Neill described a school and a way of education based on inspiration and creativity, where children were given real responsibilities and were encouraged to express their differences. No bureaucracy, no rosters of rules handed down from the top, no standardized test scores. No cliques, no popular crowd, no geeks, no losers.
I volunteered with fifth graders that year, inspired by notions of freedom of expression, and went to work soon after in the Memphis ghetto at a Girls Club where I staged plays with 12- and 13-year-old girls who were accustomed to straight rows and teachers who gave them dark looks. We braided each other's hair, sang Bob Dylan songs, wrote poetry, jumped on a trampoline, had sleepovers, worshiped beauty. Every afternoon, we fashioned a little world hidden from the mean streets where girls could look at insects beneath a microscope instead of swatting cockroaches in their crowded apartments, where they could model candles from drips of colored, melted wax. Every evening before the doors were locked, we divided the clean-up duties and together we mopped, swept and took out the trash, readying the Girls Club for the next day.
That year, I abandoned makeup and mini-skirts for ragged jeans and halter tops. I rejected the sweaty clutches of the jock squad and the deliberate depravity of the hard rock crowd, and turned my attention to the intellectuals at my school -- writers, scientists, actors, anarchists, musicians and philosophers all. We had no motto, but if we had one it would have been: buck the system.
We still lived with one foot in the '60s -- not the '60s of rock lore but the '60s of mom at home and dad at work, of dinner around the table every night, of Doris Day and suburbia, television, fresh-scrubbed faces and the flickering hope of abundance -- all of which sweetened the lure of drugs and the sure thrill of abandoning tradition.
One guy I hung out with had a scary bedroom decorated with hanging, headless baby dolls and dominatrix Barbies made up in face paint and black leather. Another guy taught me the textured delight of skipping school, not just to McDonald's but to the next state over -- Arkansas or Mississippi, depending on our moods.
One afternoon, we ate barbecue at a roadside shack with corrugated tin walls on a dirt road off Highway 101 toward Greenville, then returned to school for sixth period. Another day, barefoot and giddy from a lunch of coke and marijuana, we filled our coke bottles with Mississippi River water, corked and traded them and vowed to keep them with us wherever we lived for the rest of our lives. (I lost mine a few years later, when I married, had a child and re-entered the establishment, but that's another story.)
ROTC was still required in Memphis high schools, and that year the underground crowd organized an uprising to take place during a major schoolwide inspection. Brass polished, shoes shined and uniforms crisp, the boys lined up along the cinder track behind our school -- chins up, chest out, and impotent guns raised toward the southern sky, ready for a pack of real officers to inspect their ranks. As the clock approached 3 o'clock, knowing students inside classrooms eased toward the windows for a better view of the field below.
The ROTC drill team, would-be cheerleaders in olive green button-downs, marched ahead of the inspection team twirling flags, their hair pulled back in tight, slick ponytails, metals gleaming off their ample, upraised chests. The real officers saluted the student officers, then penetrated the long, double row of uniformed boys.
At exactly the second the minute-hand hit 12, a sharp yell went up, guttural and military-inflected. Guns flew into the air and a roaring whoop erupted from the troops. Hats went flying. Smirking greasers unbuttoned their top buttons and swaggered toward their cars to smoke cigarettes or dope. From the open windows of the school, hoots and hollers meshed with the chaotic yelping below.
The organizers jumped up and down, exchanging high-fives. The brass stood dumb-founded. Teachers fluttered toward the windows, herding wayward students back to their seats.
It was a moment of perverse glory. For a few minutes, it was the end of school as we knew it. I will never forget it, for as long as I live.