My Secret Life as an '80s Radical

Kids have it so easy nowadays. Sure, it’s hotter than ever due to global warming but public schools have gone soft. Back in the early 1980s when I was in middle school we had two problems that today’s kids would never have to deal with. First, there was no air conditioning in school and secondly, we weren’t allowed to wear shorts.

It was barbaric treatment, to put it mildly, and I think it’s high time that people heard the real story of why there’s both air conditioning and shorts-wearing in today’s schools.

Our tale begins with a plucky young radical from Marlboro, New Jersey. This man-child was the Norma Rae of his generation. This boy fought the law and, for once, the law didn’t win. Few know the true story of that boy, but I do.

I know the story because I was that young boy.

It was so very hot at Marlboro Middle School, especially in June and double especially when you had art class with Mr. Sharkey on the third floor. Absent shorts, our pant choices were limited to just two bad options: denim or parachute pants.

No one knows where parachute pants came from or where they’ve gone. But for a brief period in the Reagan era they were everywhere. The closest modern approximate is workout pants, but imagine if your workout pants: a) didn’t breathe; b) were fluorescent colored; and c) were covered in pocket-less zippers. Sounds awful? They were. But we had no choice. Parachute pants, rubber bracelets and shoulder pads were in style and we were a docile generation.

You have to understand that things were different back then. Movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” made us fear nuclear war on a daily basis and we were all convinced that Orwell’s 1984 was going to come true on the day after the day after tomorrow. We were obedient kids, well trained to do as we were told, always scared of mushroom clouds and cages full of bitey rats.

But it was so hot. And the girls didn’t care because they were allowed to wear skirts. We begged the teachers and the principals to let us wear shorts. They declined. We asked our parents to intervene. They demurred. We tried to start a blog rally, but couldn’t because the stupid internet wasn’t invented yet. Our situation looked hopeless.

Even the soothing sounds of Howard Jones on my Walkman couldn’t stop me from obsessing nonstop about the heat. And it was so much worse for me than anyone else in the entire world for I was both chubby and a redhead. I had to take action.

I rallied my male classmates and came up with a crazy solution. If they wouldn’t let us wear shorts than we would start wearing skirts to school until they relented! (Actually, we wanted to wear kilts, feeling that they were a more macho option, but none of us knew of any Scottish clothing stores in bicycle range of Marlboro.)

As you can imagine all hell broke loose on the day that we showed up to school in drag. Bear in mind that this was long before emo kids started wearing skinny jeans and eyeliner. Cross-dressing was strictly forbidden and a source of major embarrasment for any upper-middle class suburban school system.

Unsurprisingly, we were sent home that day and threatened with detention, suspension and reprogramming. But the administration was quickly forced to give in to our demands after the news media got involved. Once The Asbury Park Press caught wind of our protest and featured our story on their front page, victory was ours.

In many ways it was the defining moment of my life. A twelve year old boy – not even yet a bar mitzvah! – took on the system and won. And ever since that day shorts have been allowed in every school in America, all due to our heroic efforts.

Sure, they’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock today but what did those hippies ever really accomplish besides deluding themselves that they could think the rain away? We changed everything 16 years ago and you’ve only hearing the story today. We changed the world, man. Where’s my commemorative expanded DVD box set? Where’s my Peter Max poster?

(Legal note: certain aspects of this story may have been slightly altered for entertainment value. The following parts are definitely true: 1) it was really hot at school when I was a kid; 2) I did go to Marlboro Middle School and Mr. Sharkey was my art teacher; 3) I did wear a lot of parachute pants; 4) I did enjoy listening to Howard Jones on my Walkman. The rest may or may not have happened.)

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