I was a rebel in high school.
The year was 1970 and Virginia Beach had largely avoided the upheavals of the 1960s, but we were making up for lost time. We grew our hair long, wore tattered jeans with American flags sewn on the butt, and talked in lingo: a cool guy was a freak or a head.
If you copped or scored you were holding and you worried that the pigs might bust you. You wanted to avoid the Jesus freaks down at the oceanfront, but you hoped to meet a ball freak for some free love (though the latter never happened).
I was in the 11th grade and had one more year to go. After that, I was undecided whether to get a motorcycle and tour the country as an “easy rider”or go to college.
But either way, in order to graduate, I had to get through government class under Mrs. Stahlin. She was petite (back then I would have said scrawny), dark-haired and pale. She was a humorless, austere, patriotic woman. She loved Nixon and America, and detested the long-haired hippies protesting on campuses and in the streets of our degenerate, libertine cities.
She said her name was pronounced Staylin, with a long a, and she got angry when anyone pronounced it like Joseph Stalin. I remember her curt corrections like the professor-doctor in Young Frankenstein, correcting his students’ pronunciation of his last name.
Being a rebel, her rah-rah America, pro-Nixon, pro–Vietnam War “government lessons” irked me. I couldn’t help myself from calling her Stalin, as in the Great Leader,from time to time. After about the fifth time she sent me to the office to talk to the principal, Mr. Santorini, an Italian-American from somewhere up north. His beefy, square-jawed face and brawny physique would have fit a mob enforcer in another life.
He confronted me with a hard look, and in a stern voice asked if I had done as accused. I said, “Yes sir, I called her Mrs. Stalin. That’s how the spelling looks to me.”
He said I was being rude and disrespectful, and asked me why I would want to be that way. I had known this day was coming so I had had time to prepare a smart-aleck reply.
“Well, sir, if someone spelled his name B-O-B but he pronounced it Boob, what would you call him?”
He looked at me hard for a long moment. I flinched, squirmed in my seat, and looked away. His look melted into a smile, and finally a laugh. Then he got serious again. “You are a clever young man and I expect you will do well for yourself. But this is a high school and I have to insist that teachers receive respect and are able to teach their lessons … even if you think they are a bit tight-assed. Do you understand me, son?” (Did I detect a wink of empathy when he said “a bit tight-assed”?)
“You can count on me, sir.”
And I was a model student in her class after that. That principal had listened to me and treated me with respect, and I liked and respected him in return ever after. I didn’t want to let him down.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his masters degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.