After a successful surgical procedure earlier this year, a 4-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy took her first steps, and her proud mother recorded every "step" of the …
Fall 1977. Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Elvis Presley was dead. The first Apple II, Tandy, and Commodore personal computers were on the market, albeit they were expensive. George Lucas’s space-fantasy film Star Wars was well on its way to becoming the highest grossing box office hit of its time. The guillotine was retired after the execution of Hamida Djandoubi (the last such event in Western Europe). Billy Joel’s The Stranger was about to be released, and the Space Shuttle Enterprise (named after Star Trek’s starship) had made its first test free-flight.
When I was 14, it was not a very good year. My long-time relationship with a girl I met five years before was over. My beloved grandfather, Enrique, was dead.
Furthermore, my mom decided to sell the house on SW 102nd Avenue and purchased a new townhouse in the Fontainebleau area that hadn’t been built yet, and I was starting seventh grade at Riviera Junior High (now Middle) School.
We moved out from our former house a few weeks before the school year started, but the new townhouse was still a collection of piles of lumber and concrete bricks that didn’t yet resemble a structure.
The developers promised it would be ready by November of 1977. Since we couldn’t stay at the house on 102nd Avenue, Mom, my older sister, and I lived in an ugly and cramped apartment in Sweetwater while our new house was being built. (Alas, the developers’ estimate was overly optimistic. Mom was not given the keys to the townhouse until February of 1978.)
As you might imagine, I was in a deep funk for much of seventh grade. We students – it didn’t matter if we were in special education classes or not – now I had to live by the bell at Riviera, so to speak, as we followed the all new “period” system.
At Tropical, one teacher usually taught the major courses (English, social studies, and math) according to his or her lesson plans for the day. Students usually only changed classes when they attended art, music, and physical education.
At Riviera, we were handed a schedule that looked something like this:
- Home Room
- 1st Period: American History/Social Studies
- 2nd Period: Science/Health
- 3rd Period: Math Skills (or Algebra, depending on what grade we were in)
- 4th Period: English
- 5th Period – Elective
- 6th Period: Physical Education
Classes started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 3:30 p.m. Each period lasted 55 minutes, and it was usually ushered in by the insistent jangling of a school bell.
We had five minutes to get from class to class before a second “class is in session” bell rang. If we were tardy, we had better have a good reason for it or else we’d be given “late slips” by our teachers. If we received a certain number of those pink or yellow slips of paper, we earned after school detentions.
I don’t recall exactly how my schedules from 1977 to 1980 looked like. I do remember that I had the same English teacher (Ms. Allen) and math instructor (Mr. Krupp) in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.
I also was back in Special Ed for half the school day; my home room was in that department, as were the wood shop and home economics classes that I was required to take. As a result, half of my school day was spent in regular classes, and the other half in Special Ed.
Needless to say, I was caught in an academic no man’s land, at least from my perspective. I liked my home room teachers well enough. Mr. Coates was easy-going and allowed me to spend the period in the school library after he took attendance; his replacement, Mr. Katims, was also nice but a lot stricter. He insisted that I stay in home room for the entire period unless there were valid academic reasons for me to go to the library.
To be honest, I didn’t like Riviera Jr. High much. I liked my regular classes more than I did the Special Ed ones even if my grades hovered dangerously nearly a 2.0 grade point average.
Sure, I saw my disabled peers more often if our schedules coincided. But one of them was my ex-girlfriend, and I was still angry about how the relationship had ended. I was not in a forgiving mood at the time, and the rift between us took years to heal.
I also hated Wood Shop and Home Economics. Those classes took up two slots that could have been taken up by electives that meshed with my newfound ambitions of becoming a writer. I would have rather attended Mrs. Heller’s journalism class than those “baby” classes I was forced to take because I was not fully “fused” (another term for mainstreamed that was all the rage back then).
I wasn’t a happy camper. I was frustrated because I was not a master of my academic destiny, and I felt lonely because I wanted girls to notice and like me. But my spastic cerebral palsy, with its many manifestations – clumsiness, jerky walk, involuntary twitching, slightly slurred speech that came and went, and my right arm’s unwelcome tendency to curl up on its own – made me extremely self-conscious around girls – especially the ones the other boys liked.
As a result, I took the path of least resistance; I didn’t ask any girl out on a date until the ninth grade dance in May of 1980. This had two negative effects.
First, some of my friends began to think that I was gay because I wasn’t pursuing any of the girls I knew. (The involuntary curling of my arm also didn’t help matters in that department.)
Second, the one time that I did tell a girl that I wanted to be her boyfriend earned me a polite but firm,
No, thank you, Alex. I don’t like you that way. You’re too nice; you’re the brother type, not the boyfriend type.”
Of course, not everything about my junior high years were doom and gloom. Star Wars had premiered in May of 1977, and it was still in theaters when I started seventh grade.
I wasn’t a huge fan of science fiction back then, so I ignored all the hoopla about Star Wars until October. It took one viewing of The Making of Star Wars on television to do what all the urgings of my friends had failed to do – get me to see the movie.
I was still skeptical about Lucas’s phenomenally popular film when my mother dropped me off at the old Concord Mall theater on a cool October Saturday afternoon. But as soon as the house lights went totally dark and the 20th Century Fox fanfare blared out from the theater’s monaural speakers, that skepticism vanished.
From the fade in of the, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” card to the final credits roll 124 minutes later, I was carried away by Lucas’s space fantasy about “a boy, a girl, and a universe.”
Watching Star Wars in 1977 was a watershed moment in my life. Not only did I become a fan of the movie and the franchise it launched, but I also confirmed a decision I’d made earlier in life: I would become a writer someday.