Editor’s Note: Anthony Proveaux, a musician, photographer and writer based in Eugene, Oregon, has shared with me this coming-of-age essay about the social stresses of being a high school freshman in the small Southern town of Summerville, South Carolina, in a time of social upheaval. Enjoy!
Change comes slow to small southern towns like Summerville South Carolina, where I
was born and raised. But in the late 1960s, the times they were a-changin’ fast in our little slice of Mayberry. There, like in most places across America, we sat in front of
our new color TVs and watched a world that was changing too fast for the times. The
nightly newscast regularly broadcast images of unrest across the nation, followed by
stories of flower-power and love-ins, in places like Haight Ashbury and Piedmont Park
in Atlanta. It was hard to tell if the country was coming apart or coming together.
Among youths, there was a definite sense of change in the air. Everywhere, hair was
getting longer, and music was getting louder. Down at the local Tastee-Freez, the new
sounds of Hendrix and Cream could be heard blasting from many of the 8-track
players in the muscle-cars that cruised the loop. And in school, long hair was starting
to challenge the dress-codes. Those were heady days for an impressionable young teen
like myself, and like kids everywhere, I was totally swept up in the current of events.
Of course, the elephant in America’s living room at the time, and source of much of the nation’s angst, was the very real war going on in Vietnam. Our town, like so many other places across the country, had patriotically sent their sons “over there,” but sadly, an increasing number of them weren’t coming home. But I was too young to worry about the dreaded draft notice yet, and I couldn’t make much sense of it anyway.
In the late 60s I was in the thick of the terrible-teens and still learning to navigate the
awkward world of post-puberty ‘boy’s life’. Over the course of a few short years, I’d evolved from science-fair kid with a crew cut, to a mop top teen, tie-dying t-shirts on
the back porch. And the most challenging part of the teenage gauntlet lay just ahead,
as I was about to become part of that great social experiment called high school.
In the fall of 1969, I was a fifteen-year-old freshman at the newly opened Summerville
High. Walking those shiny hallways in the new modern buildings, passing the juniors and seniors that I had mostly only seen in my big sister’s yearbooks, was like entering a brave-new-world. It was also downright intimidating, but I was determined to fit in.
I’d always been a good student with good grades, but by high school my studies had
turned more towards girls, music, and teen trends (in that order). To get girls to
notice you at that age, though, you had to be more than just a bright kid. You had to
either be somebody, and/or be cool. Unfortunately, I was neither. Being a shy kid
from a working-class family, I was three or four rungs down on the social ladder, and
about as cool as a glass of day-old water. I definitely had some branding work to do.
So, in that ninth-grade year I began walking around Summerville High with a copy of
Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in my back pocket, making sure the
title was showing, of course. It was a book I could barely get through. The writing was
way over my head, and I’d never even been properly buzzed on beer, much less done
“drugs.” But the paperback sure had a cool cover, with that psychedelic sugar cube,
and what an awesome title (the K in cool really meant something back then).
That little stunt only succeeded in making me look even more nerdy than I was. I
quickly realized that if I wanted to be cool, I needed to hang out with the cool kids. In
Summerville that meant teens like the Folly Beach surfers, guys that played in bands,
and the college-bound students from the prominent families around town. At the new high school, I noticed that during lunch time the “in-crowd” hung out in the breezeway down by the cafeteria. So, I gradually started lurking around on the fringes of the group, half-hoping I wouldn’t be noticed, but desperately hoping that I would.
Of course, that group of cool guys and classy young ladies had no use for a gangly
ninth grader, hanging around trying to infiltrate their hip little social clutch. No one
was particularly rude to me. Genteel Summerville had good manners, and those with social status were always graciously “stuck-up.” So, I was politely, but totally ignored, save for a few “wtf are you doing here kid” looks from some of the jocksters.
However, there was one dude who noticed me lurking and actually tried to bring
me into the conversation a few times. His name was Rusty Moore, a quick witted
red-headed junior whom almost everyone seemed to like, except perhaps some of the local rednecks.
Rusty even gave me a comeback line once. After some snobby kid cut-me-down about
this hideous paisley shirt I was wearing, Rusty leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Tell him his belt looks like it’s made out of beer can pop-tops” (my antagonist was wearing one of those ‘60s belts made with metal rings). Unfortunately, I totally blew the delivery of the comeback line and just further embarrassed myself. It was a pretty pathetic stab at a touché, but I really appreciated the encouragement from Rusty.
I only lasted a week or so with, hanging with those hipsters. I was way out of my class,
and in Summerville class was still taken seriously. Social relations were generally
amiable in our town. But everyone had their place, from the old family names, on
down to the black folks that lived in clapboard shacks in the segregated checkerboard
neighborhoods around town. Our family was somewhere below the middle of the
social line. My father was a shade too dark for proper Summerville, and he managed a
gas station. There was never any talk of us kids going to college. I was definitely
bumping my head on the class-ceiling, trying to break into those trendy social circles.
Fortunately, a family with several rambunctious and attractive teenage daughters
moved in right across the street, and it wasn’t long before cool dudes were hanging around the neighborhood. My big sister and I soon found our own little tribe, hanging out with those girls and their boyfriends, and other early Summerville “heads” – and oh, the long, strange trippy times we had.
A few years later, when I’d just turned seventeen, my sister and I followed her boyfriend out to California where we hitch-hiked, hopped trains, and bummed around for about a year. Now that was a real education. In the early 1970s, the highways were filled with on-the-road youths of every color and class, out to “Look for America.” I stayed on the west coast, went to college and finally settled down in Oregon as a musician, photographer, and writer (I made my folks real proud – ha-ha).
I never lived in Summerville again, but still have fond memories of growing up there.
Navigating through the perils of high school sticks with us all, and that early incident
of trying to climb my way up the social ladder, always stayed with me for some reason.
I also never got to know Rusty Moore, the kid who threw me a lifeline when I tried to
swim-with-the-sharks. He was a few grades above me, and I left Summerville early on. He’d certainly never remember that insignificant event anyway, but it made an impression on me. So, a shout out to Rusty Moore for a brief moment of mentoring.
by Anthony Proveaux
Here’s a video modern-day Anthony (on harmonica) making music during the quarantine.
And a couple of his photographs.