High School Rebel

by Thomas J. Scheff (May 2011)

When the men were free on weekends, they had nothing to do except stay on base or visit our little town, some ten or fifteen thousand of them. There was little to do there either, except to get drunk and look for women, so it got pretty rowdy on Saturday night.

My mother was appreciative, but not my dad. Mom argued with him, but he thought I had over-reacted. Off to backcountry, small town, Michigan Military Institute I went, as a junior in a small all-boy high school. That is, there was not a single GIRL among the students. Since I was deeply interested in girls at the time, the thought of not having any in my school was revolting.

Moving was good for business, but hard on my social life. About the time I had made a friend or two, we up and moved again. I had to start all over in each little town. Also when I was old enough to push a broom, I became the part-time janitor in each store, along with being in school much of the day. I had to put an oil soaked batch of sawdust on the floor first, to keep the dust down. Not my favorite smell by far. It seemed to me that all work and no play made me a dull boy.

But next thing you know, descent into Hell. As I said, no girls at MMI. All boys, and most of them more athletic than me, with little interest in their classes. I could run a mile, but not fast enough to place. I was very poor at baseball, football, and boxing. Furthermore, because I came to the school as a junior, I ran up against distinctions of rank. All of the officers had come to school as freshman, the sergeants as sophomores. I was a buck private. Since the officers inspected our rooms every day, shouted at us during marching drill, and more or less ignored us underlings, it made a big difference.


There was a showdown between me and the school at the end of my junior year. MMI prided itself as a center for entry into science. One of the paths into science was the yearlong course on algebra. It was seen as by far the most difficult course because no one in the long history of the school had ever passed the exam the first time around. All graduates had had two algebra courses, passing, or being allowed to pass, only the second time around.


I was upset to the max. The other boys quickly heard about the incident through the pipeline. Except for my cousin and a few others, they were not sympathetic. Most of the boys seemed to think that either I had cheated or that I had actually worked all the problems correctly. Both possibilities were probably unappetizing. What to do?

I arranged to have a talkathon with my cousin Jimmy. He finally suggested that I hold out for a hearing with the director and two other teachers of my choice. I added my cousin to the group. I sent a note to Col. Lee, bluffing that I would leave school unless I got the hearing. He ruled out Jimmy, but set up the hearing for the next day in his office.

For the teachers I chose Capt. Winn, of course, and Capt. Nelson, my geometry teacher and track coach. Col. Lee started the proceedings off with a long indictment, including the naming of former students who had flunked the class the first time but went on to become scientists and engineers.

It was Captain Winn who actually saved the day. He posed only one question, the one not asked earlier: how did I solve the problems? I told my story. When I got to the part about smoking in the bathroom, I imitated Humphrey bogarting a joint. I must have looked pretty ridiculous, because all three teachers laughed loudly. The mood changed, and by the time I was finished I could see they believed me.

My privileges were restored, and I got to be read the valedictory address at my graduation. As a reward for our fortitude, our parents and my brother came for the ceremony, and took us off afterwards for a vacation in New York City! That was a real treat for us small town kids.

Another benefit of my experience was that my brother Kenneth was spared being sent out of town for high school. My father was irked by the treatment I had gotten, so he let Kenneth attend the local high school. If Kenneth is not thankful for this service, he ought to be.

Its nice to have the last word also. I heard recently that MMI is losing money and will have to fold in a few years. I must be lucky, because I not only survived MMI, but will also probably outlive it. Not bad for a small town boy from the rural South.


 What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011


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