How to Become an Expert at Being an Outsider
I graduated from San Jose’s Pioneer High School in 1968. Pioneer was the newest school in the school district, and we were the first graduating class that spent all three of our high school years at Pioneer. The previous two graduating classes had spent at least one of their sophomore or junior years at other high schools in the area.
Pioneer wasn’t simply a new school but it was an experimental school as well. Our classes were set up on the same sort of schedule that was used by colleges, where we had 55 minute lecture classes and two and half hour labs in these new styles multi-purpose rooms. These specialized rooms where large halls and had accordion style, expandable walls that could be pulled out to make for several normal sized class rooms, or retracted to make for a large lecture hall. The chemistry, biology and physics labs were the most modern and sophisticated in the district.
The neighborhoods from which Pioneer drew its students were the eastern part of Willow Glen, one of San Jose’s older, more up-scale neighborhoods, the newly developed, suburban tracts of middle class houses to the north of the IBM plant on Cottle Avenue, the very upscale residents of the Almaden Country Club, basically, the homes of the IBM executives, and, lastly, the children who lived on the remaining farm lands that had yet to be bulldozed over and made into more suburban tracts of the up- and-coming upper-middle class residences yet to be constructed. I belonged to the latter of the neighborhoods, the farmers on the last few farms left in the Almaden Valley.
The very small population of the Pioneer High student body of which I was a part of, had a peculiar sort of schizophrenia –
On the one hand, we were proud of our farming and generations old heritage regarding our local highly productive agricultural lands. We were hugely resentful of having our heritage consumed and developed by money grubbing city planners who used all sorts of legal machinations forcing our fore bearers to sell our land to the developers. Of course, the city people who moved into the resulting tracts of houses built on our farming lands, were victims of this same resentment, and we wanted little to do with them.
On the other hand, the city kids, as we called them, the kids who moved into the brand new tract houses, had grown up swimming in swimming pools, not the shallow, moss lined creeks that ran through our arid, little valley. These were savvy suburban urchins who went to professional sports arenas, like Candle Stick Park in San Francisco, they spent sleazy nights in bowling alleys and pool halls and they were not unfamiliar with tattoo parlors. As well, they were familiar with débutante’s cotillions, little league baseball, hanging out at the country club, and they got to go to the movies more than once every six months or so. They had the experience of going to football and cheerleader practice after classes were over, and performing in front of large crowds of people. Many of them were smart asses, being confident and quick to make fun of us country bumpkins, we not knowing how to respond.
Where the city kids knew how partake of the city stuff, we country boys had an entirely different array of activities to draw from. On the weekends, if it wasn’t the summer when we’d be harvesting the crops 24/7 (as they say now-a-days,) we’d go into the hills with our BB guns, later, our 22 caliber rifles, and hunt squirrels and jack rabbits. Maybe, if we were club joiners, we might go to 4H meetings or the cub and boy scouts on some weekday afternoon, to learn crafts, grow fruits and vegetables, or raise livestock to earn club recognition, as in merit badges and such. In September of every year, we’d go the Santa Clara County Fair which was mainly an exposition of all of the Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural production and also provide diversions on the traveling carnival midway, with its penny tossing and balloon popping booths along with the ferris wheel and spinning tea cups full of giddy, laughing kids and parents. But this fair lasted for only about three weeks a year.
At the end of each major harvest during the summer, the migrant workers and the local land owner’s families would gather together in a dusty fruit drying lot, layout a series of makeshift tables to make for light hearted and free spirited fiestas, celebrating the finish of one harvest, but not lasting too long into the night, as these same people had to get up early in the morning and start harvesting the next, already ripening crop.
As our rural residences were located many miles from any of the commercial temptations provided to our tract kid contemporaries, we spent our evenings tending to our livestock and pets, reading books not included in our homework and, if the weather was good and the antenna remained properly aligned, we might get to watch an hour or two of one of the two or three television channels available at the time.
Obviously, the life experience of the vast majority of the student population at Pioneer High in 1963 (when we started our sophomore year at Pioneer) was vastly different from the life experience of we, comely, farm kids. We “hay seed kids” were often made fun of, for our lack of sophistication and our over abundance of naivety. For such constant degradation, we sort of stuck together, not interacting too much with the other more “cliquey” tract kids who were so much more cool than us. And as I look back at this era, some 50 years ago, perhaps, too, we shied away from these cool people because unlike them, we would never publicly “put them down” or make fun of them. Those sorts of things weren’t allowed in Almaden. For their skill at such rudeness and our lack of it, maybe that, too, was why we avoided them.
From the outset, as a farm kid, I was already sort of an outsider from the great majority of the student body at Pioneer. When we started junior high school, the school officials put all us kids through a series of tests, both physical and mental, to give them a way to measure our development over the years through high school graduation. I’ve never been clear on how or why this happened, but because of these tests in the seventh grade, just over a dozen of us were placed in a special schedule called the Higher Achiever Program (staff and students alike, called this program “HAP.” We were the HAP kids.).
The batch of us HAP kids went through the next six years as a group, being sent through more intensive and challenging English, math and science classes than the rest of the student body were taking. In the undercurrents of student gossip, we were known, in a sardonic sort of way, as the smart kids. As we HAP kids were kept together for more than half of our classes, we experienced less diversity in getting to know a wider range of the different members of the student body. This HAP label that was applied to me and the others, added to my feelings of isolation from the general bunch of people in the junior and senior high school years.
Add to this, the very, very distinctive role that I played ever since I was in elementary school, I was the audio/visual nerd who set up and operated the movie projectors when they were needed in the different class rooms. When there was a school assembly, I was the one who set up the microphones and connected them to
the amplifier so that the whole school could hear what the principal had to say. At the sock hops, I was the one who fiddled around behind the hammer tone gray amplifier box on wheels which held the record player as well as the amplifier. This is how I got to know the good looking girls at the school, by playing the records they handed to me, not by dancing with them. I had to stay by the gray box through the whole school dance, and I also had to stay after the dance ended, to pack up the equipment and lock it away.
On a campus of about 2500 kids, there were only two of us who were the A/V nerds, and every one of the other kids knew of our distinctive non-academic status. This just further set us apart from the normal kids of the school.
But even more than these afore mentioned factors, is one constantly bothersome aspect of my person that I couldn’t ignore but didn’t dwell on, and that was my size. The tract kids were never discreet enough to not make mention that I was the smallest kid on the campus. Lucky for me, on the Almaden farms, working the orchards and the fields, no one cared about your size. They worked and you worked and not much was said about it. If you couldn’t keep up with the work for any reason, being sick or short or lazy, you didn’t get the work. You were sent away. So, until I got to junior high school, I was never really aware of how big or small I was. I guess that’s why I never really developed a “small man” complex. Besides, the farm work was very physical and often pretty heavy and you were doing it all the time. Thus, I was as strong as an ox, and I did have confidence in this.
Still, the loudmouth jerks from the tracks made sure that I never forgot I was the shortest guy on the campus. To hell with them.
Back in those secondary school days, I wasn’t interested in sports (supposedly I was too small) or girls (I was too bashful) and I was never interested in fortune and fame (farmers weren’t usually too interested in such things, they were mainly concerned with just keeping the farm running smoothly). What I was interested in was art, electronics and cars. I got my amateur radio operator’s license when I was eleven, before I even started junior high school. I started building my first car when I was fourteen.
For all those people who wanted to be the school’s quarter back (or at least, be his buddy), who was the hero of all the pom-pom girls and cheerleaders, easily, people like me were outsiders. I sure felt like an outsider, but I tried not to dwell on it, but to accept it and go with it. I came to hang out with the other outsiders, not all of whom were from Almaden. School sports and dances weren’t a high priority for us. While the majority of the kids went to football games on Friday nights, the outsider’s bunch would jump in my Volkswagen and trundle up to Berkeley’s north side of campus and take in a few European art films. Or we might head up to San Francisco and go to the great bookshops in North Beach or check out the up-coming hippy rock bands that would be putting on shows at the Fillmore auditorium.
As the six years of secondary school progressed, we outsiders congealed into our own little clique at the junior high and then the high school. It was in this small clutch of kids that we got our own special sort of friendship, support and confidence. We’d sit together at lunch and talk about books we’d read, music that we discovered. Maybe we’d get a little heavy and talk about some kind of philosophical stuff. On the weekends, we’d get together and go on hikes, drive to art colonies, as they were then called, or explore some new and interesting book shop or museum one of us might have recently heard of.
This group was a good thing for me. Maybe I wasn’t living the farmer’s life anymore, but I was getting a lot of positive support from this bunch of friends. The guys and girls were very important to me. As we progressed through each of these secondary school years, we became closer and more relaxed with each other, more interested in each other’s interests. At the risk of sounding like a high school clique, we were becoming the intellectuals in the school.
While the jocks and cheerleaders dressed up, more and more, we dressed down. As the rich kids got bigger and fancier cars to parade around in, we got Volkswagens and old pick-up trucks. As they showed off fancy hair-dos and shiny, shaven chins, we grew our hair out and kept scruffy beards on our faces. As graduation approached, the tract kids were aiming at pre-law and pre-med colleges so as to prepare to becoming very well paid doctors and lawyers. And, as graduation approached, we outsiders were looking into the liberal arts schools to develop and enhance our intellectual interests, maybe to become teachers, writers, artists, who knows?
Now, in 1968, as graduation approached, one thing was for sure; the tract kids had very specific and solid goals. However, we outsiders, as I’m calling us, didn’t have such goals, such clarity regarding our paths. As I remember it, what we would call our goal, was that we wanted to explore some more, before we made a commitment for our life’s work, our careers. We needed to find out more about the world and ourselves. We had the need to keep going to the museums, to read more books, to listen to more philosophers, to gather more and more information and then see where it would take us.
One night, I was coming back from San Francisco with two of my outsider female friends in the VW. We were coming down the newly constructed Highway 280 at a time well after midnight. The girl in the back seat was a very tall, slim girl from the east coast, with long, straight brown hair down past her waist. She was pale and her face, as young as it was, had no traces of a smile on it. She was as tall as I was short. She was the tallest person in the school, taller than any of the guys, and she had been the tallest, all of her life. She had some other issues as well, and being from the east coast, in some big east coast city, she had gotten into hard drugs. When her dad had gotten transferred to San Jose, she had the good sense to clean up her act. But even so, she was not a real happy person. She was incredibly intelligent and well informed, but she had her problems. We had been friends for a couple of years and we leaned on each other, with respect for each other’s limits. We were both trying to sort out our approaching adulthoods, with not a lot of good guidance from our parents.
The girl sitting shotgun, was a Japanese/American whose father was a professor at a local university, her mother was a high school teacher. She was like born and groomed to be an intellectual. Her parents made sure that she had the best exposure to the best of the arts, and the best of the thinkers. I had only known this girl for less than a year.
No one in the car had turned eighteen yet.
I don’t remember what we had been doing in the City, but it was something that got all of us revved up. The girl in the back was very much influence by the east coast “beat” mentality, it somehow befitting her rather dour and sarcastic presentation to the world. This beat connection is what hooked her into the drugs. Luckily, she was smart enough to unhook herself. I found, however, after spending a good bunch of time with her, this presentation of hers was a mask, and she was really a sensitive, intelligent, and rather bruised little girl stuck in a very big and very good looking woman’s body. She was having a very hard time resolving this disparity.
As we left the south end of San Francisco that night, we were chattering about whatever it was we had just experienced. I was intent on finding out what this new freeway was all about. It was a joy; wide, a very smooth surface, nice, big curves, and mainly laid down in the fairly well wooded hills of the Peninsula. We were approaching Mountain View, where this new stretch of the 280 Freeway was to connect with a much older and well used section that had been in use for about a decade.
It was about here that the conversation in the car turned to our college expectations. Each of us had sent in our applications and were waiting on our acceptance or rejection notices. I only applied to San Jose State, as my family was too short of funds to help me pay for some out of state school. I felt pretty confident about my acceptance. A school consular told me that, though my grades were mundanely average, my SAT scores were so high, I could get into just about any school in the country.
The girl in the back seat had applied to three colleges and was waiting to hear from each of them. Like me, she had little interest in grades, but her SAT scores were very high as well. All she could do, at this point, was to wait until she heard from the three schools.
Our Japanese/American friend sat there in the shotgun seat, saying not much at all. The tall girl in the back seat pressed our other female friend as to what her plans were. She answered plainly that she got accepted to Stanford. And then she sat there silent for a few minutes. Then she told us that she wasn’t going to go there. Something seemed amiss, and we two others sat silent as well, listening to the buzz of the Bug’s engine. Then, the shotgun girl started talking again. She told us that six months earlier, she went in for a physical exam and they discovered that she was diagnosed leukemia. She didn’t have more than about eighteen to twenty months to live. She saw no need to waste any time at Stanford, and then she laughed a short laugh.
With this announcement, I felt like my own heart had stopped. The girl in the back seat started whimpering. I pulled the car over to the side of the freeway, absolutely dumbfounded, not knowing anything of what to do. This was all, way out of my league. I shut the car down, not knowing what else I could do.
After a few moments, the voice in the shotgun darkness told us the nature of the disease. She told us of her own condition and what could be expected. Then she held silent for some few moments more.
Then the voice started again, and explained to us that her sad parents had consoled her, and she explored her books and studies. Now, she was resolved to her fate, and was not sad or bitter about it, nor angry or depressed. She and her parents were going to visit a few places in the world she would really like to see, quite soon, while she still had her strength, and for that, she was grateful.
For sure, you could here it in her voice, luckily, she had found her peace. She was OK. I was so proud of her, so moved that she had the strength of will, to get herself to this place, so early in her life. It was a stunning achievement. She was calm and resolute.
I brought the car back to life, turned on it’s lights and pulled back onto the freeway.
Within a couple of weeks, we graduated from Pioneer High School. The three of us had lunch together a few times and the taboo subject was never mentioned. It was already spoken of, and resolved.
Immediately after the graduation ceremony, two outsider friends of mine, one from childhood in Almaden, the other from the woods of New Hampshire, drove off in my VW, with a gallon jug of red wine, a banjo, a guitar and our three back packs. The VW bug carried us to Yosemite for a few nights, then over Tioga pass to Mono Lake and then on to who knows where. We each had a couple of twenty dollar bills in our wallets and the plan was no more than to travel northern California until the money ran out.
The plan was no more than to explore what we had never explored before.
I never saw either of the two girls again.