By Rick Hiduk
In July and August, I will attend the Class of ’80 reunions for both Towanda High School (top) and Tunkhannock High School (above). I’m hoping the events will help close some gaps, connects some dots, and bring closure to my memories as “the new boy in school.”
I moved around a bit more than the average student, and the routine changes from school to school and district to district no doubt shaped my life in ways that took me years to understand. That’s not to say that those who have spent their entire lives in either Towanda or Tunkhannock – or in Wyalusing or Montrose for that matter – are not well-rounded with complete and satisfying lives. But, having experienced three high schools in four years affords me a unique perspective on the social dynamics of secondary education.
Those who have lived most of their lives in one general area can become blind to or take for granted social ills and inequities that happen around them everyday. On the other hand, despite the challenge of starting friendships from scratch each year, an awkward teen can also acquire a set of street smarts that would elude those students who are literally stuck in the same “cattle chute” from kindergarten through graduation.
I attended kindergarten through ninth grade in the Towanda Area School District. But, even there, divorce and constant “bettering” of our living situations required that I change schools almost every year. When I lived on Mechanic Street, I attended the Mulberry Street School and switched to J. Andrew Morrow when my mom got her first apartment, which was above the Daily Review. Then, we moved to Monroeton, which had a lovely old elementary school just down the street.
When my mother tried to enroll me there, however, she was told that they were not accepting any new students that year, as the school would be closing the following year. Ironically. I was bused back to Towanda with the Powell kids where we spent our fourth grade at the Third Ward Building. Kids living nearby who could walk to school rounded out the student body.
Bullying there was rampant, primarily at the hands of a few special education (remedial) students who were several years older then the rest of us. One big galoot who’s name I have forgotten threatened every day for more than a week to stab me. When my mother called the school, Mr. Vanderpool told her that no knife was found so there was nothing more he could do.
The next year, Mom and Lisa and I moved back to Towanda to a large apartment on York Avenue. All fifth graders moved that year to Towanda Middle School – the only school that I would attend for the intended term of four years.
Going to three grade schools had not been so difficult. As a comedian interviewed recently on the Today Show suggested, at that age you are really flying by the seat of your pants. And how could I lose with great childhood friends like Sandy Pardoe, Gillian Tulk, and David Martin? By fifth- or sixth-grade, however, the comedian noted, you begin to notice that some kids are more popular than others, and you wonder for the first time if your clothes are cool enough.
By the end of fifth grade, it was apparent to me that I was NOT one of the popular kids, and I’m sure that not being part of any core group of students who had ascended together from kindergarten to middle school had a lot to do with that. This is not to say that I did not have friends in Towanda, as I most certainly did. But my father’s visitation rights with me and my sister took us away from our friends each weekend to a parallel world that seemed to contradict everything that I was experiencing at school.
Most weekends, my father would pick us up and take us directly to the Hiduk farm in Herrick Township. We had no friends there, but we had a large extended family who provided us with a sense of love and caring that was unequaled anyplace else in our lives. We were also immersed in the simplicity of country culture and living with nature and what God provides. Sunday was a day of reverence and goodness that was harshly challenged every Monday morning that I returned to school in Towanda.
Though we students were as of yet oblivious to the drug culture, profanity became the new language and the first social scourge with which I wrestled. When it was not literally pouring out of the mouths of kids wanting so badly to be seen as cool and tough, it stared at you from almost every wall as poorly spelled graffiti. I was appalled, as very few people in my family spoke that way, and I resisted any use of profanity until well after high school.
Sixth-grade was without a doubt my toughest year. It began with me being punched in the face in front of all of my classmates as we waited to enter the school on the first morning by a boy who’d simply been dared to do so. I wore broken glasses for the entire first day and sported a swollen black eye for the first week of school.
Meanwhile, the dynamics of my parents’ divorce and my father’s remarriage was beginning to shake my foundation. Whereas my father had told me that I might be able to move in with him when I was 12, my new stepmother would have nothing to do with it. And, as he would for the rest of our lives, my father followed her wishes. The betrayal sapped my desire to succeed at anything.
Then, Mr. Hipp got shot one cold early spring morning in 1974. I soon distrusted almost every one. I liked very few of my teachers, and my grades proved it. Three U’s on my third marking period report card indicated that I could very well fail sixth grade. The fear of that indignation motivated me to bring my grades up quickly to S’s and O’s by the final quarter so I moved on with my class.
By seventh-grade, I had developed a hobby that I enjoy to this day: record collecting and music research. I had also decided, without telling anybody else, that I wanted to become a minister. I was very involved with the New Albany Baptist Church as vice president of the Baptist Youth Fellowship and won a Bible in a church-sponsored contest that year with my name indented in gold letters.
My social experiences and my faith-based experiences continued to clash, but I opted to take a path of righteousness, at least that which it was called by my church at the time. I knew that the road to pastor hood would start with my baptism, which was a bit of a stretch for me after being raised in a primarily Methodist and Catholic family. My personal relationship with God was already strong enough by that point that I truly believed that denominations really didn’t matter.
Long story short, I did not go through with Baptism because I was beginning to realize that I was attracted to more boys than girls. According to the pamphlet I’d been given to prepare myself for Baptism, boys who liked boys were not welcome – especially at the pulpit. I never questioned it. I knew that what I was feeling was real, it was how God had made me, and it terrified me. I stood in front of a mirror one day just prior to the start of eighth-grade and said to myself, “You’re gay, and you know it. Some day that’s going to be OK, but that is certainly not here or now. You’re going to have to pretend that you’re not gay to have friends.”
Because I’d never taken to team sports nor phys ed, I really had my work cut out for me. I wasn’t particularly bad a sports, just terribly insecure. It didn’t take much razzing from players on any opposing team to convince me that I was an “easy out” or what have you and to display the poor performance they were seeking. The only exception was swimming. I could move in the water with a strength and precision that would come in handy later. Also working for me was the fact that I was and still am an avid hunter.
My only recognizable talents at that time were writing and performance arts, not exactly macho image builders but helpful in bringing me together with a lot of the other (if you’ll pardon me) geeks and nerds who befriended me. I could sing, and I could dance, the latter coming in handy when we had our eighth grade dance in the cafeteria and I – unlike many of the popular male athletes and other guys – danced with all of the prettiest girls in my class.
My mother married Ernie Shartle that year, and having a popular teacher for a step-dad actually enhanced my social stature, even though I was reacting poorly to the “intrusion” of a new father-figure on the homefront.
While I was making gains at getting through the school day and growing a thicker skin towards the bullies, comments questioning my sexually by students who I now understand had no idea then what they were really saying evaporated any desire on my part to socialize after school. I couldn’t wait to get home from school. From there, I’d either go with David and Jimmy Hawke exploring river islands because that was as far away from people that I could get, or dive into the make-believe world I’d created in my bedroom studio where I was a famous publisher, disc jockey and television host.
Moving up the hill to Towanda High School for ninth grade didn’t really change much in my life other than put all of us back in the ranks of underclassmen. Nonetheless, I found myself making new friends with the upperclassmen I so envied. They were so much closer to where I wanted to be…out of school forever. When Commonwealth Telephone Company, at which my mother had worked since 1970, announced that they were moving most of their operations to Dallas, Mom and Ernie decided to make the move with the company.
I cannot deny that I immediately embraced the notion of getting the hell out of Towanda as quickly as the school year was completed. Wrong or right, I felt so emotionally bruised by the whole town by that point that I could envision only failure or very possibly suicide if I stayed another year. I couldn’t have imagined how much, within just five months of my escape however, I would wish I was back in Bradford County.
Mom and Ernie embarked on a two-part plan that involved starting our lives over at a trailer park near the Luzerne and Wyoming county line in a brand new mobile home. It was plenty roomy unless we got even one guest, let alone my step-brothers or Jimmy Hawke coming down from Towanda on the weekends, which we all enjoyed. The only real flaw in the plan, however, was that Valley View Trailer Park was in the Dallas School District and not in the Tunkhannock School District where Ernie had just taken a new job and from which he would eventually retire.
In 1977, Dallas was a very poor school district, both in terms of finances and curriculum. When my sister and I both realized on the first day of classes that we had already learned the subject matter that was laid out before us at our respective schools, my mother went to the schools and was told matter-of-factly that we had simply been placed in low academic settings with all of the other trailer park kids.
Despite continuing to be A and B students, my sister and I never forgot nor forgave the social indignation placed upon us by that school district and welcomed the opportunity to change schools once again the following year with a move to Evans Falls. In Dallas, drug use, teen pregnancy and abortion were common themes that I somehow avoided. But those crappy classes would come back to haunt us one more time.
Prior to 1978, Tunkhannock had been a drive-thru town between the outer reaches of our travels between Towanda and family destinations like Olyphant and Allentown. It was a cute little town, and I was always happy to see it on the return trips because it meant that we were getting close to home. It did not take long living on its outskirts of Tunkhannock to realize how familiar the town felt to me.
I was back at THS. The school colors were orange and black. Both towns were county seats situated along the Susquehanna River, and the river bridges were almost identical. We had one small airport, a drive-in theater, and a downtown theater. The “box” store in both towns was an Ames. There was a high school, a middle school, and a number of outlying elementary schools that fed into them. In a sense, I felt like we’d come home, even though we knew nobody. And my relationship to Ernie – relatively new to the district himself – was generally unknown.
Unfortunately, my social skills had regressed in 10th grade, and I was sensing that others my age were becoming sexually active. At the very least, they were dating, and I wasn’t ready for either. I decided that the best way to get through the next school year was to become invisible, and, for the most part, I was. I was the last kid to get on the Noxen bus in the morning and the first one to step off. I immediately went to my room and recorded radio programs and wrote newspaper stories that few people would ever enjoy.
At best, I found a peace in Tunkhannock that I had not anticipated. With a student body more than 1,200 strong, I found that I was finally left alone. Nobody even knew that I had always been in both the band and the chorus, so I was never asked to join in Tunkhannock. My sexuality was never questioned. I was doing well academically, and a few teachers like Bill Doherty and Carol West encouraged my creative talents. My delivery of Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of 11th grade prompted Mr. Doherty to give me a prominent role in the 1980 spring play.
So, although still isolating myself more than was probably healthy, I was finally doing OK again. I was close to the end of high school. “Just one more year of this purgatory,” I thought, “and I will break free from this benignly pleasant town and go explore the world.”
During summer vacation in 1979, something happened that spurred me into action and a new social direction. The relative safety and security that Tunkhannock afforded me gave me the confidence to set out in my senior year to actually enjoy school and some popularity. I had become comfortable dating girls and found, to my relief, that sex was not a requirement. (Kissing was, however, and I’ll always have one female fellow classmate to thank for getting me over that hurdle.)
It was “now or never,” I believed, so I set out in my senior year to take on as many activities as I could and to make some small impression on my 309 classmates. I joined the school newspaper, read the morning news on Tiger Talk, developed sets for game shows for AV class and got the aforementioned part in the spring play. Little did anyone know until my senior year got underway that I might not graduate with the rest of my class.
I was called to the guidance office within a few weeks of the start of school and informed that I had not picked up enough credits in language arts, gym, and other subjects in my first two years of high school at Towanda and Dallas, and it had somehow gone unnoticed during my first full year at Tunkhannock. Whereas I might have graduated with no problems had I stayed at either of the first two schools, Tunkhannock had a demanding curriculum that was very unforgiving to students in my situation. The fact that I had insufficient credits for phys ed, a subject I loathed but in which I nonetheless always participated was particularly frustrating.
Ernie met with the guidance department to develop an itinerary that involved some creative maneuvering and courses that didn’t require a classroom. Gym teacher Auggie Grant also stepped up with a unique plan to bring me up to par. At my first two high schools, phys ed was a quarter credit course that we took maybe twice per week. Tunkhannock had a strong athletics program, so gym was a full credit course taken once per day.
Mr. Grant, who would later move on to Wyalusing to serve as high school principal, acknowledged that for me not get a diploma because of gym was ridiculous, but I wasn’t making the matter any easier with my attitude.
“You don’t like gym, do you?” he asked me. “I hate it,” I replied.
“What do you like to do?” Mr. Grant continued. “I like to run, swim and lift weights,” I answered.
“Will you do those things for gym credits?” he asked, bringing a puzzled look to my face.
From then through the end of the year, I signed in for gym class twice per day. I ran, took lifeguarding courses, taught little kids how to swim, lifted weights, played water polo, and helped Mr. Shaw manage the swimming pool. That was just one example of the remedial education devised by concerned faculty members that helped me to graduate on time.
Yes, Tunkhannock was very good to me. While I shared the general sentiment of the rest of my classmates that there was not nearly enough opportunity in Wyoming County for such a large number of very bright kids, I want them to know now how good we really had it. We graduated from a great school. We may have genuinely felt the need for “Bustin’ Out in ’80,” but we had very good teachers who did their best to impart the knowledge to us that we would need to succeed in life.
(It pains me to hear so many parents and current and recent students say that Tunkhannock has gone so far down hill since then. Certainly, this year’s graduating class of 182 students indicates a decline in the number of teenagers in the district, but many students have also been removed from the roster by dissatisfied parents and placed in private or homeschool settings.)
In 1995, I was part of the committee for the 15th year reunion of the Tunkhannock High School Class of 1980. We all put a lot of effort into the event, which I greatly anticipated. I’d met some fun kids in my last two years of high school, and I was eager to see them again. Unfortunately, very few of them showed up or remembered me. I hadn’t made the lasting effect on them that I’d hoped. I was a bit crushed until it dawned on me that I did not share a lifetime of memories with these kids. Eleventh and 12th grades was but a blip on the radar screen for every one else in Tunkhannock.
In 2000, I was living in Lancaster County when I received an invitation for the 20th year Tunkhannock reunion to which I do not believe that I replied. Instead, I made up my mind to track down the Towanda Class of 1980’s 20th reunion and was successful in doing so. Though the event was not particularly well attended, I did get to see a number of childhood friends who seemed genuinely excited to see me.
When I wrote my memoir of the day that Mr. Hipp was shot in 1974 (http://www.endlessmtnlifestyles.com/?p=573), a couple of former classmates commented that they were sorry that Towanda had been so rough on me. Since I returned to the area in 2011, more than a few of my fellow graduates from Tunkhannock have apologized for not recognizing or remembering me.
To my former classmates in both T-Town’s, I wish to report that I hold no grudges toward any students or teachers, whether or not my experiences were as cherished as we all wish they had been. I also hold nothing against my parents who always worked their butts off to feed us, buy us clothing, and keep a roof over our heads. Writing has been a great catharsis to me and, though I did cry again when I wrote the Mr. Hipp story, I am better off for it.
As for Towanda, all of my reservations and ill feelings about the town were lifted off my shoulders unexpectedly one night in the early ’90s when I ran into the student who had punched me on the first day of sixth grade.
“I never thought I’d ever see you again to have the opportunity to tell you how sorry I was,” he told me. “I didn’t dislike you. A bunch of guys dared me to hit you, so I did. And the worst part about it was that you kept on being nice to me.”
“That’s because I knew that it wasn’t your fault,” I replied. I know that my forgiveness meant a lot to him, but I don’t know if he had any idea how much his apology meant to me. In one fell swoop, he had apologized for the whole town, and I finally felt comfortable in Towanda again.
When I came back north from Lancaster County, I found that more than a few of my old Tunkhannock friends had moved up river to Wyalusing and Towanda and vice versa. As my job had me routinely visiting all three towns, it has been pretty easy to call the whole area “home,” especially after we bought a house near Meshoppen, where I’d never lived before nor realized that it is part of the Elk Lake School District.
Thirty five years after graduation, it concerns me to hear that there are former Towanda and Tunkhannock students who will not attend their respective reunions because of the way they felt they were treated so many years ago. While I’m not going to pretend that the pain wasn’t real, I have to hope that, after more than three decades, we’ve all matured to the point that we respect each other and can enjoy the company of all of our former classmates.
As a member of the committee again for the Tunkhannock Class of ’80 reunion, I’m pretty sure that Gary Brown still doesn’t know who the hell I am, and John Harvey does not remember watching soap operas with me and Cherie Altemus in the AV room. But we’re having a great time at the meetings that we hope translates to a good time for many on Aug. 15.
I’ll also be attending the Towanda Class of ’80 reunion on July 25 and am hoping mostly to find out that everyone turned out alright. I am encouraged by the number of people who have “friended” me on Facebook as I follow both reunion sites – people that as former students I didn’t feel so close to back in the day.
One thing has changed since the last set of reunions. I’m finally married. I’ve been with Mike for 19 years, but he never felt comfortable going to a class reunion with me, and I didn’t want to attend by myself. Now that we are legally married, he’s committed himself to one reunion or the other so far and wants me to pick one, even though he has nothing else to do either weekend. I keep telling him that I really want him to attend both reunions with me and hope you’ll encourage him to do the same.
Thirty-five years is a long time is a long time to mull over the complexity of my primary and secondary education. I eventually attended Penn State Wilkes-Barre, where I was reunited with Towanda and Dallas students while carpooling with my Tunkhannock friends. I can not say that I had “found myself” yet by graduation, but I developed the confidence to at least try to figure out who I am. In my 20s and 30s, I think I figured out more things that I am not. It took turning 40 and allowing myself some mental space to relax that I finally felt comfortable in my skin. I’m curious to hear everyone else’s life journey.