In tenth grade, when I moved to Morningside High School, I heard that their claim to fame was Vickie Lawrence. She was a student there when she went to the Carol Burnett Show and was first “discovered”. She was chosen out of the audience to come up and show Carol how much they looked alike. My high school had some very talented people as teachers. Mr. Fontana, our choral conductor, went on to conduct the choirs and orchestra for years at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Mr. LaCerte, the drama teacher, knew lots of people in Hollywood, and recruited Bill Bixby one year to host our drama awards show.
Mr. Belasco was also the mayor of Hermosa Beach while he was teaching my Humanities class. Mr. Belasco was a wild-eyed radical, and he encouraged me to do some risky thinking. I had just finished reading a book I had loved, called The Strawberry Statement, by a college protest leader at Columbia named James Simon Kunen. (This was another book I found in Matt’s room.) Kunen inspired one of the projects I did for Mr. Belasco’s class, a how-to paper outlining the organization of a protest on a college campus. Mr. Belasco also had us read the book of Job from the Bible and discuss it together. I was able to insert some comments about Archibald MacLeish and his play J.B., and that was fun for me. His class is also where I first read Thoreau.
Mr. Belasco made me feel that he was interested in my thoughts and feelings, so much so that I sent a journal I had made home for him and his wife to look at. I called them “bookies” and they were not exactly journals, but rather collections of quotes and poems song lyrics and pictures that meant something to me. I think I was wishing for some adults to affirm my aesthetic sensibilities, and I had long since learned not to ask my parents for appreciation. Mrs. Belasco, God bless her, wrote me the most kindhearted note in response.
Mr. Fontana, the choral conductor, was a gifted man who loved to develop the talents of kids he discovered in his classes. In tenth grade I was in Mr. Fontana’s Girls’ Glee Club. I didn’t “make it” into the Choir until the following year. For the spring concert, we all had to have long pastel dresses, so Momma found a dressmaker and we bought some magenta fabric, kind of crinkled and stretchy. I liked the dress, with its square neckline, not too dweeby. When I went to my room that night, there was a note from my dad on the bed. It said, “You were prettier tonight than you’ve been since you were five.” I really hope he meant that as a compliment, but it hurt. It felt like he was saying, “I haven’t enjoyed looking at you since you were five.” A kindness that cut.
Momma and I went to fabric stores and dressmakers perhaps more often than the average family because we both shared a hope that if a dress was made for me, it would look better on me. It didn’t actually work that way. I think in retrospect it was more how I felt about myself that was making it hard to look nice. How could I look good when I felt so ugly? The word that seemed to sum up how I thought Momma saw me was “disgusting.”
She never wanted to spend much on my clothes. I knew that Helen did on her girls’, and at the time that made me feel “less than,” less important, less worthy of time and attention. As an adult, it’s easy to understand that the Young family was an advertisement for “the school”, as they always referred to it. They were fundraisers, and had to be ever conscious of appearance. They did their shopping at The Broadway and at May Company, and the price of $20 sticks in my head as what most of the Young girls’ dresses cost. Our family had less income, and we had no need to present a certain image. My mother was appalled at the idea of spending $20 on a dress for me. Since I didn’t see these other factors at the time, in my mind it was about me not being worthy.
One morning getting ready for school, I ran into their bedroom to ask Momma about whether I should wear a particular outfit, and in frustration she snapped, “I don’t care what you wear.” Unfortunately, I did not take this as a momentary mood or frustration at someone or something else. I took it very personally, because it fit with all the other feelings I had about the unpleasantness of shopping for me, dealing with me. From that little moment, I took away a feeling that stayed with me for years, that it didn’t really matter to anybody what I wore or how I looked. This was tough to overcome.
Another factor that made clothes shopping more difficult was Daddy’s rule, “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” He believed it was unseemly to dress in bright colors or any style that was unusual enough to stand out. Combined with my mother’s constant suggestions of clothes that I thought would make me look like an old lady, this served to make shopping even more unpleasant for both of us. Add to this that the late ‘Sixties were the heyday of blue jeans, and my parents were opposed to them, so I had none.
After Daddy died, my mom shared two quotes with me that made me sad. She told me that Daddy had said of me, “She won’t be pretty, but she’ll turn out to be a handsome woman someday.” Another backhanded compliment that cut. And when I told her she should wear shorts one hot summer day, she informed me, “Daddy and I agreed that there were parts of my body that were unattractive and should remain covered.” My first impulse was to pity her for living under that negative assessment, but then I realized I had been hurt by it as well.
We called the choral conductor, Mr. Fontana, “Giffy” because his middle name was Gifford, and he at least pretended to hate that. When I was in eleventh grade, he required everyone in the choir to do a solo (or duet or trio) as part of our grade. I asked Craig Kingsbury to play the guitar for me, and I sang “Marcy” from Joni Mitchell’s first album. Mr. Fontana gave me high praise when he told the class, “You can see every emotion on her face.” He invited me to repeat the solo in our fall program, Tuesday Night Date. I was terrified, but I did it. Thankfully there was a bathroom just offstage, but even so I almost didn’t make it into my place in the spotlight when the curtain was opening. Extreme nerves.
That night, my folks were driving me home, I was in the back seat as usual, and they said they were concerned that Sara and Marilyn were “dumping” me for boys, like Matt and Chip did each other at that age. I assured them that this would not happen, although I appreciated their concern. Actually I was surprised at it, having discovered so seldom that they were thinking about me.
Sara and Marilyn and I were still friends, even though they drove out toward Long Beach every day to go to Brethren High School. Sara was head cheerleader, and more than once I was enlisted to rub her sore legs after a practice. And I attended their choir concerts, and at least one football game, the one where she was crowned Homecoming Queen. I loved the songs their very exacting choral conductor chose for them. Miss Carleda Hutton not only demanded excellent diction and blend, she also wanted her students exposed to good music outside school as well. I attended some musical performances with the girls to fulfill their choir requirements. My favorite song from the Brethren choir, “Sing My Soul His Wondrous Love,” showed up later in my life, and has remained one of my favorites ever since.
When we were little kids together in Sunday School, I had despised a Pepperdine faculty boy, Chris Stivers, because he was such a tease and a wild child. But now that we were in high school together, he turned out to be funny and musically accomplished. His dad bought him a book of Dave Brubeck, and Chris sat right down and played it. And he was not only playing piano amazingly, he was arranging, and composing original music. He and I, with other students, would hang around Mr. Fontana’s office during lunch periods. I wrote down a little exchange that happened between us one day:
Me: “Sometimes I think all you need is a beautiful body.”
Chris: “What for?”
Chris: “Well, I’m happy…anyhow.”
But Chris wasn’t always so sensitive and thoughtful. His favorite thing to say to me, in mock frustration (or maybe real) was, “Oh, Gwen…go type something!”
I wanted so much to be in the Madrigal group, or in the Triple Trio – nine girls who always sang a cappella and were ambassadors for the school, performing during school hours in many venues. But I wasn’t chosen for either. I felt it was my looks that held me back, though by this time I was also aware it might be my lack of poise or confidence. I settled for being the “music librarian” for class credit while the Madrigals rehearsed. That way I could still enjoy the music, and memorize all their songs.
Our teachers weren’t always wonderful. After lunch in Mr. Fontana’s office, Chris and I had an English class together on the edge of the campus. I always got through that class by eating, alternating, a roll of Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers and a small bag of M&Ms. I’m guessing our teacher, Gil Saint-Leon, was probably an ex-actor, though he never said so. More than once he played a part during class. I could swear that he was drunk the day he became Hamlet, because he ended up all crumpled up and emotionally wasted in the corner of the room. I figured that probably nothing but inebriation could inspire such a dramatic scene.
The Christmas of my tenth grade year, we went to Hawaii to see Chip and Sharyn off to Malaysia. They had joined the Peace Corps. They had been in Hilo, Hawaii that fall for training, and now it was time to move on to Lahad Datu, Malaysia where they would be stationed. Momma and Grandmommie flew together to Hilo and spent a day or two there with them. Daddy and I left a bit later and flew from L.A. to Honolulu together, and we had a day there before the others joined us.
What an adventure…when we boarded the plane, they apologized for having overbooked and asked us if we would be willing to give up our seats and move to First Class. That was my only experience thus far with First Class, and it was in the days of china and crystal and excellent food. I already loved fried shrimp, but this was the first scampi I had ever tasted, and I thought it was fabulous. When we arrived in Honolulu, we had an evening to spend and Daddy found Gone with the Wind playing in a theater. We rode the bus to the theater and then went in for the magnificent, overwhelming and tedious (for a 14 year old) experiencing of watching that movie together. Daddy wished he could impart an appreciation for my Southern roots, and this was one more attempt on his part to impress some sense of his past on my California heart.
I shared a room with Grandmommie, and I recall being frustrated with her growing deafness. I believe I was frustrated with a lot of things at that age. I was still reading a lot, and one book I read in that hotel room was In His Steps by Charles Shelton. This was the original source of that now-ubiquitous question, “What would Jesus do?” This little book stirred my conviction, as well as my frustration with my inability to “be sweet” like Momma was always telling me to.
When it was time to go with Chip and Sharyn to the airport and see them off, I told everyone I wasn’t going. I was so unhappy that they were leaving, and felt so angry at being abandoned, and had no words to express it. I just couldn’t go and hug them and control my emotions and act cheerful at the plane. It was the first time I recall making a decision that went against the expectations of my parents, and they didn’t fight me on it. Here's Sharyn and Chip (2nd and 3rd from left) in Lahad Datu with the other three teachers from their school.
I met a girl in one of my classes named Sheila Narens. I don’t recall how we began to be friends, but we slowly discovered how much we enjoyed talking to each other. She was the “woman of the house,” living with her dad and an older brother. Her mother had died some years before. They were Jewish, though not observant. It turned out their home was not very far from our house, so this was the first time I had a friend within walking distance since I had moved away from the Youngs. The first time I visited her room, I was a bit freaked out by the posters on the walls – The Doors “Light My Fire” is one that struck me, and a black and white publicity shot from Casa Blanca. (She introduced me to that classic film.) She had psychedelic black lights, and there was an apartment feel to her upstairs suite. She was by no means a hippie, but she was already participating in the sexual revolution of the ‘Sixties. She must have sensed my innocence because we never talked about her sexual experiences, but I knew she was dating an older guy.
A great thing about my friendship with Sheila is that God used it to provide perspective. Every time I wanted to complain about my situation, I would listen to Sheila’s troubles and think (and sometimes say), “My problems are like nothing compared to yours.” It helped me appreciate that everyone suffers, not just me, and that my pain was not as bad as some other people’s pain. I knew that I did not want to trade circumstances with Sheila. I so appreciated her friendship and support. She was a compassionate heart at a time when I needed one.
Our junior year, we were required to take our physical education class at 7:15 am, so Daddy drove the two of us to school on his way to work. This gave him a chance to observe Sheila and our interaction, and he came to the conclusion that she was “too old” for me. Due to her early loss of a mother, her different culture, and her relative independence, Sheila acted and talked older than I did. He didn’t forbid me to be friends with her, but long phone calls were discouraged. It seemed I was always been told to get off the phone at a tender point in the conversation. So unfeeling of them!
Getting up an hour earlier wasn’t fun for any of us, but I was discovering that I was not a morning person, and the noises I would make when Daddy woke me up in the morning were not cheerful and pleasant. I hadn’t learned to edit myself for the sake of someone else. Still, one morning Daddy shocked me by saying, “You don’t really love me. If you loved me, you would be nicer to me when I wake you up in the morning.” This seemed strange to me, even at that age. He sounded more insecure than I did.
My best friend at Morningside High School was named Barbara Rueckert. She too was missing a parent. Her father had died when she was younger, and her mother and she lived together in a small apartment. She had an older brother and an older sister who had both married and left home. Barbara and I met in choir, at the beginning of our junior year. She noticed something Christian about me, a Bible or other book, and she had been praying for a Christian girlfriend. She and I were both focused on romance and constantly talked about our hopes, dreams and romantic fantasies. We both loved music, and would create collages of song lyrics and phrases that meant something to us.
Barbara attended the Crenshaw Christian Church, a denomination that was historically related to the Churches of Christ, but not close enough to be kosher, so we didn’t visit each other’s churches. I did visit their apartment from time to time, but I never felt comfortable there. It smelled of their cats, and coffee grounds, and felt depressing. Though my mom’s many rules made our home feel somewhat inhospitable to me, I was accustomed to the cleanliness and beauty and order, so it was tough to feel at home in an environment that was not like that. I determined to overcome, with God’s help, my aversion to the difference, so I would not be separated by that cultural barrier from people He wanted me to love. It was a long struggle, but I did improve with practice.
When I thought I was leaving California at the end of my junior year, I wrote a letter of goodbye to Barbara, of which for some reason I have a partial copy.
“Dear Barbara, June 13, 1969
I don’t know. There’s nothing I can say to finish the year right, to say a partial goodbye. You have meant a lot to me. I’ve kind of taken advantage of you, disregarded you, taken our friendship for granted. And friendship has to be protected, developed, cared for. So I’m sorry. I don’t understand closeness between people as much as I’d like to. (Except for the strange kind Sara and Marilyn and I have. Everything is usually understood; but we’re not at all afraid of hugging each other, crying, telling each other we love them. Very unusual.) It’s because of this 12-year-old relationship that other relationships are strange (new) to me.
“With Ed, I really do want him, rather than love him (want the best for him). It’s horrible. I tell God I want what’s best, but I think it’s a lie. The problem is, essentially I think I’m a pretty physical person, and (Stephen will agree) I’ve had too many platonic relationships. But these desires are desires (what I want) and so…? I believe academically that it’s possible to depend on God for security, for love – everything a relationship with a guy potentially has – but I don’t know emotionally how to do it. Also I don’t know yet how to submit completely to God’s will in the problem. And it’s not that I don’t believe God will give me the very best. He will if I let him. It’s a problem of not trusting. Please pray for me to learn to trust and submit to God in this and everything else. I’ll pray for you in the same thing.”
Neither Barbara nor I ever achieved any amount of satisfaction with a boyfriend in our high school days. We only shared the yearning, and our unrequited adoration for our various crushes. She surprised me by staying in touch with me for fifteen years following our graduation. The last time we saw each other, I was disturbed by what seemed to be the lack of growth in her – it felt like she was the same person I had known in high school, though much had occurred in her life, including marriage, that had not happened in mine. At that point I decided to end the relationship. I simply had nothing left to offer.
I had an amazing musical opportunity during high school which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I made a friend named Estrella. She was so full of passion, talent and creativity. She was probably the first artist of my own age that I had known. She and I had several heart to heart talks about her love for her best friend, Krystal, whose mother had thwarted Krystal’s and Estrella's friendship because of E.’s black heritage (though her skin was a very light brown). Her mom was trying to reject Krystal’s own half-black origins. Estrella decided later that she was gay. Though I did my best to explain to her that her deep love for her friend did not necessarily mean she was a lesbian, she believed that it did.
Anyhow, Estrella and another wild hippie chick, Janie Zarchin, and I used to sing in the shower after gym. The acoustics were terrific in there, and E. even brought in her guitar a couple of times. She was left-handed, and no one had ever shown her how to restring her guitar to accommodate that, so she played all her chords upside down. It gave her a unique sound. Janie Zarchin and I also enjoyed playing badminton sitting down on the gym floor. When it would rain and we would have to take gym class indoors, sometimes we were allowed to play whatever we wanted, and she and I preferred sitting to running around, so we would bat the birdie back and forth from a seated position. We thought it was funny.
Estrella was beginning to get some public notice, playing in clubs, and one day she came to me and said, “I need an anti-war song for my album.” Some guy had actually backed her with money and she was making a record. So in a half hour after school, with my carpool waiting for me, she and I wrote an anti-war song. Then she needed one more song for the album and we wrote that. Since this was a genuine business venture, I had to get my mom to drive me to BMI’s huge offices in downtown L.A. so I could join up as a writer. Seven or eight years later, when I decided to join ASCAP in Nashville as a “real” songwriter, I had totally forgotten I was already a member of BMI, and my membership had to be officially transferred.
Estrella was staying with some friends in Palos Verdes when the Renaissance Fair came to Topanga Canyon in the spring of our senior year. She had been to it before, but I never had. We both wanted desperately to make that scene, and here she was stuck on the other side of the Los Angeles basin. My dad had died the year before, my mom was feeling the stress of being my only parent, and we had a big fight about how I was wasting her gas money going all the way to pick up Estrella, and that I was only being used.
She had no idea that I was hoping Estrella’s extreme cool would make me feel more acceptable in the hippie, flower child, far out environment of the Renaissance Fair. At any rate, I did do the deed (perhaps without Mom’s knowledge?) and did have a wonderful time feeling like a hippie for a day. I picked up a little stray kitten at the Fair, and wandered around in my long flowered skirt and hippie blouse and bought love beads and felt spacey. It was great. I wonder if it was that day or another day in high school when I fell in love with the scent of patchouli.
Fast forward twelve years, and I’m the office manager for a jingle company, Hummingbird Productions. We had clients all over the country, and regularly sent out demo reels (yes, brown tape on clear plastic reels in little white boxes…this was before CDs) to more than 3,000 people. One of the agencies in New York that we called on regularly was Young & Rubicam, and one day I got a phonecall from there. It was Estrella! She was the assistant to an advertising executive whose name I knew from all the mailings and my upkeep of the database (on a Lanier “No Problem” Word Processor that cost $10,000 – this was before PCs!). I don’t know how she found me, but she did. She sent me her album (years before I had made one of my own) and I was so excited to hear what she might have done with her musical gifts by now.
Well, I was severely disappointed. It was the ‘Eighties, I was in the midst of the jingle industry, which was all about hype, excitement, attention grabbing, and I was still in my heart a mellow hippie-dippie singer/songwriter type along the lines of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. I did not like hype, noise and metal. So what I was hoping, longing to hear when I played Estrella’s album was her heart. And I didn’t. Instead, I heard a production demo. I heard her showing us that she could do all these different musical styles, and do them well, and her voice was great, and the quality was great, but I couldn’t find her self in it. It made me sad. Of course, looking back, I understand that we were all trying to make a place in the world and that meant making a living, and this was a career for her. But I’ve always been looking for people hearts.
One of Estrella’s best friends in high school was Herbie, a tall, light-skinned black man with a highly flamboyant personality. It was amazing to get to see both of them at our thirtieth high school class reunion, the only reunion I’ve ever attended. Herbie gave me my very most favorite compliment in my high school years: “You’d make a great freak.” Estrella’s comment was, “She doesn’t like it [the drugs], but she doesn’t put you down.”
That reunion…what a scary feeling, anticipating seeing people I hadn’t seen in thirty years. None of the people I had been closest to during high school showed up that night, but Estrella was there, along with other friends of friends, so there were folks to sit with and talk to. The biggest treat of the evening was when the music started and people were getting up to dance. A black guy I had not really known before was sitting at my table. He reached out his hand and said, “Let’s go,” and we had a few of the most fun dances of my life. It had always been my dream to dance with a black guy, since having grown up in Los Angeles I felt that they were the only men who could really dance. Thank you, Mr. Washington, for that tremendous gift.