I don’t know whether kids “get in trouble” anymore. The talk surrounding young people has become so dark and bleak that the concept seems almost quaint. My daughter was never “in trouble” growing up in the 2000’s and 2010’s, and it seemed that those among her peers who were faced difficulties or were involved in things orders of magnitude beyond what the expression used to mean. But, for those of us growing up in a typical American suburb in the 1970’s, “getting in trouble” was the main thing, whether you were seeking it, trying to avoid it, getting someone else into it, or getting yourself out of it. You weren’t facing hospitalization, involuntary commitment, or prison. You were just “in trouble.”
The expression itself is interesting, as it is simultaneously sophisticated and juvenile. On the one hand, the jeopardy described is steeped in metaphor – when one “got in trouble” in this sense, it was understood not to mean what would be meant if the expression was used in the context of a natural disaster, war, or other such context – and on the other, it was uttered in all the unspecified, impressionistic, and ultimately performative ways typical of children. “You’re in trooouuubbllle,” with the last word dramatically drawn out, is not something that adults say to one another.
The Stuff of Trouble
What “got you in trouble”? This varied somewhat, depending on the kids in question, but there were a number of staples, including:
Ring-and-Run: Go to a house in the neighborhood, ring the front doorbell and then run away and watch from a hidden spot. For some reason, the searching and puzzled looks from those who answered were sources of endless amusement. [This could be supplemented by other forms of juvenile miscreancy.]
Throwing Rocks and other Projectiles in a Reckless Manner: This admitted of indefinitely many variations. Grabbing handfuls of gravel from the playground and spinning around as hard as one could, with hands outstretched and open, was a favorite, as was chucking rocks into our local ponds, regardless of the poor ducks and other fauna floating and swimming about. This was one of the riskier pastimes, as it might involve damage to property and enraging whichever adult’s stuff you had messed up. It’s fun as hell to hurl eggs into the darkness during Halloween, but when you hear a Crash! as it breaks someone’s bedroom window, it’s time to go. Ditto for throwing clods of dirt – which often contained small stones – off of a hilltop at cars passing below. [Doing this alongside many others at one of the dozens of Bar-Mitzvahs I went to, when I was twelve and thirteen, resulted in denting a car’s hood, which drew the irate owner to the venue demanding to know who’d thrown it. Luckily, there were about forty of us, more than half of whom had been throwing the stuff, so the offender went undiscovered and undiscoverable.]
Petty Theft: We had five-and-ten stores back in the day – there was a J.J. Newberry’s in our local shopping center – and these provided endless temptations for trivial shoplifting. When I was about six-years old, my mother and I were in the store when I noticed a display of cheap, costume rings with flashy plastic stones. After pocketing one, I made the mistake of admiring the ring on the ride home, whereupon my mother asked me where I had gotten it. I made up a story that a classmate, Monica, had given it to me, and my mother remarked that she’d have to call Monica’s mother and thank her, after which a hasty confession followed, and we drove back to Newberry’s where I had to give it back. Decades later, I found myself on the other end of an almost identical situation, when my five-year old daughter lifted a pack of Lifesavers from our local supermarket. Remembering my own foray into juvenile petty theft, I dutifully took her back to the store to fess up and return the item. Alas, the clerk took one look at her and said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. She can have them!” dashing my hopes for a positive parenting moment.
Everyone has seen the kid throwing a tantrum in a store and having to be dragged, shoved, or fireman-carried out by an embarrassed and incensed parent. Of all the sorts of things that were guaranteed to get you in trouble, making a spectacle of yourself in public when your parents were around might have been Number One.
In the seventh grade, our annual Spring concert featured excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof, which opened with a tricky clarinet part. I was the best clarinetist in the orchestra, but our music teacher, Mr. Sadowski, loathed my friend David and me and gave the part to John Menina instead. He was incapable of playing the part and demonstrated as much multiple times in class, and I warned Mr. Sadowski that he’d blow it and ruin the concert, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Sadowski was going to punish us, and the concert be damned.
The big night arrived, with everyone’s parents and siblings in the audience, and Menina came up to the front of the stage to play Fiddler’s opening notes. As I predicted, it was a disaster: a confused flurry of bad, only partially discernable notes and then increasingly frantic honking and squawking, as he tried to correct it. A horrified silence fell over the entire auditorium, except for David and me, who burst out in loud, raucous laughter, crossing our eyes and pretending to play our clarinets with our tongues sticking out of the sides of our mouths. And since we were First and Second Chairs, everyone could see us.
I don’t remember what happened to David, but when I emerged from the auditorium at the end, my mother took hold of my earlobe, twisted it 90 degrees and pulled me across the parking lot to the car. I now, officially, was “in trouble.”
The Sound of Trouble
Real trouble [i.e. not the kind we’re talking about] has its own distinctive though varying soundscapes – gunshots; explosions; sirens; the howling of hurricane-strength winds; genuine screaming and wailing; etc. – but there really was just one sound of “being in trouble” as a kid, and it was the sound of your parents’ voices. Yelling at you. Or the voices of other people’s parents. Indeed, if you were playing with your friends and were out and about rather than at someone’s house, you could tell who was in trouble based on the audible qualities of the yelling you heard from down the street, across the pond, on your bikes or wherever. My parents originally came from central Europe and had grown up in Israel, so they had pretty thick accents when speaking English. Rather than call me “Danny” with an American sounding ‘a’, then, it came out more like “Dunny,” so when yelling, there was this drawn-out, echo effect that made it hard to tell how far or close they were: Dunnnnyyyy!!! My best friend, David, contrastingly, had parents who had grown up in Brooklyn with accents to match, and their “in trouble” yell was entirely different. Rather than give the impression of being chased by distant, baying hounds, theirs was an angular, sharp yell that snapped at the end, with the vowels shortened to where they barely connected the consonants, making “David!” sound like it was being expelled by a spitting cobra.
Playing Ring-and-Run at my own house [unwise] and turning the garden hose on our poor housekeeper when she would open the door earned me a Daaanyu! You rott’n child! with very American ‘a’s’ and the final ‘d’ disappearing into the ‘il’, but this in itself did not signal getting in trouble, unless it was followed by Dunnnnyyyy!, which meant she had told my mother. Teachers really didn’t yell much in our day, but preferred devastating snark or at least, what seemed as much to eight-, ten-, and twelve-year-olds. Brett Levine messing around in Mr. Cazola’s desk in 6th grade? “Leviiiinnne. Get away from my desk, or I’ll jump all over your fingers!” Mr. Fortunato annoyed at everyone getting up to leave, during our umpteenth fire drill of the year? “Where are you going? We’re right above the boiler. If it goes, you won’t even make it to the door.” And then there was Mr. Hoffman with his stare, which managed to convey incredulity, disappointment, distaste, pity, and contempt all at once. As for administrators – Principals, Assistant Principals, and the like – there was no need to yell, as they would just call your parents who would do the yelling for them. You see, in the 1970’s – and very much unlike today – your parents always took the teacher’s side and never yours.
Other People in Trouble
Seeing other people get in trouble brought with it a great frisson; an intoxicating combination of relief that it’s not you and glee that it is someone else. [It was always the most fun if someone was in trouble, just so long as it wasn’t you.] So delightful was this, in fact, that scheming to get other people in trouble – and especially ones you didn’t like – was a popular pastime. Sneaking over to another kid’s desk when he wasn’t there and defacing his textbook with obscene doodles [or brazenly running over and doing it right in front of him] was a common technique, as the holder of a textbook would have to pay a fine at the end of the year if it was damaged, and since third-graders don’t have any money, this meant one’s parents would be told. Making up rumors was another, though this would become more popular in Junior High, when kids are at the age that they are beginning to care about their social standing. A somewhat “meta” version of this involved making up a rumor that another person was making up rumors, which was not without risk, as I found out when one such effort on my part backfired, and I had to face the ire of our school’s “greasers” [yes, we actually called them that] in a dramatic confrontation in the gym. So, as one entered adolescence, the dynamics of getting in trouble shifted, as one was as likely to get in hot water with peers as with parents.
The 1970’s were not easy years in America. Indeed, they were far less easy than the times we find ourselves in now. Vietnam and Watergate and political assassinations loomed large; a President resigned in disgrace; college students were gunned down like animals by National Guardsmen at Kent State; America’s cities were crime-ridden and filthy and dangerous; the OPEC oil embargo and stagflation crippled the economy; and the Cold War was in full swing. Kids today may grow up with fire or tornado or even “active shooter” drills, but as early as elementary school, we had drills whose purpose was to show us what to do if Soviet ICBMs were heading our way, and even at that young of an age, we understood what that meant. You might survive a tornado or an active shooter, but you would never, under any circumstances, in any possible universe survive a 50-megaton nuclear blast.
And yet, these things barely concerned us kids. On rare occasions, like the days surrounding the airing of The Day After on ABC, the imminent jeopardy of nuclear war broke through our juvenile consciousness, and we experienced real fear. You could hear a pin drop in my school, the next day, after the first episode aired. But overwhelmingly, we were much more worried about getting in trouble, and that kind of tells you everything about how different it was to be a kid then than it is today. While materially, as a matter of fact, we had much more to worry about, we spent our time worrying instead about something that we also knew, in the back of our minds, we really didn’t have to worry about at all.
This might seem confusing or even contradictory, but it indicates the extent to which the worlds of kids and adults didn’t cross very much. Even as young as the first grade, we were largely left to our own devices when not in school, with little to no adult supervision. You “went out” with your friends, roamed the neighborhood on bikes or on foot, went to the corner stationary store to buy comic books or candy, skated and played hockey on the pond when it froze over, entirely sans adults. And in the pre-teen years, when you took the bus to the mall, you’d spend a whole day entirely engulfed in a social world of your peers, with the adults that were there almost disappearing into the backdrop. What mattered was that your parents were not there, and so long as you didn’t engage in any antics that were too extreme and might draw the attention of mall security, what you and the others your age got up to in the mall remained between you and them.
Correspondingly, adults did not impose their concerns on children and adolescents. What they got up to after we went to bed – whether they were at home or out – we didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and weren’t told, aside from “Dinner at ____ with the Barons” and the like. Adults certainly didn’t drag kids into politics or worse, use them as spokespeople in political conflicts, as they do now. In fact, they didn’t look to children or adolescents for political, economic, environmental, military, diplomatic, or any other such guidance. These were adult affairs and not things to burden young people with, and we were quite glad not to be so burdened. Put flatly, our parents lied to and hid things from us and rightly so. Not only because we weren’t up to it, but because they were and understood that they ought to be. We could spend our time worrying about “getting in trouble,” because the grown-ups were the ones worrying about the real stuff and doing everything they could to ensure that we didn’t have to.