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High School Back in the Day

You might find this story unbelievable. Surprising. Even shocking. Yet what I am about to tell you was a common practice in Chicago in the 1960’s, nine months a year, 5 days a week, with no fuss or fanfare. If this was found to be practiced now somewhere in the country, it would be all over the news. You would read about it on the internet, on Facebook, on Instagram, none of which existed at the time. Might go viral. Our president might even find some reason to tweet about it. Times sure have changed. I know I’m not supposed to tell you how to react to a story, so I will leave the rest up to you.

In the early 60’s I was a student at a public high school in the Chicago area. One of the requirements at our school was that students take 2 years of swimming class. Boys and girls had separate classes. No surprises yet? Well, here we go — the boys had to swim in the nude. Buck naked. Au naturel. Naked as the day you were born, stark naked, in your birthday suit, in the buff, naked as a jaybird.

The hardware store was open and the tools were on display. I think you get the point.

What was up with that? In 1926, the American Public Health Association recommended, “At indoor pools used exclusively by men, nude bathing should be required. At indoor pools used exclusively by women bathing suits should be of the simplest type. Suits when used should be of wool or cotton of simple design and of undyed material or tested for fastness of color.” Many Chicago area high schools picked up on this practice. The issue then was related to sanitation and filtration. Neither of those was perfected at the time. The cotton or wool swimsuits shed lint that challenged the filters. (You just can’t seem to find a good wool swimsuit anymore). And chlorination of the water was not perfected to kill all the germs and bacteria and other nasty things that were on boys’ bodies.

And why just boys, why didn’t girls have to swim nude, too? It has been suggested that women were more modest. Or smarter. At some schools, though, girls had their own form of humiliation. Swimsuits were color coded by breast size. If that was my school, I’d be looking for the girls who were bringing home blue swimsuits.

I could stop here with your mouth open and your head shaking side to side, but my personal story makes this even more bizarre.

My swimming coach the first year was, by all accounts and observations, an alcoholic. His name was Coach H. For reasons unknown, we will not disclose his full name. Like he was going to find out about this paper I wrote for instructor Steve H., (last name also withheld). Note: too many people in the story have a last name that starts with H., but that’s further proof that this is either a true story or the writer severely lacks imagination.

My swimming class was first period, early in the morning. Coach H would start the class by calling role, then sending for the hot towels for him to sleep on for the rest of the period. Forget about instruction. It was a free swim free-for-all for 50-60 adolescent boys. Lord help the wimps and nerds who were tormented by the bullies in class, ’cause nobody else was gonna. I did not learn to swim that year.

My teacher the second year was another Coach H. We can call him Coach H2. Or, better yet, given the subject, Coach H2O.

Here’s the best worst part.

Coach H2O was an ex-Marine. He called his classes H’s Commandos. For one of our exercises, the coach would sit at the end of the pool and pretend that he had a machine gun. We were instructed to lie on the tile floor on the side of the pool, and, one by one, slither across the tiles, slink into the water, swim underwater the width of the pool, and slip out the other side, without making a sound or a splash. If you made too much of a ripple, Coach would pretend to shoot you with his machine gun and you had to spend the rest of the class lying dead on the cold, cold tiles. I died several times that year.

Another of coach H20’s punishments was that students who misbehaved were made to bend over at the waist and grab their ankles for an extended period of time. I avoided this consequence as I stayed out of trouble and tried my best to be invisible. A classmate from that era recently reflected to me that this punishment was perhaps perverted. We just did what we were told.

The practice of nude swimming was common in many high schools in the country, but especially in the Chicago area. The recommendation was dropped in 1962, but many schools continued this practice until around 1980. By that time, Title IX of Federal law prohibited the assignment to physical education classes by sex. That would have made this a whole different story. The nude boys would probably avoid doing the backstroke if the class was coed. Up periscope.

Although I died many times, I lived through it and didn’t drown. Sadly, I did not learn to swim. Still can’t swim for shit. When I do go to the river or lake, I jump in the water, sometimes naked even, and flail around, splashing carelessly. I get out of the water and lie dead-like on a hot towel in the sand. True dat.


  1. Kevin March 5, 2020

    Well, this brings back unpleasant memories.
    I was in Rockford, only 90 miles away, and we boys were subjected to the same humiliation.
    I don’t know about pe teachers now, but in those days, they were all ex drill instructors. Which meant they were detested, and ineffectual teachers. If they managed to teach you something about swimming, it was only as an aside: they were too busy making certain you knew how to stand at attention and dress right.
    I’ve never believed the bullshit about the fibers or disease prevention. The suits could have been made of the same, magical fibers as the girls’. And if disease is your justification, that meant subjecting girls only to the danger of infection! For whatever the reason, they wanted us boys nude. (I can only guess there was a gleam in your teacher’s eye as he looked over naked boys bent over, grabbing their ankles!!) I suspect it comes under the general category of “gender roles” as they were propagated in those days, and only as a minor aspect of a societal wide attempt to produce docile males who wouldn’t protest going off to die in LBJ’s fantasy of a commie free Asia.
    I do remember that no one ever questioned why were treated like this. We may have been kids, but we weren’t stupid kids. We knew whatever the adults told us would be self serving bullshit, so we never asked. I thought of it as just one more degradation you had to endure to escape the American educational system. I survived my just not being there. In my mind, I was in some sane, rational universe where you were allowed to wear clothes, like normal human beings. I haven’t been swimming in forty years.
    Still, if I could jump in my time machine and zap back to 1967, I would relish the prospect of confronting the members of the school board and proceeding to rearrange the structures of their crania with a blunt, metallic instrument.

    • Harvey Reading March 7, 2020

      Well, WTF. The above comment was supposed to be on MCT, 03/07/20???????
      I don’t even recall clicking on this story at all.

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