up and pulled up the shades darkening the room. I watched intently as the projectionist extended the feed and take-up arms, placed a roll of film—bigger in diameter the better—onto the feed arm and threaded it through the projector. Click, the machine came on and the film began to roll, another click and its 500 or 750 watt lamp flashed on. The projectionist raised and lowered the projector centering and focusing its flickering image on screen. Click, the film ran backward to its starting point followed by another click shutting the machine off. The command was given and the lights were turned off as I settled back to enjoy the show.
I never tired observing this ritual though I’d seen it many times. Even the most boring movie was better than trying to sit still in class, forced to pay attention to subjects that failed to grab but had to be learned so I wouldn’t be thrust into the same rigmarole—perish the thought—in summer school makeup classes. I did have to repeat several courses but fortunately not at cost of summer’s bracing freedom. All told my grade point average at Sequoia hovered between C and C-, barely enough to allow me to graduate with my class in June, 1952.
Woe to anyone who spoke aloud in the school’s library; the mere engagement of one’s vocal cords was sure to elicit swift, unwanted attention. Whispering was done covertly if at all, usually by partially covering the lips so their motions couldn’t be seen or emulating a ventriloquist. The usual was to scribble notes on scraps of paper and shove them quickly back and forth across the table or under. The head librarian I remember well, a tyrant of the first order who ruled her roost with military precision where everything had to be just so. I came to regard her the antithesis of fun, of joy, of everything I held desirable. I never saw this sharp-angled creature crack a hint of a smile. I wondered if she held that position because she loved books or hated young people, maybe both.
A major sin was writing in our texts. Several assigned to me contained writings which had been erased but not quite enough so I could still read what a previous reader had penciled in. The best part was finding answers to questions at the end of the chapters or in the back. As a courtesy to whomever might be assigned my text the following year I penciled in a few answers myself—which would probably end up erased too . The way to deal with that was to press down on the pencil. Occasionally the school invested in new, more up-to-date texts which meant having to begin anew.
Sometimes we were allowed to choose texts for ourselves. At first I chose the newer ones because they looked nice. But when I saw some of the other students’ takes, usually leftovers, I was quick to learn older, beatup copies contained more answers penciled in. It never occurred to me at the time that just because someone had penciled in answers meant they were correct.
I found a few comments illuminating, sometimes wishing I knew who their authors were, wondered where they were now and how they were getting on. One in particular stood out. I fantasized meeting him or her, maybe even becoming friends. I conjured all-night bull sessions as we’d take on the world. We’d end up teaching each other things neither of us would’ve learned on our own. I fantasized how he or she was doing today, an obviously superior mind whose possessor I could only envy from afar. Probably someone who wouldn’t have paid me the slightest interest.
Sometimes a few well-chosen words penciled in margins helped make sense of poorly-written or confusing text, possibly a comment copied from what a teacher had said. I enjoyed reading questions previous readers had penciled in, a few thought-provoking. Since we were daily bombarded with questions in class whose answers could usually be found in our texts, it was refreshing to encounter questions prompting one to think at a deeper level or outside the box.
True-false questions were my bane. How many things in life can be reduced to absolutely true or absolutely false? What if something is partly true or false, like most things in life? Or maybe true today but not necessarily tomorrow? Point of view differing between tester and testee? Occasionally I’d mark a statement T, get to thinking about it more critically, go back and change the T to an F, move on. Well almost, because another wayward thought might intrude, further complicating matters. Erase the F and replace it with T again?
Squirming in my eagerness to move on yet pulled back by still more lingering doubts, I’d force myself on. With time fast running out before the teacher called in our papers, and with another ten or fifteen questions I hadn’t gotten to yet, I would fill the remaining blanks with T’s and F’s chosen at random, avoiding strings like T,F,T,F,T,F’s or all T’s or all F’s, a giveaway that I was guessing.
The pressure of time weighed heavily and I felt increasingly ignorant, stupid—so much I didn’t know, didn’t understand. A few classmates regularly finished in twenty minutes or less, got up and handed in their papers and left. It seemed the sooner one was out the door, the higher his or her marks. Slowpokes like me usually ended up with a C or an ego-bashing D.
And who determines whether a given statement is true or false? All true or partly true or mostly true, or true in terms of A but not B? The teacher, who might as well have been God? The textbook’s author? Authoritative figures I’d come across elsewhere? Whatever I said or thought in class carried little weight so I seldom spoke up. And poorly written, ambiguous questions? Sometimes I’d approach the teacher for clarification during a test, return to my desk more confused than before.
I was made to feel adrift without a compass, nary a port in sight, cursed with insufficient intelligence to see my way around this archipelago of seemingly endless obstacles. Hidden—and exposed—sandbars lay in wait seemingly everywhere, ever ready to leave me stranded. I still puzzle over how the others in my class did so well, a few scoring well into the ninetieth percentile time and again, when about all I could manage was score in sixties or seventies. Whether I paid close attention in class and studied hard or daydreamed, the outcome remained essentially unchanged.
Gym was the pits, paralleling my utter lack of interest in sports. The hoopla over ball games went over my head and I couldn’t see the point of padded and costumed giants chasing an odd-shaped ball in the rain and mud while drenched spectators watched from the bleachers in cold misery. I once asked my father wouldn’t it be easier if instead all this rigmarole the teams got together and hashed out who was the winner? No need for stadia with acres of real estate, traffic jams, injuries and the rest. Team members could enter a debate, say, where the team coming up with the most points in terms of debating skill or whatever would be declared the winner. My father got a rise out of that, probably not taking me seriously; I didn’t pursue the subject.
As with grammar school, when it came to choosing sides in gym class I was usually the last chosen, or not chosen at all so the coach would assign me to one side or the other. I reckon my body language fairly shouted don’t pick me—I don’t want to play! It seemed pointless; I’d much rather have gone for a brisk walk. I was in excellent physical condition since I walked a lot, largely to get away from school during lunch or other free periods. I felt no need for the increased burden placed on body and soul by remote school administrators.
The gym’s interior resembled a cold, dank cavern, chilly even on the warmest day, its steamy, streaked concrete walls of peeling paint giving it the charm of a mediaeval dungeon. What few windows it contained consisted of orange-colored shatterproof glass so no one could see in or out. They cast dim, brownish-orange hues over everything, low-wattage naked light bulbs in the ceiling contributing their own feeble rays of gloom. Going inside was like turning the clock back centuries; I roundly hated the place.
On approaching the gym from outside or even passing by with no intent of entering, one frequently encountered the unmistakable, ever-present, accumulated stench of years of young sweaty bodies. I’m sure it had worked its way deep into the walls and ceiling notwithstanding their having been repainted one year. For a while the aroma of unwashed bodies and fresh paint intermingled, the freshness soon wearing off but never the offensive component.
To gain access to the swimming pool one had to wade through a shallow footbath painted blue-green, a four-inch depression laced with disinfectant to ward off athlete’s foot and other waterborne nasties. It reeked of a cross between insect repellant and chlorine.
I resented being made to disrobe in the presence of other young males. While I was whole and sound, I was smaller than the others, felt myself not as good-looking, a few others I couldn’t help envying. It would be interesting to see them today if still alive. I visualize survivors soft and paunchy with arthritis and other ills of the elderly. Other than some arthritis of the knees, I’m nearly as hale today as then, weigh less now than then; I could be the one envied today.
One of my gym-mates in my junior year was a skinny, blond-haired guy whose left arm ended several inches above the elbow. I never learned how he got that way because we never exchanged words. I never learned his first name since the coach addressed us by last names only.
Though this guy never hit a home run, that did not matter because he was an excellent pitcher. And when it came to touch football he held his own. It could get rough sometimes and I was afraid he might injure his remaining arm. Happily that didn’t happen; perhaps his teammates made allowances or the coach kept a close watch.
The year after I graduated, the wretched gym was demolished and a new one rose in its stead. Years later that too was replaced.
While my physical body was contorted into a sitting position in class, ears bombarded with an array of largely unintelligible or irrelevant mutterings from up front, my mind as a whole remained my own. I trained myself to look attentive as my thoughts roamed distant planets or other arresting places thanks to a steady input from the growing world of sci-fi. Some of the best of the genre appeared around this time, opening up imaginary worlds I wished I might visit, others to be avoided at all cost. Whether utopian or dystopian, I found myself irresistibly drawn to these imaginary constructs. Unless a teacher called on me directly, little did anyone suspect my mind had galloped off elsewhere.
Returned test papers could collapse the best of imaginary worlds back to the here and now. Nothing like receiving a D to kick one’s already deflated ego further downstairs. Sneaking a peek to my left I’d glimpse an A, to the right a B+, over the gal’s shoulder in front another respectable grade. Then I’d stare forlornly at mine with its boldly-penciled C- or D in bright red for all to see, replete with onerous corrections and comments illuminating the page like a Christmas tree. My usual response was to flip the page over.
Of my two younger bothers, one three years my junior, the other four-and-a-half, the former was fast catching up. He had been advanced a grade in grammar school while I’d been held back, forced to spend two inglorious years mired in fifth grade. Another advancement on his part, or a further holdback on mine could’ve meant our sitting beside each other in class; an indignity I was fortunately spared.
I did tolerably well in science, however. I remember the teacher, whose first name was Rosario, and who had emigrated from Eastern Europe barely escaping Hitler’s clutches. We hit it off and I’d spend time after class helping him clean up or preparing experiments. Here was someone I could talk to intelligently and who responded similarly. I received an A in his class, a grade I almost never saw elsewhere in my four-year internment at Sequoia. He’d give me take-home tests for extra credit which I’m sure helped, something no other teacher did. He loved science and loved teaching, both which clearly showed. Looking back I wonder why we didn’t keep in touch; seems I recall his leaving after the end of the term, probably returning to his homeland now the war was over. He was the only teacher at Sequoia who illuminated my path, the only class whose homework I enjoyed because of what I learned.
The one enduring memory regarding European history is a large, blue-black ink spot on page 23 of my text; everything else having long since flown. Chronicles of corrupt kings and queens bashing each other or laying waste nations with or without the aid of power-hungry generals utterly bored me with the senseless of it all. It was kill or be killed, a retinue of pillage, starvation, pestilence seemingly without end; I couldn’t see the benefit of such depravity. But give me a book about the likes of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell or Marconi and I’d be off running. I entered into a few of these individual’s lives almost as if they were my own, the one successful competitor to books and magazines devoted to sci-fi.
My teachers progressed in a linear fashion: lesson one, lesson two, lesson three and so on in numbing order. The few times I wanted to learn more about a given subject the teacher dared not tarry long because other material had to be gotten over before the bell. I went my own way on topics like electricity or astronomy, hungering to break free of the reins imposed by a rigid educational system.
Clock watching and boredom are cut from the same cloth. Clocks for the most part held little interest. But it was different at Sequoia, whose clocks were not like any I’d seen. Clocks mounted on classroom walls opposite the windows were all lock-stepped to the right time via a master clock hidden somewhere I never discovered. Setting the master set all the others simultaneously, a much easier task than having to set each individually.
No matter which classroom I was in, its clock resembled all the others exactly. These 14-inch-diameter, solenoid-operated clones had no sweep hands, just hours and minutes like most clocks of the time. The minute hand would remain motionless for fifty-nine seconds, spend a fraction of the sixtieth advancing to the next minute with a soft ta-click. It became a challenge to see how accurately I could gauge when it would click to the next minute. I counted thousand one, thousand two, thousand three and so on as my mother had taught me as a means of marking the passage of time. With practice my skill at predicting when the hand would make the next jump improved to where I was only a second or two off. (I don’t recall how the hour hand moved, too slow to elicit interest.)
I frequently became aware of the minute-by-minute progression of the minute hand over time. Each advance consisted of two components in rapid succession: a soft ta- causing the minute hand to jerk back ever so slightly, followed immediately by a louder click as it advanced to the next minute. It was ta-click, ta-click, ta-click at sixty-second intervals, undoubtedly unperceived by anyone else. Though prolonged boredom can dull one’s senses, others could spring into life unexpectedly.
Class began at twenty-five to the hour. It could be a l-o-n-g haul getting that laggard of a minute hand up to 9, and with great effort urge it on to magic 12, magic because that not only marked the halfway point but from then on it was downhill. Sometimes I worked mightily getting that hand up to 12, ta-click by laborious ta-click. Then I could relax some, allow gravity to take over. While I knew gravity had nothing to do with the hand’s movement, it felt like it nevertheless. Curiously I noted time always seemed to go faster once it had swept past 12 and begun its descent. By the time it had reached 3, or fifteen past the hour, time seemed to accelerate, no longer needing help. I’d stir awake in eager anticipation of imminent release.
At 20 past, with five more ta-clicks remaining, the first bell would ring, signaling that classes like shop had five minutes cleanup time. When the hand came to rest at 25 past, I’d start counting: thousand one, thousand two, thousand three. . .thousand six—and at thousand seven a blessed rrriiiinnnngggg! Free at last, I’d leap up and bolt the room, praying the teacher wouldn’t call me back before I’d made it safely into the hall beyond earshot. The buildup to the last bell on Fridays always took on special significance because of the two days of relative freedom I could now look forward to. Monday morning was my nadir because I’d have to urge that second hand along ta-click by ta-click all over again starting from scratch. Little wonder some of my worst headaches occurred on Mondays.
Occasionally the apparatus controlling the slaved clocks broke down, the hour and minute hands remaining where they received the last command. While I had become fairly proficient estimating the length of a minute, I failed miserably when it came to gauging longer periods of time. Some classes seemed two hours long, others half that. Movies accelerated time’s arrow wonderfully.
I didn’t like it when the clocks weren’t running, feeling abandoned. Sometimes when the clock’s master control came back on, I was treated by the sight of clock’s hands spinning around its face at a furious rate, slow down and stop at the correct time, ta-clicking resuming. “Welcome back,” I’d say to myself, embracing the return of this robotic timekeeper. It was good, seeing my friend having come alive again.
Mrs. Stryker supposedly taught English, but unwittingly taught more, in my instance instilling in me a hatred of seventeenth century English literature that was long abating. She was a sarcastic, demanding and demeaning creature nearing retirement, occasionally given to making examples in class of those unfortunates she despised. I remember well her assigning us the impossible task of digesting the complexities and nuances of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, not light reading for mid-twentieth-century teenagers. This novel had been written two centuries earlier in a style long passé. Moreover it dealt with a rich panoply of complex human interrelationships concerning issues beyond the grasp of typical modern-day, American high-schoolers. To top it off the action takes place in a foreign country under different circumstances we were familiar with. It quickly became evident Ivanhoe was not to be read for pleasure in Stryker’s class but analytically, more befitting a Rhodes scholar or Ph.D. candidate.
I found it hard sledding and I stumbled badly. For whatever reason Stryker took a disliking to me from the outset, a gawking not overly bright pupil in her eyes. She would drill us with questions beyond our capacity to do them fair justice, occasionally choosing someone she knew couldn’t make a proper reply, taking delight in watching him or her, usually a him, squirm or stammer under her hard stare. When not satisfied with the student’s reply sarcasm could be brought to bear putting us all on guard fearing any of us could be next. Early on a couple of students snickered on witnessing a fellow classmate’s discomfort. But not for long because whoever was caught in the act usually got it next.
One time after she’d given us a test, graded the papers and handed them back, mine was absent. I found out why when she held it up high before high class, a big, bright bold red F four inches high for all to see. Stryker proceeded to belittle me in front of the class but I no longer cared, benumbed by her outpourings. A few quick glances were shot in my direction by other students, none daring to laugh or snicker.
That night I showed the paper with the supersized, crimson F to my father, described Stryker’s actions in class that day. He didn’t say much.
He approached me early the following morning, instructed me never to set foot in her class again, announced he was going to accompany me straightaway to the Principal’s office. When I pointed out that could get me into trouble, his reply was, “If they want trouble I’ll give them trouble!”
Supersize-F paper in hand, he accompanied me straight into the Principal’s office, directed me to wait outside. I heard dialogue, barely audible at first, followed by my father’s rising voice. I ventured down the hall, his angry words following me some distance.
After that we returned home. The following day I was transferred to another English class where my grade shot up to an A overnight. My new teacher, Miss Wiggins, was teaching drama, Shakespeare I think it was. Now Shakespeare might seem as poor a choice as Ivanhoe but not under W’s tutelage. She didn’t merely read Shakespeare, she acted out the roles as if on stage, pausing briefly to explain this or that. Sometimes she’d choose someone who felt comfortable getting up before the others to take the role of another character, together acting out the drama reading the lines as they went. When someone stumbled over a question she’d asked, she would guide the student to the correct answer via a string of leading questions, a technique I came to admire. Gone was the sarcasm and disparagement I’d weathered in Striker’s torture chamber. Her efforts were amateurish and I loved it. That was my second of two A’s received at Sequoia High.
Since it appeared other parents had also lodged complaints against Stryker, and while my father never mentioned it, I suspect he threatened going over the Principal’s head since he had little fear of higher-ups in chains of command, or possibly raised the issue of litigation. Whatever, next day no more Mrs. Stryker, gone for good. Rumor had it she’d suffered a nervous breakdown that had been brewing some time.
Still, my experience in her class had taken its toll, my already-battered self-esteem taking another direct hit.
With one exception I partook in no extra-curricular activities offered by my stay. Social life scored a near-zero since I had few friends, all male and none close. Parties, dances, proms and the like might as well have not existed.
The one activity I did get involved in, and deeply enough that Administration eventually had to change the rules, was showing movies in various classrooms. I was soon rolling the cart containing 16mm projector and sundries myself into one classroom after another, whereupon I’d set everything up and run the film. Each episode earned me one point. Pleasure came doubly: I was on occasion given a pass enabling me to skip class whose period was the same as the one I’d signed up to show the movie to. And I enjoyed the movies, a welcome diversion from clock-watching.
Other activities were also awarded points, sports in particular. Volunteering allowed one to earn these coveted points. When one earned sixty points, he or she was entitled to purchase at low cost a sweater with a large block S emblazoned on the front, an in-house-generated status symbol.
In two years I’d racked up several hundred points, enough for three or four such sweaters. Probably on account of that Administration upped the requirements from sixty to ninety points. I never gave the sweaters a thought, having no desire to own much less wear one. Which was unfortunate, perhaps because of me it was made harder for others to earn the requisite points.
Looking back, I wonder why I was allowed out of class so frequently given my poor marks. I reckon a C- average would be a disqualifier today. Evidently nobody noticed, a decided plus since it probably wouldn’t have made much difference in my grades anyway. It helped that as I became more proficient with the machines, I was solving problems no one else knew how instead of running off for help while the class waited, sometimes not seeing the remainder of the movie. Projectors jammed periodically or worn sprockets caused the film to slide through instead of doing its usual stop-start routine. I was troubleshooter and projectionist rolled into one.
Another possibility for keeping me on was the purchase of what must’ve been a major expense, a floor-standing 16mm projector for the auditorium. It was big machine, taller than I, and its source of illumination emanated from a powerful electric arc, the only light bright enough to illuminate a theatre-sized screen sixty or seventy feet toward the front. Only two of us students were allowed near the thing, I and another with a similar technical bent. Between the two of us we ran countless films in the auditorium.
It was a responsible undertaking. First was to learn the essentials of the beast. How to strike the arc and make certain the rods maintained the proper distance between them as they burned away behind a welder’s-like filter to protect the eyes from its intense brilliance and ultraviolet rays. The image on the screen had to be precisely focused and aimed, the arc constantly monitored and adjusted if needed though seldom on account of its automatic feed. If the copper-coated carbon rods burned away faster than they were brought together, the gap could widen to where the arc became extinguished. At first I would stop the machine to restrike the arc and start it up again. Soon I was restriking the arc with the film rolling, in time learning to set up the automatic feed to keep the arc going indefinitely.
Seeing this had worked out well, Administration invested in a second machine for two reasons: as a backup and to allow the projectionist to switch between them allowing for a smooth transition without interruption. No longer was it necessary to shut down the solitary machine, remove and replace its reels while the audience waited in the dark for the movie to continue.
Performing the switchover called for paying close attention. As with most movie houses of the time, a single dot in the upper right corner of the film appears seven seconds before the film runs out. That’s the signal for the projectionist to start up projector number two, its arc previously struck. Seven seconds later the second dot appears, at which time number one machine’s shutter is closed and number two’s opened. Done correctly the switchover goes unnoticed and the movie continues uninterrupted. On seeing the first dot in movie theatres I’d sometimes direct my gaze to the rear to observe the switchover. Nowadays the second dot on old movies on TV usually signals that a slew of ads is about to take over.
All told I earned enough points for six block-S sweaters.
My four-year overall grade point at Sequoia was C-, 1.7 on a scale of 4, 4 being an A. Somewhere along the way my I.Q. got tested; it measuring 106, boringly average. Confirming what I already suspected: Mark Goodman is no mental giant.