Rich Wilhelm

Posts Tagged ‘high school’

Oh, What a Week That Was

In family, fatherhood, high school on June 11, 2016 at 10:43 am


Our dog Jolie woke me up about 35 minutes ago, asking in a noisy and impolite way for a walk. I threw on the nearest clothes at hand and we set out. It was not even 5:30 in the morning.

Since I was wearing yesterday’s work clothes, I felt like I was on a dogwalk of shame, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t really have to be ashamed of much. I had made it through the week that I had been contemplating for months.

Our younger son Chris was promoted from middle school to high school this week. Our older son Jimmy graduated from high school two days later.

Oh, what a week it was. And, now that it’s over, I feel like I am a just-slightly-different person from when it began.

I began this week overwhelmed with emotion, and with a very practical list of things that simply had to be done before the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” played. I began this week thinking about how I’d handle the tangle of widely-varied emotions I’ve been feeling for months about all of this.

In short, I began this week thinking about myself. A big mistake, since this week clearly wasn’t about me, and it’s that realization that is making me that just-slightly-different person.

As the week progressed, things fell into place as best they could. Certain tasks were completed, others weren’t. But the ceremonies — Chris’ promotion, Jimmy’s baccalaureate, followed by his graduation the next night — all proceeded beautifully. The post-event celebrations each night — dinner at Hibachi on Wednesday, a visit to Dunkin’ Donuts on Thursday and cake and ice cream at home last night — all turned out just about right. Donna’s mom has been with us all week and my mom and sister drove up three nights in a row to be with us. I thought about my dad a bit, and how much I wish he could have been here, but his spirit was here each time someone remarked how much Jimmy resembles Dad now (right down to his stoic photo op smiles). Plus, I wore one of Dad’s ties to graduation.

It wasn’t a perfect week. But it was a really, really good week. And it was all about Jimmy and Chris. And when Jimmy’s graduation ceremony finally arrived, I wasn’t bogged down with all of the emotional baggage that’s been weighing me down for months. I simply felt happy for Jim and not particularly sentimental about the fact that his life — and mine — will be changing as a result of this particular ceremony. Best to embrace the change, enjoy the moment and move forward.

But it was also a week about family. During last night’s cake and ice cream party, the power briefly went out in our house, which sent Chris (and, I’ll admit it, me) into momentary emotional tailspins. At one point in this [non] crisis, Chris wailed that it could be the “worst night ever.”

This led to a long and funny conversation about some of the previously “worst nights ever” our family has experienced, going all the way back to 1975. We laughed long and hard as each of the stories unfolded. Laughing at the long ago worst nights ever, while reveling in the current imperfect but nonetheless beautiful moment? That sounds like family to me.







Row. And. Stop.

In 1979, high school, memoir, school, Writing on March 25, 2016 at 9:33 am


Ninth grade was one of my weirder years. But isn’t ninth grade one of everybody’s weirder years?

For me, the weirdness was enhanced by the sense of dislocation I was feeling the day I started ninth grade. Just a few months earlier, I graduated St. Joseph School, after eight years of Catholic education. Within weeks of this auspicious event, my family left the house in which I had grown up. My parents had bought a new house in the next town over but, seeing as it wasn’t quite built yet, we moved in with, first, my grandmother, then my aunt and uncle. This is where we were living when I started ninth grade at a public junior high school, at which I knew nobody.

I can still detect the ever-so-slight remnant of the knot I felt in the pit of my stomach the morning I walked into Chichester Junior High on the opening day of school. It hurts, a tiny bit, even now.

Also, did I mention that it was 1979? Therefore, this is me in Grade 9:


Life for me as a ninth grader was rough at first. As you can imagine from the photo, it wasn’t long before the class bullies introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. I was fortunate that these introductions never became physical, but it was still disconcerting to be told that my face was soon to be broken.

Gradually, I found myself. My family moved into our new house. I made some friends, who were just as weird as I was. I confused some of the kids in my art class by bringing in records by Chuck Mangione (“where’s the singing?”) and Flying Lizards (“what the fuck is this?”). I joined the school musical, Cheaper by the Musical, in which I: a) played a football player; b) sang; and c) danced. I did not do any of those three things well, but I had fun.

Amid all the craziness of my ninth grade year, I remember one island of total zen calm and stability, though I’m not sure I saw it that way at the time.

Typing class.

fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;; fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;;

“Row. And. Stop.”

Those words were intoned by our typing teacher, Mrs. Peters. I do not remember Mrs. Peters’ first name. I am not entirely certain I knew Mrs. Peters’ first name as I sat banging away at manual typewriter keys in her classroom. But Mrs. Peters was there to do a job — teaching a motley crew of ninth graders to type. She did it well, calmly instructing us to “row. and. stop.” after each line we typed.

Mrs. Peters’ voice and the clacking of keys were the only sounds ever heard in typing class. No Flying Lizards allowed.

Mrs. Peters was unflappable, so much so that I remember being somewhat startled when she enthusiastically engaged in an animated conversation about golf with one of my classmates. It just seemed so out-of-left-field that Mrs. Peters should be thinking about anything other than rowing. and. stopping. This, of course, had way more to do with my somewhat limited view of the world at that time than it did with Mrs. Peters’ interests outside the typing classroom.

And a note about that classroom: it was on the other side of the rather large school from my core classes. This was probably intimidating to me at first, but that’s another reason why I remember typing class as being an oasis of sorts. It was simply so far away from everything else.

I think I spent the entire year with Mrs. Peters and her typing class, but I might be wrong. It may have just seemed like the entire year. I’m not sure what my typing grades were, but I’m thinking they were just average. In either case I know this: once I stepped out of typing class for the last time, I never saw Mrs. Peters again.

I have typed nearly every day  of my life since the last time I saw Mrs. Peters. Both my typing speed and accuracy are top-notch, though even today, if I start thinking about how fast I’m typing, I immediately start making misteakss. Mistakes, that is.

So much of my life’s work, both as a professional writer/editor and as someone who frequently writes personal work as an avocation, is about my hands translating via a keyboard what is going through my brain at that moment. It is true that I’ve always kept a handwritten journal, and have even successfully revived that practice this year. However, much of what I write these days, including this essay, moves straight from brain to keyboard. Through my hands, without the intervention of a pen or paper. Using the techniques Mrs. Peters taught me 37 years ago in the faraway deserted island typing classroom filled with big old manual typewriters at Chichester Junior High School.

When I think back on all the stuff I learned in high school, it’s a wonder to think that ninth grade typing class may have been my most important takeaway of all. But, with all due respect to the many great teachers I had, typing class clearly had the most profoundly practical effect on my life from 1979 straight on up to this morning.

I have the mysterious, golf-loving Mrs. Peters to thank for that.

Row. And. Stop.








In 1980s, high school, nerdism, nerds on February 14, 2016 at 1:12 pm



I woke up thinking about nerds on this very cold Valentine’s Day in Pennsylvania. This has nothing to do with my romantic life per se. I just woke up thinking about nerds.

It all started late one evening last week. I caught the end of the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds. I first saw this cinematic masterwork in a theater, with a couple of my nerdish friends, within a week or so of its original release. Hell, we may have seen it opening night.

I suppose we thought that the [SPOILER ALERT!] ultimate triumph of the goodhearted nerds over the mindless, evil, social-climbing prep jocks was a validation of our nerdish existence, and maybe we were right about that. In many ways though, Revenge of the Nerds is not an easy movie to watch in 2016. It is awash in ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes. Not only that, the scene in which the main nerd uses the mask he is wearing to trick the main jock’s girlfriend to have sex with him in a moon bounce is seriously uncool, even if it all works out OK in the end.

Of course, all of that is looking at a 1984 movie through the lens of 2016 sensibilities and I am not really interested in a debate about whether current standards should be applied to any sort of art (including Revenge of the Nerds) from the past. Besides, I betcha the whole plot and cast of characters from the movie was stolen from Shakespeare anyway.

The movie did get me thinking about my high school friends–who shall remain nameless here, but should they happen to stumble upon this, they know who they are. We clearly were living on the fringes of high school society, or so we thought. This, despite the fact that we were all Caucasian, straight (as far as I knew) males. But this is not really surprising: while nerds comprise all races, ethnicities and orientations today, a certain strain of straight while males were clearly the nerdiest of the nerds in early 1980s teen culture, despite the more diverse (but stereotyped) cast in Revenge of the Nerds.

I realize that I am basing this on my very limited experience. Clearly there were black nerds, Asian nerds, girl nerds, gay nerds and all other manner of nerds populating high schools in 1982. It’s just that I knew what I knew at the time and, in retrospect, what I knew was pretty damned limited.

As for my friends and me: we played Risk while listening to Rush. The epic Moving Pictures and its new wave-influenced follow-up Signals were the big Rush studio albums of my high school days, but it was the live album, Exit…Stage Left, that seemed to be the most common Risk soundtrack. Because it rocked.

Of course, there was that sleep-over that happened not long after one of my nerd friends had fallen in love. He thus made us listen to the three hit songs–“Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” and “Every Woman In the World”–from Air Supply’s first big album over and over again. But he wouldn’t listen to the rest of the album, which is why I am still not conversant on what the best Air Supply deep album tracks are.

We played Dungeons and Dragons as well, or at least some of us did. There was another fantasy game that took hold of as well. I think it might have been called Ysgarth, or something like that, and it was one step beyond D&D.

I was never fully enmeshed in the fantasy game scene–even as a teenager, I found actual reality surreal enough, thank you very much–but I was there sometimes when the games were being played. I was not a huge Rush fan–the new waver in my kept the prog rocker in me at bay–but I was there when we were listening to the Rush records.

But it wasn’t as if I was simply a nerd-by-association. I could recite the names of all the U.S. presidents by the time I was seven years old. The graveyard obsession that has ultimately led me to become a cemetery tour guide followed shortly thereafter.

So yes, I was a nerd. Or a geek, or a dork. I know there are subtle differences among those three words, but it’s all just semantics. My friends were nerds too, though looking back, we each approached nerdism in our own specific way. Just like every single kid, before and since, has approached the development of their own personalities in the sometimes harsh world of high school society. My friends and I were fortunate in that we were able to work through the nerdishness–which, let’s face it, is really just code for “being true to oneself”–and emerge unscathed. Sadly, we all know that is not always the case, which is perhaps a topic for another time.


“If I Leave Here Tomorrow”

In 1980s, 1983, Free Bird, Free Bird memories, high school, Lynryd Skynyrd on March 7, 2014 at 3:40 pm

During a Toastmasters meeting yesterday, the topic of memories connected to certain songs was introduced. Several stories swirled around Lynryd Skynyrd’s epic “Free Bird.” Here’s my “Free Bird” story. I originally wrote it for my blog back in 2009 but in light of yesterday’s conversation, I thought I’d repost.

This is the story of my first kiss, so naturally, Washington D.C., my old friend Roman, two weather-obsessed guys from Georgia, national and international politics, a famed new wave boutique, a girl named Gayle, Chuck E. Cheese and a pinch—just a pinch!–of dinner theater were all involved.

And, I’d be remiss if I left Lynyrd Skynyrd off that list.

On a Friday evening in January 1983, I was dancing with Gayle in a hotel banquet room near the Pentagon. We were dancing to the live version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s damn-near existential breakup anthem “Free Bird,” which clocks in at nearly 15 minutes long. If my memory is serving me correctly, the disc jockey at our closing dinner dance had set aside the last quarter hour of the event so that we could all hear the entire song.

According to my journal, I had danced with Gayle to every slow song that night but “Free Bird” is the only one I remember 31 years later. It was clearly an appropriate “last dance,” especially with its opening lyrical couplet, “If I leave here tomorrow/will you still remember me?”

During the early slow section of “Free Bird,” I probably had a chance to review the week, especially since the adult chaperones who hovered around might have frowned upon any first kissing action happening right on the dance floor. My mental playback might have gone something like this:

I had gone down to D.C. with a group from my high school for Close Up, a weeklong government studies program that involved schools from both Pennsylvania and Georgia. My pal Roman and I were rooming with two guys from the Atlanta area named John and Ty. At least one of them had some kind of weather obsession and frequently listened to a small, boxy radio that transmitted nothing but weather reports. Despite this, I felt like our Atlanta roomies were much cooler, better-looking and sophisticated than Roman and me.

Over the course of the week, we had visited historic sites and museums, toured the Pentagon and heard presentations from legislators and other various and sundry mid-to-low level government officials of the Reagan Administration. We dropped in on the Supreme Court, checked out the important documents at the National Archives and had, in fact, sat down for a night of rubber chicken and Kern/Hammerstein Jr.’s Showboat (I believe this is the only time I’ve ever attended dinner theater. Do people still do dinner theater?).

We even did Chuck E. Cheese one night, which seemed pretty juvenile to me at the time but, hey, I guess you just can’t afford classy dinner theater every night, right?

At some point during the week, Gayle and I noticed each other, but the exact moment has been lost to history.

Friday afternoon was free time so Roman and I took a Metro ride to Georgetown, which we had visited earlier in the week. We wanted to do some more shopping at Commander Salamander, a semi-legendary punk rock/new wave emporium, where all manner of t-shirts and pins proclaiming one’s allegiance to the various bands of the day could be purchased.

At Commander Salamander, Roman bought a t-shirt that plainly stated, “If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth a F&$k.” I picked up a standard issue shirt bearing the store’s name and logo, along with a great big handful of small metal pins honoring bands like Stray Cats, the Clash, A Flock of Seagulls, the Fixx, the Go Go’s, Elvis Costello and more. History had yet to decide at that juncture which of these artists would eventually be inducted into the then-nonexistent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and which would be consigned to 1980s nostalgia hell.

Hurrying back to the hotel, Roman and I immediately planned to put our purchases to use for the dinner dance that night. I wore a suit jacket festooned with new wave pins on each lapel and a necktie thrown over my Commander Salamander t-shirt. We were feeling pretty damn cool, Roman and me. Still though, even at this point our Atlantan roommates seemed cooler and, as we were all getting dressed for the dinner, Ty upped the coolness ante considerably by cautioning us to stay away from the room during the dance as a girl he had met from Pennsylvania had asked him to “show it” to her that evening. In the parlance of today’s youth, I believe this would have been called “hooking up.” But maybe she just wanted to see the weather radio.

With all of this tumbling through my brain during the early stages of “Free Bird,” I barely had time to ponder how Gayle and I would dance once Skynyrd began to rock. I needn’t have worried about that though, as we continued to dance slow and close even when the triple guitar climax duel began in earnest. In fact, the more the guitars wailed, the slower and closer Gayle and I danced. But still, our lips did not meet.

The last notes of “Free Bird” and the roar of the Skynyrd audience signaled the end of our dinner dance. We gathered ourselves up and tumbled into elevators to head back up to our rooms for the night.

As the elevator door opened for the boys’ floor, Gayle got out with me and, before I knew what was happening we were kissing good night. The kiss probably wasn’t as long or as passionate as I’d like to remember it, but it worked for me anyway. Gayle turned, without a word, and got back on the elevator. I walked down to my room; along the way, friends who had apparently witnessed what had just transpired gave me high fives.

Back in my room, John, Ty and Roman were noisily burning off whatever energy they had left, but I called Gayle in her room and we talked until it was time to go to sleep. I never did find out whether Ty had hooked up with the Pennsylvania girl or not.

The next morning, Gayle and I may have kissed one final, less memorable, time before climbing onto our buses to go home. We exchanged a few letters in the months that followed that and in an obligatory mopey prom post-mortem journal entry I lamented the fact that Gayle couldn’t have gone to the prom with me because she lived “three million miles away.” But by the end of the school year, Gayle and I had exchanged our last letters.

All these years later, I’ve never much pondered that first kiss, but now I realize that what Gayle gave me that night was a tiny bit of insight into what another, even more important kiss would be like for me, eight years later, when I first kissed my future wife, Donna. I don’t know what, if anything, I gave Gayle that night, other than a (hopefully) fun memory. If nothing else, we’ll always have “Free Bird,” which is cool with Donna. She’s not a huge Skynyrd fan anyway.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

Children's book author, ghostwriter, content creator, editor.

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