Polytechnic High School



“Those Were The Days”

by Mario J. Barrios

A few weeks ago a friend of many years sent me this beautiful, beautiful essay by Robert Zimmerman about San Francisco and Polytechnic High School back in the 1950’s, the time when I attended Poly. I was so moved by what I read that I could not help reliving that happy and yet painful period of my life. Feeling grateful, I rushed to send my friend a thank you note, but found myself instead writing uncontrollably, with words pouring out of me like a bunch of frightened wild birds bursting out of an open cage.

Earth Angel by The PenquinsAs I read the essay, I felt as if it had all just happened recently, maybe no more than a year ago or so – it all seemed so fresh, so alive…the roar of the crowd booming out of Kezar, the sticky smell of burnt Crisco smoking out of that little greasy-spoon next to the school, the catchy melody of “Earth Angel” or the contagious laughter of one’s friends hurrying between classes. I often wondered what happened to a lot of those folks who were my friends and schoolmates back then, even though, I am sad to say, I did not have too many. After it was all over, I felt a big relief to get past those turbulent years, as if I had survived a major storm. Yet, I also think of them melancholically, wishing I could relive those days again.

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

In the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” (another flick that catches the temper of the 50’s quite well, but from a somewhat different angle than “American Graffiti”), Peggy Sue was lucky enough to relive her teens in the 50’s. The big question the movie raises is: Does she repeat her life of the past or does she make different choices? What would you do, my friends? But then, that would be playing God, wouldn’t it?

Well, I sure wish I could step into my past again and redo certain things that I often wondered about. For one, I would not choose Poly as my high school, sorry to inform you, you diehard Poly lovers. I remember that bad-mouthing the wimps at Lowell, our sports rival, was a favorite Poly pastime, but I know a lot of guys, a bit like me, who went to Lowell and actually graduated, unlike me. Plus that ugly red-brick building was right in my ‘hood, about three blocks away – no Muni rides and an easy walk home for lunch. But I wanted to be “cool” and crash the “jumps” on the weekends, so I went to Poly.Pegge Sue Got Married

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

Had I stayed in Poly (wow, I dropped out before the end of my sophomore year), I would have graduated with the class of ’57, or maybe ’58, along with the author Bob Zimmerman, who was a big jock and football star at the time, so I was told. Don’t quite remember him then, but I do remember another jock and football star who used to go around bullying lower classmates while dangling the “P” block on his white cardinal sweater…Cool, cool.

As for George Seifert, he came to Poly a couple of years after my time. He often got his name spread all over the school paper (The Poly Parrot) and in the City papers as well. The jocks, they had it made, particularly the football stars. They were kings of the hill – got all the cool chicks, first crack at getting calls for part-time jobs, sugar-coated referrals to coveted colleges and universities, plus the special assignments allowing them to miss classes and harass any one caught on the hallways during class times, to name a few. Nowadays, I suppose, they would be the bad guys featured in “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

Another prominent figure of that time, at least among my friends, was the Dean of Boys, a big and intimidating figure. When he sent for you, it was usually that something was wrong, most probably one’s doing. It seemed like he was always hell bent on getting every square peg, like me, out of the campus on the first infraction. One day he came to get me out of class (I still tremble at the thought), everyone watching as I left with a crimson-red face, and once outside he grabbed me by the neck and pushed me all the way to his office. He made no effort, as I recall, to find out the reasons or causes why a boy was not up to snuff…you either shaped up or got shipped out.

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

As for the rides to the beach and back during lunchtime, I don’t remember ever doing that, but then again, I was not part of the privileged class.  In 41 Pontiac coupefact, my first rides in automobiles didn’t happen until I was 18 and in my own car, a ’41 Pontiac coupe, which I bought for $75 with my very first paycheck from my very first full-time job.  Man, that was freedom, accomplishment, success, paradise, a purpose for living and doing something with my life.  All I needed then was a hot date to rumble with in the back seat.  But a hot date was a lot harder to get than a car, and couldn’t be had for $75.  Unfortunately, a buddy of mine wrecked the car soon after I bought it and way before I ever got a chance for that hot date.

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

The one person that was always in his car and seldom seemed to exercise was the football genius and P.E. teacher, creator of many heroes and school trophies. We’d be huffing and puffing, keeping our livers from bursting out of our guts while running from Stow Lake, when suddenly he would drive by with his loud speaker booming “You got three minutes, Barrios, or you are staying after school.” At other times, he would have us line up in the Boys’ Gym, barking out exercise drills while sitting on his duff, with one of his pets in an Adonis body and a block “P” on his shorts, showing us “how do it right.” If you didn’t do it right, you’d be doing push ups after school. Remember that?

Ohh, yes, those were the days, my friends.

I suppose one could say that things are different now, more enlightened, more caring. In today’s schools we caress the soul as well as nourish the brain, while trying to figure out what’s aching the student when he or she fails. But, are we better off for it? Are our schools achieving better results with the schooling of our kids? And, is our society as a whole better off? Probably ‘yes’ in some ways, and definitely ‘no’ in others. You readers are smart enough to figure out which are which.

The one thing I know for sure, from experience, is that it would be a lot easier for a non-conforming boy like me to succeed in school these days. Not necessarily because schooling has been dumbed down considerably, but because of the different options that weren’t around back then. Things like alternative ed, independent studies, charter schools, 4/4 programs, ROP, college prep academies, and a few more. It’s no longer either college prep or trade school, no longer do or die in one mold or the other.

Now, these are the days, my friends.

Sometime in the late 60s I went back to Poly, not as a student but as a substitute teacher. What I saw shocked and saddened me a bit. It was easy to sense that it was no longer the thriving school that it been during my time. It was no longer the showcase of high school sports and trade prep with ties to private industry. It seemed as if it had fallen out of grace with the powers that be. It wouldn’t have surprised me then to see “Mr. Daddy-o” (Glenn Ford) being chased out of a classroom like a scene from “The Blackboard Jungle.”

Too bad that some of the Poly famous alumni, especially the big sports figures, did not step up and come to its rescue before it closed. But then maybe it was meant to be since a brand new high school had been built at the bottom of Twin Peaks, plus school enrollment was declining at that time, mainly because of “busing,” the panacea of all our social ills.

As I walked to my car at the end of that day, I ran into one of my old Jamie Escalante "Stand and Deliver"teachers who seemed to have resigned himself to finishing his last days there, but no longer with that enthusiasm of a Mr. Tibbs or a Jaime Escalante. Then suddenly he said to me: “Mario, you have to have a big heart to succeed here. It’s no longer just brains or brawn like in the old days.” Gee, I always liked that man, always a fair and perceptive person.

Yes, those were the days, my friends.

Not long thereafter Poly was closed for a number of reasons and the buildings were all razed, except for the two gymnasiums. Yes, there is no longer a Poly, no more series of hodge-podge structures resembling a barrack instead of a temple of learning, no more dark hallways with the exterior yellow brick façade, no more noisy young people streaming out of the buildings at 3 pm, dying to light up a Camel, but then, as we old Polyites know all too well, how the memories linger on…and on…and on…and on.

Yes, those were the days, my friends.




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