I grew up in a time of rebellion, on the tail end of the 60’s cultural revolution, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a long-haired, peace-loving, free-thinking hippie, but it wasn’t easy in the heart of the Establishment, Camp Hill, PA. Oh we had a few hippies, smoking pot across from the high school, wearing patched jeans and listening to loud music, but not what you’d call a real movement. When it came right down to it most of them just wanted to get into a good college like everyone else.
I wanted to transcend the stagnant middleclass values, pointless conventions, and wanton materialism I read about in The Village Voice. I wanted to be a true revolutionary, and grow up to have an exiting, unstructured life. I tried to be rebellious.
In elementary school I tried to stir things up with seditious talk of counter culture ideas and massive protests. Far from restraining this however, my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Purcell, actually encouraged it. He would have current events discussion in the afternoon, when James Cameron and I would argue, with Theo Tomchak sometimes taking the middle road position. James liked to call me “Commie Cowan,” but it never really caught on. The rest of the class enjoyed the free time to goof off, taking little or no interest in my lengthy opinions.
Not having much success in rabble-rousing, my rebellion later took the form of non-cooperation, mostly non-cooperation with going to school every day. My main objection was the mandatory aspect of the whole thing. How could I have any freedom, or develop any creative spirit, if the bulk of my time had to be spent with everyone else, learning the same propaganda, and doing the same repetitive and tiresome tasks?
I missed huge amounts of school, wandering around Camp Hill and beyond. Going almost anywhere would be better than going to a soul-crushing school, and I was willing to sacrifice for my principles. A lot of my time was spent lying out on sunny rocks by the creek, or smoking pot with my friends in their basements. We walked, and hitchhiked and savored every minute of our freedom. No one ever reported us and the school never called our parents.
A true rebel would have openly disobeyed, but my practical side caused me to faithfully turn in the required “absence excuse” every time. I was a practiced forger of my mother’s signature, so cavalier about the whole thing that I would normally write the excuse during home room in the morning, and turn it in to the home room teacher as I walked out. One time I absent-mindedly signed my own name on the excuse, instead of my mother’s. My home room teacher (a somewhat hostile Latin teacher) seemed quite pleased by my mistake, saying something along the lines of “I’ve caught you at last”. (Really, it’s not like I was difficult to catch.) With a victorious smile, she sent me to the vice principal’s office, certain that I would be taught a lesson by the intimidating Mr. Krout.
Mr. Krout had a reputation for strictness and liberal use of corporal punishment. He should have been the perfect foil for me, the cruel and fascist vice principal to bravely resist, along with the suffocating regulations of high school. When I went into the office on that day, I reported to the school secretary, who had come to know me well. Mrs. Myers had a good sense of humor, and would often let me off for tardiness if I could think of an entertaining enough (and at least remotely believable) story. When I explained my latest transgression, she and the rest of the staff laughed until purple in the face. Mr. Dougherty, my English teacher, happened in and joined in the fun. We were all still laughing when Mr. Krout opened his door.
He came out looking stern. I couldn’t stop laughing and was barely able to get an explanation out. When I finally explained that I had signed my own excuse, with my own name no less, Mr. Krout couldn’t keep himself from laughing either. In the end, everyone was so entertained that I didn’t get any punishment at all.
The truth was, Mr. Krout was pretty much always tolerant and agreeable towards me. An hour of detention was the worst I would get for offences that might get a kid expelled from school today. During my frequent trips to his office he would often tell me long golf stories or talk about his family. Sometimes he would even talk about how difficult it was to be the hated disciplinarian. I think after awhile he came to think of me as an old friend.
I met with the same kind of benevolent tolerance from just about all of my teachers. They would give me abbreviated lists of make-up homework, and sometimes let me make up tests without any supervision at all. I remember one time handing in a blank make-up test with a note saying the temptation to cheat was too great, so I had chosen not to fill in the test at all. (A blatant lie, I was just too lazy to do the test). Mr. Dickey told me he admired my principles, and I could just write a short paper on The Brave New World. I felt bad about not writing that, especially when he eventually allowed me to just give an oral report instead.
Mrs. Harrison, an English teacher, once told me that the School Board had taken her and some other teachers to task for continuing to pass me (and a few other students) when I was absent so often from school. She said she told them I did all the work, and did it well, despite my sparse attendance. I was surprised and a little guilty that she would stick up for me that way. I think she understood that I actually did enjoy her class, and I really was interested in learning what she had to teach. I wasn’t motivated by grades or any kind of pressure to achieve. I would rather have been there on my own volition, but she was a good teacher, as were almost all my teachers at Camp Hill High School, and I learned from them in spite of myself.
It’s hard to be a revolutionary when you’re not given much to rebel against. Yes, the school was full of pointless rules and regulations, and maybe it was an instrument of the establishment. But it was an establishment that made allowances for individuality. A kind and tolerant establishment. I don’t know if Camp Hill High School is still like that, in these times of zero tolerance, but I hope so.