For the last 28 years, I have spent every working day surrounded by teenagers–teaching them, learning from them, observing them, enjoying them, and yes, occasionally even complaining about them. In some ways, I think they have accelerated my aging process with their boundless energy and endless, exhausting capacity for finding trouble and trying patience. But in other ways, I think they have also kept me young with their fresh perspectives, their innate silliness, and their unabashed opinions. (While I have no desires–or hopes–of mimicking their fashion trends, I can be sure that if I look or act too much like an “old lady,” I will hear about it via behind-my-back snickers in the hallway.)
Adults who have little real contact with teenagers find it easy to gripe about “these kids today” with their loud music, their short shorts, their obnoxious attitudes, and their self-centered interests. But wait a minute. Those of us who know them better realize they are not that different from every other generation of teenagers who have come before–including our own generation.
One thing is for certain. Being surrounded by young people–listening to them talk and laugh about their interests and activities, watching them interact with their friends and their world–frequently sends me tottering down Memory Lane, back to a time when my music was just as loud, when my shorts were even shorter, and when my world revolved around nobody but ME.
It was 1970 something.
Okay, technically, my early “formative” years were spent in the 1960s, but those were the years when my parents were in control of everything–I played with their friends’ children, I ate (or, more often, stubbornly refused to eat) the food they put on my plate, I listened to their music (which is why I still know the words to every Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash song), and for the most part, I did what they deemed I should do. Those years were certainly important, but the real “making of me” took place in the 1970s when I was able to form my own opinions and make my own choices.
Music That Made Me Want to “Get Down”
Saturday mornings in the ’70s were spent boogying in front of the living room TV to all the latest tunes featured on American Bandstand. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but in the early part of the decade, I was a full-fledged, tittering “teeny bopper,” alternately swooning to Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl” and “Puppy Love” and jiving to The Jackson Five’s “Rockin Robin” and “ABC.” They were IT–until the Bee Gees came along with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (those Gibb brothers were such foxes!). Later in the decade their good looks and sweet harmonizing helped create the disco craze and helped rocket that hunk John Travolta to instant fame in Saturday Night Fever.
Before that, though, my musical tastes had expanded to include Three Dog Night (singing about that wine-drinking bullfrog, Jeremiah), Chicago, Styx (“Come Sail Away”), and of course, the Eagles–“Witchy Woman,” “Take It Easy,” and “Hotel California” are still some of my all-time favorites. But I got “totally stoked” on Queen; I was singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before Wayne and Garth, and I remember bellowing and stomping to “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” at our high school basketball games. And then, toward the end of the decade when I went off to college, I was groovin’ to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and belting out Meatloaf‘s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (but don’t tell my kids that!).
Movies and the Gorgeous Men Who Starred in Them
I vaguely remember watching The Godfather and being mesmerized by its brutality and that new guy, Al Pacino. Even more, I remember being terrified by The Exorcist, which came out when I was in junior high–but I also remember the movie was nothing compared to the book, which I had stayed up all night reading cover to cover because I was too scared to stop and turn off the lights. Like everyone else in the movie theater, I jumped out of my skin while watching Jaws, and I was entranced by the original Star Wars with its star Luke Skywalker and his sidekicks R2-D2 and C-3P0.
But young Luke couldn’t hold a candle to some of the older (but still young at the time) leading men of the ’70s. Eastwood and Pacino were hot (or, as J.J. Walker would put it, “Dy-no-mite!”), and even Burt Reynolds was decent (this was before he turned sleazy and creepy). My personal heartthrobs, though, were Paul Newman (oh, those blue eyes!) and Robert Redford (oh, those blue eyes! that gorgeous smile! that golden face!). I’ve never been a big fan of westerns, but to this day I still love watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for its abundance of beautiful “scenery.”
TV-Watching in a One TV Household
Most households in the 1970s had only one TV, and ours was no exception. We had access to only a few channels, and cable was a luxury that only the town kids knew about. There was no remote. My dad dictated what we watched, so every Tuesday night during the early part of the decade we settled in front of the TV with our bowls of popcorn and cups of Kool-Aid (no sodas for us–those were for special occasions only) and tuned in to Gunsmoke and the lives of Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty, and Festus. That was bad enough, but Thursday nights were even worse when I gagged on the sticky-sweet goodness of The Waltons (“Good night, John Boy!”). Good grief.
But there were some great shows, too–at least in the mind of a teenage girl. I laughed at Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati and the sweathogs on Welcome Back, Kotter. The Fonz was cool on Happy Days, and M.A.S.H.‘s Hawkeye, Radar, and Trapper provided my first (albeit limited) knowledge of the Korean War. I was even entertained by Starsky & Hutch, especially since my classmates had nicknamed the security guards at school after the crime-fighting duo. Best of all, if I could sneak out of bed and turn the volume down really low without my dad waking up, I could enjoy the risque humor of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curten, and Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live (I just had to be careful not to laugh too loudly).
“Far Out” Fads and Fashions
Mood rings were one of the biggest fads of the 1970s, and I wore one–as did all my friends–and swore by its authenticity. I had a lava lamp on my bedroom dresser and a Rubik’s Cube on my bookshelf (tossed there after months of wasted attempts to solve the dang thing). One of the craziest fads of my generation was “streaking”–a fad I never participated in (I swear!), although I had several friends who did (my lips are sealed).
For most of the decade, bell bottoms and hip huggers ruled my fashion world–accessorized, of course, with a wide, white plastic belt. Some of the bell bottoms were so big we called them “elephant legs,” and I remember them getting caught in my bicycle chain with disastrous results! I also remember begging my mom for a pair of Levi’s (EVERYBODY was wearing them), but she refused to buy them because $16 was way too much money for a pair of jeans! That was one of my first purchases when I got a job, and my mom still threw a fit–especially the following summer when I cut them off and raveled the edges to make jean shorts.
Mini skirts and short shorts couldn’t have gotten much shorter. In fact, in junior high my friends and I wore a dress called a “sizzler”–so short that it came with its own pair of matching undies! Toward the end of the decade hemlines started inching downward, and I thought it was a “grody” trend that would never catch on (thank goodness I was wrong!).
Hairstyles were simple–long, straight, and parted down the middle–until 1976 when bombshell Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit poster made all the guys “spaz out,” which in turn required all the girls to attempt her “feathered back” look with varying degrees of success (although it was much easier to try to emulate the hair than the body!).
Free-Time Fun: “Can You Dig It?”
Like most of today’s girls, I spent a lot of my free time back then talking on the phone, listening to music, and hanging out with friends. The difference? Cell phones hadn’t even been imagined, so a private conversation with cutie pie from study hall meant stretching the kitchen phone’s cord all the way down the hallway to where it just barely reached behind my bedroom door–and after ten minutes my dad would be yelling for me to get off the phone.
Listening to music meant putting albums on the record player at home or popping eight-track cassettes into the tape deck in the car–unless it was late at night, which meant listening to groovy, gravelly-voiced disc jockey Wolfman Jack on the radio!
My favorite summer pastimes were playing softball and working on my tan. Softball was the one sport unaffected by my short stature–in fact, I frequently had the highest on-base percentage in the league (not because I was a slugger–far from it!) because I was so short and left-handed that pitchers had a hard time pitching to me. Once I got on base, I was fast enough to steal, and my speed also came in handy in the outfield where I usually played “short center” (on a 10-person team). As for tanning, I would coat myself with baby oil and spend the entire day lying on a towel in the back yard or on the roof. UVA, UVB, SPF? Never heard of ’em.
Once I got my driver’s license, the real fun began. Every Friday and Saturday night I joined the line of cars “cruising” the strip–from A&W North to A&W South and back again (and again and again), with occasional stops in the Pizza Inn parking lot for a little flirting and a lot of silliness. I had a muscle car–a 1971 442 Cutlass convertible, sapphire blue with white hood scoops and white interior–that drew a lot of male attention, so my girlfriends and I always took my car. And a few times I drove that 442 to a certain straight stretch outside of town where its 455 engine guaranteed I never lost a quarter-mile race. I stopped racing when I realized a tire blow-out at 120 mph would probably not be a good thing; I had also realized that boys who were attracted to a little blonde thing in a big, fast car were NOT attracted to a little blond thing who BEAT them (one of the few times I yielded to the fragile male ego).
My Local World and Beyond
What a bummer! It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school and filling out financial aid papers for college that I realized my family of five was living below the poverty line. It says a lot about my parents’ ability to provide for us and to “stretch a dollar” that I had not realized until then just how poor we were. I knew there were a lot of “things” I wanted but couldn’t have (Levi’s, braces, contacts, one of those new hand-held hair dryers), and I knew I was horribly embarrassed every time my mom shopped at a yard sale (I hid in the car)–but I also knew I was well fed and all my needs were being met.
In 1970 the average gas price was .36 a gallon; in 1979, it was a whopping .86! My dad owned a service station, and when I began driving in 1976 I remember there were times when “gas wars” with the new self-serve stations dropped the price to an unbelievable .29 a gallon. I also got my first job in 1976–carhopping at A&W–and earned the minimum wage of $2.30 an hour, which was just slightly less than the $2.50 it cost me to buy a movie ticket but more than enough to buy my lunch (a buck would get me 3 coney dogs, 3 tacos or 2 ham and cheddar sandwiches!).
I get frustrated with today’s high schoolers because most of them are so unaware of and disinterested in the world around them. But back in the ’70s, I was no different. (In fact, my generation was the first to be labeled the “Me Generation,” known for our self-absorption.) I watched the news only when forced, and my knowledge of events outside our small city was usually limited to whatever information some well-meaning teacher attempted to share. What a shame, since there were a lot of world-changing events going on. The Watergate scandal erupted in 1972, the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, and Nixon resigned in 1974 (now, I do remember watching that on TV). I remember campaigning for “Save the Whales!”; I also remember the older women at work sobbing on the day in 1977 when Elvis died. And I’ll never forget the shock of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978.
I have so many more vivid memories of growing up in the 1970s–most of them good, some of them not (like the choking haze created by my chain-smoking parents and the emotional devastation created by an on again/off again relationship with my high school sweetheart). Occasionally I have students ask me if I wish I could be their age again; I think they believe every old person would jump at the chance to be young once more, but my answer is always an unequivocal NO WAY! No matter how difficult being “old” can sometimes be, it’s a whole lot easier than being young!
I’ll take naps over drama any day.