(Several names have been abbreviated, and in some cases changed, in order to protect the adolescence of some folks now in their early 50s. Other names, when I’ve so deemed it appropriate, have been kept as they truly were)
On December 24th, 2020 I dropped off a Christmas gift at my parents’ house in San Jose, CA, and on my way out of town and back home to San Francisco, I somehow found myself magnetically drawn toward parking my car on the premises of John Muir Junior High School, a mile away on Branham Lane. My alma mater. They call it a “Middle School” now, and it now takes a young teen through the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, yet way back in 1979-1982, it was junior high, and consisted of the 7th, 8th and 9th grades.
This was quite the life stage for me, age 11 to 14. I was introverted, young for my grade and small for my age – a terrific place to be in a school packed with feathered-hair, jean-jacketed, tough-talking heavy metal adolescents. The 2020 campus of John Muir is exactly the same as it looked in 1979 – I’m not kidding, save for a few coats of paint, it’s the EXACT SAME SCHOOL. A true testament to California educational funding. I snapped a few photos and felt the proverbial surge of memory overtake me at every vantage and view.
Let’s start with this one, since it’s where my junior high journey itself started in ‘79-’80: Mr. Davis’ English and Social Studies classroom, where I spent my 1st and 2nd period every day that year. Remember how excited you were to matriculate to classes held in different rooms after elementary school? I sure was, yet had to suffer through a milquetoast Southern gentleman of a teacher who had no idea how to corral the young burnouts who ran roughshod over him every day. The class was blessed with the two most popular girls in 7th grade, best friends named Kristi H and Judy S. Tall girls with feathered hair who lorded over even the taller boys, and who were talked about incessantly by every young male of my acquaintance – until an even prettier young hairsprayed lass named Jennifer Denman joined our class about a month into the school year, and became every young man’s topic du jour. The class featured insufferable and unending male peacocking and showboating for these three girls’ attention, all in front of a teacher who hemmed and hawed and stammered at low volume to no avail. If any actual learning took place in this room, I don’t remember any of it.
The class had a newly-arrived Iranian immigrant named Majid whose first year in America unfortunately overlapped with the Iranian hostage crisis and a whole raft of jingoistic, anti-Iran idiocy across not only our school but throughout America. Majid was frequently grilled by my classmates about whether he stood with “the Shah” or with “the Ayatollah”. There was, of course, only one correct answer in those days of “Ayatollah Assaholla” t-shirts and “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran” (sung to the tune of “Barbara Ann”) parody songs on the radio. The poor shellshocked kid barely spoke a lick of English, and I remember feeling very sorry for the abuse he took, while of course doing nothing whatsoever to either help lessen it, nor to bravely befriend him.
That same year we were going through a presidential election later in 1980, and I remember many campus-wide jokes about Jimmy Carter, and how no one would vote for “peanuthead”. There was one notable dissent from a most awesome redheaded, long-haired, heavy-lidded jean-jacket hesher whom I shared a class with, a guy named David Fogg (!). His informed opinion was to not vote for Reagan, as “Reagan’s definitely gonna start World War III”. Neither David nor I would be able to vote for another 6 years.
Before the year started I had an opportunity to sign up for one elective: woodshop, or something called “Art and Everyday Living”. Woodshop – where I’d have to make things with saws and hammers and whatnot – sounded like a total drag, so I chose the other one, which ended up being what had once been called “Home Economics” in earlier days – i.e. cooking and sewing. Thus, the class was me, about 15 girls, and for some reason, David Fogg. The teacher was a matronly seventy-something named Dixie Bullard. I had a female friend in the class, Kristi H (a different Kristi H!), who shared the same dopey sense of humor that I did, and we found ourselves in frequent “trouble” for goofing off, giggling and whatnot. Ms. Bullard once threatened to have the two of us stand in front of the class and kiss, which didn’t derail me in the least. Her bluff having been called, she unfortunately never followed through. As a result of this class, I now know how to sew a potholder.
Our next picture shows the area just in front of the cafeteria, where I’d buy a “peanut butter chew” every day to complement my brown-bagged lunch. One lunch period in 8th grade, as the bell had rung and I was shuffling back to whatever my next class was, I happened to be present in this exact area, next to the flagpole you see pictured. I was collared from behind by a small but stout little burnout named Mike Havard. He pushed me and said “You call me a fag?”, then proceeded to push me again, and repeat “Call me a fag? Call me a fag?” over and over again. I barely knew who this guy was. Naturally, a circular crowd immediately formed. These sorts of inane fights with packs of onlookers – full of guys with enormous colored pocket combs in their back pockets; girls holding Trapper Keepers and wads of Hubba Bubba in their mouths – were typical lunchtime entertainment at John Muir. I myself had observed many a tussle.
This time it was me, and though most onlookers probably had no idea I existed, they certainly wanted to see some punches thrown. Good thing I was getting pretty steamed over this quote-unquote mistaken identity, and I knew it would definitely not be a good look to back out of this one, given the large and boisterous crowd. After the 8th or 9th push and “Call me a fag?”, I awkwardly lunged at the guy; we both threw each other into headlocks and fell onto the cement, and within seconds the fight was broken up by a vice principal. I was suspended! Me – suspended for fighting. Once they heard what happened, my parents, far from being angry, expressed pride in me for “standing up for myself”. Hey, call it what you want. About 7 or 8 years later, when I was visiting San Jose from college, I stopped at the Togo’s sandwich shop at the nearby Almaden Mall. My server behind the counter was none other than Mike Havard, who recognized me, smiled, and said, “I fighted you, hunh?”.
This next photo sparks a couple of good stories. First, let’s talk about the man whom this gym is now named after. He was the school P.E. teacher when I was at John Muir; a short, gruff, little mustachioed brute who had the demeanor of a drill sergeant and the personality that fit my conception of the type of redneck dad who gave birth to most of my idiot male classmates. I guess they’ve now named the gym after him for some reason. He was the teacher of children who, trying to get the attention of a recent Vietnamese immigrant in one of my classes, shouted at him, “Hey! Hey, boat people! Get over here, boat people.” That guy. The one they’ve now named the gym after.
A funny thing once happened inside this gymnasium. We had an earthquake drill, as one sometimes does in California. These usually consist of ducking under tables, but as were in the gym, ours was to get on our hands and knees against the wall. Now, we hadn’t had a felt earthquake in Northern California in years when we did this drill around 1981, and I don’t think we’d even had a drill in a year or two. Yet when the alarm went off, we did as the teacher told us, and dropped down and lined up against the wall. Suddenly, the ground started shaking, and we all turned and looked up at each other, totally stupefied. “Is that….?” “Do you feel….?” “Did, did they plan this…?”. It was a 4-point-something quake, definitely a solid temblor, happening at the exact moment as our drill. The school therefore got a mention on that night’s local news as a result, one of those kooky wrap-up-the-newscast bits, “the school that had a real earthquake during an earthquake drill”.
I hope I’ve thus far been able to evoke that John Muir Junior High was a “heavy metal” school. I’m not sure if I remember it this way because I’d felt so out of place as a burgeoning punk rock/new wave music obsessive who stood in defiant (if silent) opposition to all things AC/DC, Black Sabbath etc, or because it was truly a golden age of hesh. I sincerely believe it was the latter. I felt like I was in the wrong school, in the wrong era, with the wrong set of friends – when I had friends at all – and I longingly looked to San Francisco, a mere hour north of us but a million psychic miles away, a place where kids could find cool records from England and didn’t have to fake-laugh when heshers like Robert Mejia would tell the school’s few black kids, “AC/DC, rock and roll, disco sucks and so does soul”.
Our photo here shows the curb where the “stoners” would hang out. I believe that there was actually a wooden railing here in the early 80s, so perhaps one thing has changed in 40 years. Now, a “stoner” at John Muir Junior High was then an interchangeable term of endearment with “burnout”, so bestowed because the person in question smoked cigarettes at this very spot. I don’t believe I actually saw an illegal marijuana cigarette until high school, but the greasy metalheads who smoked here were deemed to be stoners nonetheless.
Their radio station of choice was KOME, pronounced “come”, legitimately infamous for their on-air tagline, “Don’t touch that dial, it’s got KOME on it”. The diamond-shaped KOME sticker, which could be picked up for free at any local Fotomat booth (!), was ubiquitous on every Pee-Chee and Trapper in the school. The station cranked out a steady diet of Scorpions, AC/DC, Led Zep and The Who, and had the most inane radio personalities imaginable, totally perfect for a sexually pent-up 13-year-old male demographic. Late nights belonged to a clown named “Dennis Erectus”, who would go off about his phony lust for Nancy Reagan in a stupid, unhinged voice that predated Bobcat Goldthwait, and then crank the album-oriented guitar hits until everyone had gone to bed. Erectus’ routines would then predictably be played out at recess by every would-be stoner looking to impress the chicks and the fellas.
One time the aforementioned Robert Mejia and his ne’er-do-well pal Steve chased down a nerdy guy named Sean McGillicuddy, after McGillicuddy incorrectly claimed to be an AC/DC fan. With fists held above his face as he was pinned down — I watched this myself — they said, “Name two people in AC/DC! Name two, motherfucker!!”. It was heartbreaking to watch as a trembling Sean answered “Bon Scott” (technically correct but everyone knew Scott drank himself to death a couple years earlier) and – uh oh – “Led Zeppelin”. Ouch. They “whaled on his ass” right then and there. I meant to take a photo of the spot where this incident occurred; it happened to take place about 20 feet to the right of the tennis court you see below.
The far side of this tennis court was where I ate my lunch every day in 8th grade with Sean D and Bill C. It was our respite from the rest of school’s “social whirl”, and gave us a place to just be dorks for 45 minutes a day. The previous year, my best friend had been Ted E, with whom I walked to school every day, yet late in the year we suffered one of those all-too-typical junior high ruptures, where he’d found several more athletic kids who’d taken a shine to him, and I was undoubtedly trying to bend his ear far too often about The Pretenders, B-52s and Adam and the Ants, or whatever other absurdities I was obsessing about that week.
Out of what was almost certainly a profound sense of insecurity, I spent an inordinate amount of time during my lunches with Sean and Bill spinning tall tales about myself that, in retrospect, really don’t make a ton of sense. I’d “grown up in Canada”, and had played hockey on teams for many years there – the only reason I wasn’t playing it now was because Eastridge Mall, home of the town’s only ice, was “too far away for my parents to drive me to practice”. I also “had an older sister in college”, for some reason. I’m sure we talked about a great deal more than my useless lies, but I remember being mentally trapped in the suffocating cycle of lying, then shame about lying, then fear of the lie being uncovered – a great coda to add to an already difficult year in a young man’s life.
Our final 2020 photo is of the grassy “quad”, I guess you’d call it. You can see the flagpole where I “fighted” Mike Havard in the distance. This is where we’d have John Muir “spirit rallies”, where the cheerleaders would dance in an effort to bestow a greater sense of “Falcon pride” throughout the school. It’s also where most kids hung out for lunch, and where the majority of fistfights took place.
In 9th grade, I was still hanging out with Sean D and I had thankfully stopped lying, yet Sean had gained a bit more confidence, and moved his lunchtime activity to the quad to hang with a group of much taller and more football-focused guys, led by the 6-foot pair of Brian B and Allan H. (All of their real names are seared upon my brain, somehow never to be forgotten even if I’d like them to be). I was allowed to tag along, and somehow spent the first half of 9th grade at the runt end of a more-popular “crew”, even though I almost never talked with them and was simply allowed to move in their midst. It was a survival mechanism in a dog-eat-dog school, as I still hadn’t found a single friend who shared my all-encompassing weirdo enthusiasm for underground music. We staked out a place every lunchtime on the benches at the top right of this photo – our turf, as it were – and all twelve of us went to the Marriott’s Great America amusement park on Halloween together, with me again tagging along and saying very little.
At some point halfway through 9th grade, I stopped hanging out with them, and I honestly can’t remember what I did or where I went or whom my friends were, if any. Wait, actually I just remembered right this second – it was Jon Grant, a too-smart-for-his-age 7th grader who totally cracked me up and who was in the school’s “ELP” class with me. ELP stood for Extended Learning Program, a more polite version of the “MGM” (mentally gifted minors) program I’d been in during elementary school. All of us had somehow scored highly on childhood IQ tests years ago, by answering questions such as “what is a helicopter?” both correctly and with wit and panache. Jon liked kooky reggae music like Eek-a-Mouse and Yellowman; his favorite band was Devo; and I’d actually found a true pal, just in time for high school to start and for the two of us to eventually drift apart due to lack of proximity.
I’m now relatively thankful that my three years at John Muir passed with any truly major incidents or much psychological scarring. I was not at the very bottom of the male totem pole, nor was I a true “nerd” who’d get routinely stuffed into a garbage can by large future sociopaths, though I did observe this happen to a handful of boys. I was, I think, a relatively innocuous, quietly nervous guy who was mostly ignored. In my head I was dreaming up great concert bills I wanted to put on; rejiggering the San Francisco Giants lineup so that they might actually win some games; thinking about Jennifer Denman or Tammy S or Anna M; and/or trying to figure out how to posture and preen just enough to be moderately accepted by the school’s great unwashed. I was neither depressed nor failing scholastically; I merely endured my three years there, followed by further endurance of three years of high school.
It’s difficult to look at the campus in 2020 and graft onto it a modern teen’s world of smartphones, vaping, hip-hop and TikTok, particularly as my photos were taken during a holiday break from a middle school year spent entirely online and penned-up at home. Here’s hoping the kids of John Muir Middle School, once they come back, are now blessed with a more tolerant, less towel-whipping-inclined student body – and yes, I’m talking about you, David de Aragon.