Naked in High School: Bad Dreams Do Come True

Commentator Robin Washington recounts a time when students were required to take swimming lessons in school; but at his school, students had to swim naked. Washington is editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn.

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ED GORDON, host:

With high temperatures across the country, it's easy to want to wear as little as possible. But commentator Robin Washington warns, be careful what you wish for. During swimming class in high school, he was required to wear the most revealing and drafty garment of all: his birthday suit.

ROBIN WASHINGTON reporting:

Did you ever dream that you were completely naked in front of dozens of people? I'm reminded of that after hearing the University of North Carolina is getting rid of its swimming requirement. It's one of the last universities to do so.

Good for them, but if Carolina students think their role is tough, they should've been with me in high school, in Chicago, in the 1970s. At dear old Lane Tech, or any public high school, swimming was absolutely required, naked.

What, I can hear most of you saying. And it's a response, you'd get used to if you went to Lane somewhere between the 1940s, or even earlier, until the late 70s.

Glen Galen(ph), who graduated in 1969, started a discussion on the classmates.com message board a few years ago asking why did they do that to us? Actually, we weren't completely naked, you did get to wear a bathing cap. And if you were a beginning, even an inner tube.

My fellow class of '75 alum, Dave Garrett(ph), recalled the rule had something to do with hygiene. Dave and I were both skinny Black kids and members of the Chess Club at the mostly white school. But for once in America, race truly didn't matter.

Everyone was naked before God and each other. All of the boys, that is. Lane Tech didn't become co-ed until 1971, and for the first few years, girls at the school didn't have to take swimming at all. They did at every other public high school in Chicago, and those girls were required to wear bathing suits. Needless to say, the classes were not co-ed.

Though none of us got a straight answer beyond the hygiene thing, I wonder if it wasn't some kind of right of passage. Boys, after all, have gone skinny-dipping for years. But requiring nudity at a public school these days would be lawsuit city.

Nude swimming wasn't limited to Chicago schools, and I bet swim class veterans of a certain age are nodding their heads across the country.

Here in Minnesota, Mike Rosenzweig(ph) said in the 60s, he had to swim stark naked in junior high. On the first day, he said, the gym teacher asked the class, who here didn't bring his birthday suit. Mike raised his hand. And though most of the boys were not Jewish, all except a couple were circumcised.

Mike and his friends couldn't help but stare at the ones that weren't and wondered, what the hell happened to him? Maybe he got it slammed in the door when he was a little baby?

Okay. Somebody has to know why millions of boys across the country were forced to endure such shame. But a Chicago public school spokeswoman just answered, excuse me? Her counterpart in Duluth, Katie Kaufmann(ph), was much nicer. She'd never heard of it either, but she did find a document recording the end of the practice.

It read: Be it hereby resolved, that the Duluth School District include in its 1973-74 budget, an amount that secures a sufficient number of tank suits for the boy's swim program and that the practice of requiring boys to swim nude be discontinued immediately.

A school board member named Mrs. Ruth Myers(ph) added, having to swim in the nude when one does not have a choice is very objectionable.

It certainly was back at Lane, where the school's folklore including the tale of Coach Valentine using a lifesaving pole to remedy an embarrassing moment of a backstroking swimmer. The coach swatted him on the midsection and shouted, get that periscope down.

Though my friend and swim team member Jay Burrell attested to witnessing it firsthand, Steve Davis of Duluth said his school had a similar story. Alright. Maybe that one is an urban legend. But if it is, it proves all of us really were traumatized for life. Anyone know a good trial lawyer.

GORDON: Robin Washington is the editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune.

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