This past summer my 16-year-old daughter Haley tried out and made the High School Cheerleading Squad in Alameda. She spent a good portion of the summer practicing hard with the other cheerleaders, and since the school year began her mother and I have unexpectedly found ourselves enjoying the American ritual of attending football games in our home town and the surrounding areas of the East Bay.
All of this comes as a huge surprise to everyone, and yet in some ways it is totally understandable. Haley has been getting great energy physically and emotionally from her participation at this school activity, and we like how it has affected her spirits and sense of connection to her school.
But going in I was deeply suspicious: my experience with school spirit at my own high school in La Mesa was quite different from Haley’s. Cheerleaders that wanted to make the team in 1970’s La Mesa had to campaign and be voted in by the students themselves. It was a ballot, and ended up being a popularity contest. I remember feeling furious when an Iraqi girl in my English class named Sindus Habib didn’t make the cut, because she was so good at her cheers and fit the part perfectly. But although she was perfectly accepted by her friends I realized that she didn’t have the necessary killer instinct to do the deliberate socializing that was required for a girl to become popular enough to be voted on the team.
I loosened up at Haley’s school when I learned that the cheerleaders are chosen by the two women adult coaches. The girls simply have to have the ability to learn the moves and do them within a reasonable amount of time. The size of the squad increases and decreases without limits and with the number of qualified girls, including when grades slip and the cheerleader at risk must attend games but sit on the bench until her tests improve. I see girls of various races, cultures and body types on Haley’s team, and it’s a big relief to me. There are even a few somewhat socially shy girls participating, and they are on a level playing field with the other girls as soon as the uniform is put on.
All of Haley’s High School experiences, including the recurring sub-theme of insiders vs. outsiders bring back my own memories from time to time, including the following one:
As a young teenager I met an interesting guy named Dan Smolan on the Junior High school bus. He was a tall guy with a slightly goofy laugh who I noticed had an ability to hang with most of the varied cliques and groups at our school. His best friend was Mark Phillips, and since this early time these two were thick as thieves. They were the kind of guys that went through a phase of riding around on their ten-speeds during adolescence pulling down a few neighborhood mailboxes for laughs and maybe doing something mean to the school property on the weekend when no one was around. No fires or pipe bombs (which did happen occasionally), but more minor stuff they eventually grew out of within the year. But this made them different than me, and I thought of Dan as someone who would take certain chances to increase the laugh factor.
I remember one time hanging casually with Dan at the Homecoming school dance, and being surprised when he excused himself to go over to congratulate the Homecoming King. Dan was well recognized at that brief moment, but he didn’t hang around for the serious soc scene that ensued. The next year the same thing unexpectedly happened to me; a good friend of mine, Mike Ewing, was named the Homecoming King. Years later I realized the compelling reason I knew these guys was our tentative connection as creative types…
One afternoon Dan got a wild hair and drove me to La Jolla shores just to check things out. When we got there he pulled out a Canon camera and started shooting a roll of B&W film, possibly for school. But the engaged way he was doing it told me it wasn’t for an assignment, he was doing it for fun. As he stared at some pilings under a pier, he talked me into wading into the water and striking a pose that he demonstrated for me.
Later when he developed the film in the school darkroom I had a chance to see the shots he had taken. Every picture was remarkable. I had taken the same photography class and had learned the same darkroom techniques, and it was this familiarity that gave me the edge to see a striking difference between his work and mine: every one of his shots was an interesting and composed keeper. When I shot a roll I would hope for 2 or 3 good ones, and I’m often still that way, yet here was Dan with a full roll of noteworthy pictures.
Dan participated with the Annual Yearbook student staff during that Senior year and then something embarrassing happened: the shot of me under the pier had been chosen for the Yearbook. I protested weakly, but Dan’s goofy smile disarmed me. I felt queer about the picture because I hadn’t done the concept, but after seeing it again many months after school ended I realized the picture did have some connection to my personality. I was in a cross-like pose in a natural setting, suggesting a vague non-religious spirituality that would build privately over time.
Another very memorable event was the time Dan rounded up Mark Phillips and I, told us to dress up a little, and then drove us to downtown Horton Plaza on a weekend night. In those days, Horton Plaza was notoriously seedy and trashy, catering to sailors and society’s rejects. People from the suburbs would lock their car doors as they drove by, even in the day. One of my favorite details about this period of Horton Plaza was that drag queens would consistently appear around the fountain area at night, congregating for action and to socialize. More than once a street person blew me away with poetry or a song as we walked by.
On this particular night, the three of us went to the fountain area where there were large public underground rest rooms you would never go into alone. The walls were white tile, and like any bathroom the sound was just crying to be sung to. Dan seemed to know what was coming, and immediately we found four African-American guys standing in a circle sharing a single cigarette and singing in a lively Motown/R&B style. They were friendly, and Dan immediately produced a pack of filter-less cigarettes guaranteeing us the required admission to hang more than 5 minutes. These guys were making up a song on the spot; it was called “The Girl Next Door” and I still remember the tune very well. The hook stuck with me so effectively I still sing it from time to time 30 years later. The gentlemen’s voices were so authentic and soulful, and we encouraged them to record their song and send it in to the very popular local annual KGB Homegrown album contest. They had never heard of this of course, but that was the best we could do. It was a concert of one night only, and we parted ways with the singers forever when we left, but I never forgot the music. As we drove home in Dan’s truck, it was silently but laughably obvious that I would never have had this experience if it hadn’t been for him.
After about age 20 I never saw Dan again, but I heard an unconfirmed rumor in my mid -20’s that Dan had been found wrapped in a blanket on a cold morning on the SF State campus tripping hopelessly on acid, talking to himself incoherently as he was taken away. I was angry that I heard the rumor in an unsympathetic way and hoped he had recovered and had a chance to begin his journey to a happier place, the one most creative people take when they are in their 20’s (when they are lucky enough to get there).
Last year I received several Facebook links to my High School reunion and I clicked on a name page of no-shows, which included me. They had a special page that included photos of those who have passed on early, and I was deeply saddened to see Dan’s picture with a passing date of 1991. There was no further information, and I will be clicking on a few more friends’ pages hoping to eventually learn more to bring closure to the loss of a cool guy that I once knew.
But regardless of that loss, nothing can take away the treasured handful of unique and valued things that happened to me for merely knowing Dan Smolan.