Updated: Sep 9, 2020
by Gary Newton.
Septuagenarians get “social distancing." Some of us practiced it — pre-corona — 57 years ago at junior high school dances.
Back then, Deputy Principal for Discipline Miss Pilchard was responsible for the maintenance of safe distances. Miss Pilchard was perfect for a role that involved abrupt authoritarian interventions. With her stern demeanor, dowdy dress, and sturdy frame, she was our Nina Khrushcheva.
The real Miss Pilchard was undoubtedly a good person and a committed educator, but the Cold War was white hot and my mind addled by Mad magazine, so I caricatured her as a Commie.
Sorry. The real Nina Khrushcheva was said to be savvy, cheerful, and charming, though it couldn't have been easy going through life with a man who reportedly banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations. A partner with anger management issues wasn't her only worry; Nina had to stand side-by-side with Jackie Kennedy on State occasions. A no-win situation. We were all dowdy by comparison.
Miss Pilchard surveilled the dance floor for students not maintaining proper social distance. When a song like “Louie Louie" was cued up and the gym floor writhed with fast, no-contact dancing — the Jerk, Pony, Swim, Hully Gully — she was relaxed but wary. When Bobby Vinton's “Blue Velvet" was cued up, Miss Pilchard went on high alert. That's when certain couples dared to do, heaven forbid, The Wraparound, a slow dance that involved high-contact hugging and swaying in place. An outbreak of The Wraparound was inevitable on a dance floor full of coursing hormones. That's Amore.
You could hear Miss Pilchard before you could see her — even over Bobby Vinton's pining. The crenulated soles of her utilitarian deputy-principal-for-discipline shoes made a tell-tale squishy sound as she approached, holding her ruler aloft.
The ruler was Miss Pilchard's disciplinary tool of choice. A safe physical distance in 1963 was deemed to be the length of a 12-inch ruler. Not sure who did the deeming — perhaps Masters and Johnson. If Miss Pilchard pitched up next to you with the ruler, there was no need for her to say a word, not even a nyet; we'd un-wrap and revert to dancing at arms-length.
Friends who attended Catholic school and went to C.Y.O dances report that The Wraparound problem and its dreaded sequelae was addressed not with a secular ruler but with a put-the-fear-of-God-in-you admonishment. Brothers at St. Joe's on monitoring duty would approach couples dancing at an unholy distance and request them to, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit." The idea that some unseen something or someone would budge its way between you and your heartthrob was positively creepy, to a Unitarian anyway.
Social distancing in the Blue Velvet era was a precautionary practice to prevent what exactly? The Wraparound was a stepping stone on a path of misbehavior and canoodling that would lead to utter depravity — or worse, detention?
Was this a slippery slope situation like the one in the film “Reefer Madness" where marijuana led directly to heroin?
In 1963, we practiced safe behaviors because we were told to by someone in authority with a ruler: We waited two hours after eating before swimming; never got into a Corvair driven by the first kid in the class to get his license; kept Jiffy Pop at arm's length when puncturing the foil; chewed Dentyne after a meal if brushing wasn't feasible.
In 2020, septuagenarians practice social distancing because we know it reduces the risk of transmitting or contracting the coronavirus. Violate the 6-foot rule and there could be hell to pay.
Our beloved Balkanized nation is reeling and groping its way through this pandemic. What we need are Deputy Principals for Discipline to get us on the straight and narrow. Deploy them to communities rife with indiscipline to nudge us towards compliance with social distancing, face covering, hand washing, and, someday, God willing, vaccination. Pilchards with rulers and nyets will help end this pandemic and make the nation safe again for The Handshake, The Hug, and The Wraparound.
Author's note from Gary Newton, who grew up in Needham: “Solid sources — one for the ruler and a couple for the Holy Spirit — corroborated the gist of this recollection. Many of the details come under poetic license. The deputy principal's name was changed to protect an honorable educator."