When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools

swimmingnude

At a time when teens expose lots of flesh, it will probably surprise a few of you that high school boys used to swim in the nude when everyone else was much more “covered-up” than today. That practice happened in many places, but it was routine in the (CPS) Chicago Public High Schools in the middle of the last century. Research suggests it stopped at some time in the 1970s, but this post isn’t about how long it lasted. It is about the effect on those of us who lived the experience.

The privacy concerns of today were then unknown. Social Security numbers that would open the door to identity theft in 2014 were unprotected by most people 50 years ago. So, too, were the nude bodies of teen males from about age 13 to 18. It was part of what was called physical education (PE), but the lessons of this particular class were perverse.

We followed orders. We didn’t question it the way one might today. Our fathers, many of whom had been subjected to the same expectation, didn’t ask about it either. I don’t remember having any conversations with my folks or my friends, the latter until many years later. Then the injured skeletons finally popped out of the pool closet.

Organized nude male exercise dates as far back as Ancient Greece. Socrates talks about it in Plato’s Republic and even suggests at one point that male and female potential “guardians” of one’s ideal municipality should be required to work out together buff naked! At least nothing like that happened at Mather High School or elsewhere in the CPS system. Physical education wasn’t co-ed. The young ladies wore unattractive “tank suits” covering crucial parts. Males alone followed the drill sans a bathing suit and did so out of the sight of anyone but their classmates and the teacher.

Believe me, for some people I knew, just standing around nude in the confines of a cold swimming area was bad enough without an audience. Let’s start with the fact that you’d just come out of a shower warmer than the air and water in the “pool room.” The swimming area was tiled. Sitting at pool’s edge or on tile benches always felt like squatting on blocks of ice. Teeth chattered. That was just the start.

Once fully in the water, of course, brought relief from the ease with which others could inspect your “equipment.” There were always some kids who were “advanced” in this department. Others could rightfully have been called “developmentally delayed” in terms of secondary sexual characteristics like pubic hair. There were size differences, too. Comparisons were both inevitable and impossible to avoid, although most of the boys tried to be discreet about it.

Embarrassment came to those targeted by bullies, as their successors surely do today too, especially from the “big guys” who had no problem in any area of growth and enjoyed a little sadism. Mocking occurred, egos crumbled like cookies. These were the stories uttered for the first time (in my non-professional experience) by classmates I saw at the 40th Class Reunion. For a few, the memories remained painful. Young men are enormously insecure in the sexual development and attractiveness department. An entire class devoted to seeing nude bodies of your classmates could only turn out badly for some.

I wonder what the teachers were thinking, not to mention the school administrators who sanctioned this practice. I’ve heard it said that some claimed it was a matter of cleanliness. Or perhaps, somewhere way back, someone had read about Ancient Greek physical ed. and thought it sounded great. “It will make men out of them, maybe even the next Achilles” he must have been thinking.

The eventual decision to require swim trunks might have been the result of increasing concerns over discrimination bubbling up in the 50’s and ’60s about other things, notably race and eventually gender bias. Since only the boys had to swim nude, it was the male gender being disadvantaged. I really don’t know with certainty why the course changed. Surely it didn’t end all at once everywhere that it was happening in the USA.

Nor must anyone who required male nudity have considered the excruciating circumstance it must have created for gay teens at a time before the word “gay” meant anything but being jolly — when custom permitted more pejorative and degrading names for those kids with a predilection for same-sex relationships. And remember, teen-aged boys have enormous difficulty controlling the automatic arousal that can happen anytime, anywhere.

That reminds me of Mae West, a femme fatale of early talking movies. She commented to an attractive male, “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” But I’ll tell you from personal experience that erections often happen to 16-year-old males at the most inopportune moments. I find it rather ironic, in light of the overwhelming number of commercials for middle-aged men with problems of sexual performance these days.

To end, here’s  a story I was told by someone who saw it happen in another CPS swim class. Doubtless it wasn’t the only one of its kind. The teacher wanted someone to demonstrate the back float. The first couple of kids were chosen at random, but couldn’t manage the task, frustrating the instructor. “Hey Murray, you’re the finest swimmer here, show these guys how it’s  done,” he finally barked. Murray tried his stalwart best and did, indeed, display the ideal back float form for the 30 or so fellow-students assembled around him.

There was only one problem for good-old Murray. In the middle of everything, the poor Murray-meister had an erection that popped up like the opening of a switchblade, automatic knife. No sooner did it appear, than one of the class wags yelled out, “Up periscope, Murray!”

23 thoughts on “When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools

  1. In my days as a newspaper editor, there was one word that brought so much angst for those in my position. Whenever we saw it in an article we were editing, we would always read the word slowly, ensuring *all* the letters were present, because it could have terrible results. That word? “Public.”🙂 Just one missing letter changed the meaning *a lot*. So, of course as my training dictated, I slowed down when reading your essay and spotted the word “public.” Ironically enough, the “L” should have been banished when you speak of secondary sexual characteristics. 🙂 And as Sheldon pointed out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3gQm24DJ5w

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  2. As a younger teacher with 10 years under my belt in the current climate of mollycoddling, self-esteem buoying, cliched “participation” trophies on field day, heightened sensitivity to anything that smacks of “bullying,” rampant enabling and excuse-making and pesky helicopter parents–so much of the “old school” way blows my mind, naked swimming included. Or the fact that my father-in-law was the “paddle guy” at a local elementary school as recently as the early 80s. Or my own memory of my 3rd grade teacher, who maniacally dumped the contents of my desk all over the floor (because it was messy) while berating me in front of the class. When I imagine how any one of these scenarios would play out in the middle school where I work, it’s laughable, preposterous, and grounds for a serious witch hunt replete with local news broadcast and viral video on YouTube. I’m not prepared to argue whether one or the other is better–it seems a lot of unnecessary humiliation could have been avoided by a simple round of swim suits, for example. I’m just saying, my how things have changed!

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  3. No doubt the pendulum has moved a great deal — with some serious and unfortunate consequences outside the pool. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. We didn’t have swimming in our school curriculum (no pool) but we did have showers. The first completely unclothed adult male I ever saw was our gym teacher who would sometimes shower with us at the end of class. Today I look back and think that was pretty creepy but at the time my reaction to seeing that sagging, pot-bellied, patchy-haired form was, “Yeesh, that is gross…”

    An image still burned in my memory.

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  5. Thank you Dr Stein. Here is my experience, and I address it also to people who have been harmed by the practice – you are not alone! – and to those who tell us that times were different then and nobody minded. Rubbish.

    When my mother was young, she heard that the best school in our area was Manchester Grammar School, that it was very hard to get a place. She told me she dreamed that she’d have a son who got a place there.

    When I was 11, I passed their exam. A boy told me that I shouldn’t go there – “My cousin goes there and they make him swim with nothing on”. The culture of working class Manchester was very much that you kept your clothes on, and I made it clear to my parents that I didn’t want to go.

    Rather than give up her dream for a child’s insecurities, Mum and Dad spent the Summer trying to reassure me. Other adults helped them, by recounting how they had sons there and it was OK, or they’d been swimming at the YMCA and it was OK. I wasn’t reassured: I clammed up.

    When we went for induction at the school, one kid stuck his hand in the air and asked “What colour swimming trunks should we bring?” The reply was “You don’t wear swimming trunks in our pool” and dead silence fell. As someone said years later, all those boys so disempowered.

    On the day of the first lesson, I recall waiting, scared stiff. I recall eventually taking my towel off and feeling a sort of speechless paralysis. The lessons turned out to be worse than I’d imagined, held in a freezing cold baths that smelled like a urinal. At least one of the teachers – as has appeared in the national press – had no business being around children. Imagine that – paedophiles gravitating to where the naked children are! I said nothing at home.

    Had you asked me about the swimming in my 20s, I’d have said only that I disliked it. Years later, a man who’d been at the school walked into Mum’s shop and started talking to her about it. She said it was just conversation, but I expect a man who starts talking about such an experience, to a stranger, is himself troubled.

    After Mum mentioned this conversation to me, over the next few days feelings I’d suppressed for years burst through. It was a devastating experience, one I didn’t know could happen. Shame, grief, and an anger I’d never felt before. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, a man friends and colleagues have always had down as a tough character.

    I confronted Mum, who was appalled and apologised. But she couldn’t understand why I hadn’t made it clear how much I’d hated it. To some degree, nor can I, but how could a child overcome all those adults who thought all he needed was more and more reassurance? Nor had Mum, who’d known I was panicking about the lessons, asked me after the first one how it had gone. I guess she didn’t want to find out.

    Eventually, my relationship with Mum broke down. She argued herself into the point where she hadn’t made a mistake and I should have said and so on. Effectively, the apology was taken back, behind my back, and I found out about it. A sad end to her dreams, and I wonder if anyone could possibly have gained anything from being forced to swim without his trunks, that outweighs the damage done in this one family..

    WordPress.com / Gravatar.com credentials can be used.

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    • Your account is extraordinary in its understated power, David. Thank you for posting it. Your essay requires no further comment, except to agree that this practice was not one from which anyone gained anything.

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  6. We swam in the ‘bare’ all through school and I was on the Y swim team for a short period of time in Junior High. I do not remember any issues whatsoever. Swimming in the bare though was easy since most of us grew up swimming in our farm’s reservoirs & creeks with nothing on. And seeing older boys and grown men like our dads and coaches in the raw was also common. So, I really don’t know how to understand this fear of being naked around other men as is described in this article. But I do know it is a problem with these current generations of men. Very sad. I wonder if how I grew up was the reason why we had no issues at all.

    I think one of the most memorable lessons growing us was when in 7th grade we had our first year of serious PE with uniforms and mandatory showers. It took about 2 days for the coach to teach us how to dress out, get our school clothes in our assigned locker and be on the gym floor within the required number of minutes and then how to get undressed, showered and dressed in time for our next class also in the required time. Both coaches also showed us how to take a full shower in the least amount of time and still smell good enough for our next class teacher.

    I do remember that there was some altercation in the shower in the first week or two when in response the coach lined all 40 of us in the bare in front of the showers. He laid into us about teasing each other about our penises which I guess had just happened in the shower. Anyhow, he gave us the riot act and made us look around at each others crotches and firmly planted in our heads that the most important thing was that we were all male, that we will all be married and have children some day, and if our stuff worked, then that was what mattered. I never forgot that lesson.

    Interesting thing was that we not only didn’t tease anymore, we all had a strong sense of protecting each other in the crotch area. It was a big deal if one of us got hit there during a game for all of us rallied to his aid no matter what we were doing.

    Even if these current generations of men are sadly insecure in their manhood, I’m very glad I raised our six sons to be comfortable around each other and me. I even forced them to shower after PE and practices at school even if they were the only one to do so. All six are very confident as men. And now their sons are showing the same manly confidence as they are entering their teenage years.

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    • Thanks for this wonderful memoir, Will. And congratulations on how you raised your children. I think you’ve answered the question you posed. It may be that the community you lived in, your parents, and the great PE teacher you described knew something the rest of us missed. Bravo!

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  7. greg dpsulding

    Maybe that’s why I don’t cover up in the locker room at the gym….I loved swimming nude and still do every time I can…

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  8. I remember just turning 14 when I started as a freshman at Grover Cleveland High in Ridgewood NY in 1960. My brother had graduated from the same school 5 years earlier and had never mentioned the mandatory swim class requirement to graduate nor the fact that boys had to swim naked while girls were provided tank type suits. The PE teacher instructed us to remove all our clothes in the locker room and take a shower before entering the pool area. It seemed kind of weird in a large shower room with so many other naked boys of different ages but the hot water caused alot of mist which made me feel less exposed. The dash to the pool room was always a cold experience and the swim coach, Mr. McArdle, who always wore a bath robe and a whistle, would be at the pool ready to greet us.. My impression was that he didn’t like his job because he always seemed grouchy and acted like he would rather be anywhere else. The first day, he explained that for pool water safety, we always had to shower before entering and use soap. Then when we entered the pool area (and this is no fabrication) he would have us stand in a line facing the pool and had us bend over and spread our cheeks so he could walk by and check for evidence of “twelve oclock shadow”. If he did see any shadows, you were automatically sent back to the showers and reinspected upon returning before you were allowed in the pool. No one wanted to run the gauntlet from shower to pool twice so his compliance record was pretty good. At the end of the class, a warning bell sounded that gave us 5 minutes before the girls swim class would come in from their locker room. The seniors in our class were always pranking the coach and I will never forget when they “relocated” his keys and our class could not get back into the locked locker room in time. You guessed it…the girls class came in like a herd of laughing hyenas and all we could do was jump back into the pool until the girls coach used her key to let us out. Needless to say, I had a hard time looking girls in the eye right after that wondering if they saw me naked!

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  9. I hadn’t intended to comment again, but I see you’ve had at least one of the “naked swimming is about teaching manliness” chaps , so I thought I should return.
    The quote above is from Jim White, a journalist with a respected conservative UK newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) who attended the same school as I did. The school doctor was not the worst of the obvious paedophiles who taught manliness by …well, I’ll drop the sarcasm. This is not teaching manliness, this is a form of sexual activity with children.
    a) How did they get away with it and b) could it happen in the US or was it just a feature of the traditional English school system? Answer to a) is prestige – the school was so well thought of, not least by itself, that it stood above suspicion. And b) – well, of course it could. News of the scandal of paedophile priests in Chicago has reached as far as here in England. Just another misuse of prestige: a man of God, or a teacher at a famous school, wasn’t subjected to the scrutiny people would apply before trusting an ordinary mortal with their children.
    Next, I’d like to address a claim of Will’s that “current generations of men are insecure in their manhood”. Not my impression. I’d give as an example a karate club I joined. Our sensei suggested that people change at the dojo rather than turning up in their gi. Neither I nor any other man there had any problem doing this or showering naked. I imagine I was the only one who’d had this experience of being forced to strip naked as a kid by paedophiles cracking on they were teaching manliness. So where did the rest get this body confidence from? Comes with adulthood, I suggest. There were some young teenagers there, and I noticed that they tended to turn up in their kit. Unlike Will, sensei didn’t “force them to shower” or insist they get changed at the dojo. He had a bit more sense than that – knew they’d gain adult body confidence without having inhibitions forcibly stripped from them by the “teaching manliness” crew. Changing rooms at public baths are much the same – shy kids normally grow up to be body confident men without the input of the naked swimming enthusiasts.

    Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to the only people I recall who did behave like men. Some 16 year olds told the school what was going on, and one guy started a rebellion that stopped the practice – just turned up in trunks and told the paedophile rugby/gym teacher that naked swimming had ended as far as he was concerned.
    Next week the whole class joined him and we heard teachers got together and discussed it along the lines of “what the hell have we allowed to happen?”.
    But there was only one of them – a teacher of Greek who had nothing to do with the gym scene, who was man enough to attempt a word of regret to us. He had never been a guy we particularly liked, but he stood up and stopped his Greek class and had the manliness to say that it hadn’t been nice and shouldn’t have happened. He was met by the same dead silence with which the boys had reacted when they were told they’d be swimming naked, four years earlier. It was not the silence of indifference. It was the silence of trauma, make no mistake about it.

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  10. I see the Jim White quote was missed out, my bad. It runs as follows: “,I recall one lifeguard in my era, the school doctor, who would stand naked in the shallow end with several boys crawling all over him attempting to push him under the water.
    “Duck the Doc” the game was called, and it was generally a prelude to the old pederast plonking himself in the foot bath where , like the emperor Tiberius with his minnows, he would honour his favourites by encouraging them to squirm about in his lap”.

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    • Thanks for both of these comments, David. I’m stunned that a group of kids would say no “back in the day.” What year did this happen? In the early 1960s we were so in awe of authority we never challenged the practice. In a sense it was beyond our ability to imagine.

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      • Year in question is 1975, Dr Stein. I have to agree that “we were so in awe of authority we never challenged the practice” is about where I and nearly everyone else was at. “In a sense it was beyond our ability to imagine” is a comment that interests me. What is the process involved in that disempowerment – the child’s world shrinks to the point where you cannot tell your parents, cannot tell yourself, that what is going on is something that you don’t want, that shouldn’t be happening, that there are alternatives?
        Anyway, I wouldn’t credit a group of kids so much as one person. The guy who challenged the teacher was a confident, arrogant and engaging character who modelled himself on Lord Byron. A real eccentric, he was probably enjoying challenging authority as much as trying to stop the crap. He didn’t even bother gathering support from other boys – just turned up in his trunks and challenged the teacher directly. He was sent out, but next week the class fell in behind him, and the pool was “closed for repairs” for over a year. Shortly before reopening, the school announced its new item of uniform, navy blue trunks. Still had to be seen to be in charge, you see: no choice of colour.
        Anyway, that was how one brave lad stood up. I think I am in order to name him: Stephen L Prasher. Don’t know where he is now but I continue to remember his stand with great respect. I recently met some men who had started at the school while the pool was “closed for repairs”. They recalled how they’d heard the stories and were dreading those teachers and the naked swimming lessons. Thanks to Stephen, what they dreaded they were spared.
        I would guess that if anyone who taught at that school in those years thinks back on those days, they imagine that they too are remembered with respect by people like me. I left that school to take up what was regarded as Oxford University’s top scholarship in my subject, for which the school duly praised me pretty loudly, and which they no doubt regarded as a feather in their cap. Well, my old teachers – that classics guy excepted – you did me a sight more harm than good: you failed me and many others and may God’s curse light upon you all. As you said previously, Dr Stein, I understate things.

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      • Thanks, David. “What is the process involved in that disempowerment – the child’s world shrinks to the point where you cannot tell your parents, cannot tell yourself, that what is going on is something that you don’t want, that shouldn’t be happening, that there are alternatives?” I don’t have a complete answer for you, but here is what comes to mind: I think it is hard, especially as a youngster, to see outside certain boundaries set by those in charge and by the experience of those around you. I treated many adult males who experienced severe corporal punishment as children and made light of it by referencing that it was common in their neighborhood and among their friends. At my old high school (now an inner city school), too many of the young people believe that the lives lived by their same-aged peers on TV don’t apply to them. That is, they think such lives are impossible to achieve and therefore give up. It is as if their imagination fails. I remember John Ciardi, the poet, referencing listening to Caruso records in this regard. Ciardi said those old records enlarged your imagination because previous to hearing them you could not have known either what a human voice could produce in terms of technical perfection and beauty, or envisioned the interpretive scope it could achieve. Certainly, respect for authority in the USA in 1960, when I began high school, was an unquestioned thing. By the late ’60s it was collapsing. Surely that played a part in our acceptance of the nude swimming. There seemed no choice but to submit.

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  11. Reading these (and other comments) I can honestly say that at the time, it never occurred to me that there was anything untoward, unacceptable or in any way out of the ordinary in the way we were expected to present ourselves for swimming. In retrospect – yes, there seems to be a lot wrong with it, but I cannot recall thinking about it at all. It was just something you did. I can also recall shopping with my mother and two sisters for our school kit, and two swimming costumes complete with the school badge being bought for them. Again, if I had any thoughts about the stark (pun intended) difference, I cannot remember them.

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    • Thanks, Steven. As I replied to David Latham, I think there was a frame of reference that went something like this: if my parents think it is OK and the teachers think it is OK then it must be OK. Perhaps this is too conscious a process. Of course, I have no evidence to support this hypothesis. Best wishes.

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