Robert Hills, one of my only coaches who was not a swimming or diving man, died recently. He’s the guy on the far right of the photo, which is from the 1972-1973 yearbook. (The others are coaches Bratschie, Lamb and Flynn.) I wish his family the courage and strength required to do without him. Coach Hills touched many lives during his years at Joseph LeConte Junior High School, including mine, as this story explains:
Hot beads of sticky sweat were trickling down my forehead and dripping off my eyelashes. I stood silently, listening for the naked teenage boys who were hunting me in the boys’ locker room at LeConte Junior High School. The aerosol can of Right Guard was in my left hand. My bare back was against the cold lockers. I was determined to make it to the shower without being ambushed. The deodorant was my only weapon – and the only weapon of my pursuers.
I became aware of somebody just around the corner, beyond the edge of the bank of lockers I was cornered behind. Rather than submit I decided to go on the offensive, to lash out against those who might try to humiliate me. What other option is there for a naked 13 year-old boy?
I jumped out from my hiding place and fired the deodorant at the kid who was about to do the same, scoring a direct hit in the belly! “That’s right,” I thought, “Nobody is going to bully me and get away with it without a fight!”
Coach Robert Hills was the head Boys PE teacher at LeConte Junior High. He was a crew-cut disciplinarian, and like most of the men of his age and experience in 1972, Coach Hills did not like scruffy-haired boys. I thought Mr. Hills was fair and honest, though, and eager to recognize a good effort or an improved performance from any of his students. I had concluded a long time ago that the safe thing to do was to obey him to the letter (except about getting a haircut) and otherwise stay out of his way.
I knew I had made a serious mistake when I observed that the target of my aerosol assault was fully dressed. Looking up, I became aware of just how dreadful a mistake it really was. I saw the angry eyes of Coach Hills looking down at me, shiny and black, like the openings of a double-barreled shotgun pointed at my face.
The coach’s reaction was instant and automatic. He grabbed my long hair with his right hand and used it as a leash with which to guide me to the coaches’ office. Coach Lamb, the eldest coach on the staff, looked up and raised an eyebrow.
“That boy needs a shower and a haircut, Coach.”
“He needs some swats first. He just fired on me with deodorant. I’ve got enough troubles. I don’t need f***ing naked longhair punks jumping around shooting me with s*** they oughta be using on themselves.”
Coach Hills pulled a couple of possible weapons out of a drawer, selecting what looked like a ping pong paddle with a long handle and holes in the paddle. He looked at it and swished it through the air a couple of times, with a tiny smile on his face, then he looked me in the eye.
“Son, do you understand it’s wrong to spray your coach with deodorant?”
I looked back into his eyes. They didn’t look all black anymore.
“Yes, I understand…”
I could tell that I was getting in more trouble but I wasn’t sure why. Coach Hills repeated his question, with a little more anger and contempt. Coach Lamb offered a quiet suggestion.
Sometimes I need a helpful stage manager to feed me my lines, especially when I’m naked and about to “get swats” from the coach I just doused with deodorant. Again I looked up into Coach Hills’ eyes.
“Yes, sir, I understand it’s wrong to spray my coach with deodorant.”
The coach gently tapped the edge of the paddle on the counter, no doubt to get a better grip and to remind me of the swatting I had in store. He looked into my eyes and asked,
“Do you understand that it’s wrong to run around naked in the locker room, that it’s against the rules to run in there when you’re dressed?”
“Yes, sir, I understand.”
“Good. To make sure you remember, put your hands on the counter.”
I obeyed. The first swat came about three seconds later, preceded by a fairly loud swoosh sound. Two other swats followed, separated by about five seconds each. I was impressed by how loud they were. They hurt, too, a lot. A few seconds after the third swat, the coach said,
“OK, turn around.” I looked up into his eyes. “Take a shower. I’ll see you tomorrow – you guys are running a mile and we’re gonna time you.”
I walked back into the locker room in high spirits. Sure, I had an acutely sore and completely naked butt, yet I figured I was going to be received like a hero. After all, hadn’t I just taken three swats that easily could have gone to just about anybody? Didn’t I just spray deodorant on Coach Hills, a wildly brave and impressive act of resistance? I figured they’d probably treat me as if I’d just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth. At least I’d be getting a wild round of applause.
Instead, it was quiet like a funeral home after closing hours. A few guys looked at me as I came in, but in silence. Everybody knew that when the coaches were dispensing swats it was a good idea to keep still, so as not to tempt fate. I was one of the last ones to the showers. I got washed off and dried in time for my next class, but I had to borrow some deodorant. I’d left mine in the coaches office and I didn’t think it was wise to go back.
Nobody – including me – felt that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. We might not all have thought it “wrong” to spray Coach Hills, but we unanimously agreed it was highly unwise and dangerous, definitely something an intelligent lad wouldn’t do. I didn’t tell my parents because I was ashamed of what I’d done – and because I figured they’d agree with me that I’d basically got what I had coming. The swats did no real damage, and the fact that the coaches judged that I “took my punishment like a man” seemed to raise my status in their esteem.
This incident happened in the spring of 1972, when I was in 8th grade. Here’s a picture from May ’72. You might think that a public junior high school in Hollywood, California in 1972 would be a bastion of hard-core leftist politics, or at least some real adolescent rebellion – and you’d be wrong.
At the start of every day of classes, first thing in the morning, the school PA system would play a bugle call! Everybody had to stand at attention, in silence, while the melody played. This was before the Pledge of Allegience. At the end of the school day, another bugle call played, and again everybody was supposed to stand at silent attentnion throughout the melody.
Why do you think we were subjected to this kind of treatment? These rituals probably did quite a bit to inhibit most kids from even thinking about joining me and some of my very young friends who opposed the war in Vietnam, both in school and in the streets. I can say for sure that being forced to behave like a military cadet helped teach me that most authority is arbitrary and stupid. In that case, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
A lot has changed since 1972. Coaches and other teachers aren’t supposed to hit students anymore. That’s fine. I don’t want the kids I’m helping raise to be beaten by their teachers. I have never struck any of them myself (although I did bite one of them once, and trust me, she had it coming). And yet, sometimes I think we’ve made a lot of things in life more complicated than they need to be. Back in the spring of ’72, I ambushed one of my coaches with a can of Right Guard. He gave me a spanking. The whole incident couldn’t have taken more than five minutes. What do you think might happen if the same chain of events unfolded today?