When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools

Posted on February 16, 2014. Filed under: humor, life, psychology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |


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!”

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10 Responses to “When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools”

RSS Feed for Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago Comments RSS Feed

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

Thanks, Harry. Change made.

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!

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

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.

I can only imagine. I saw my own dad nude — he was in decent shape — and was spared your gym teacher. Thanks for your comment.

And people wonder why some of us need therapy. ;-)

Perfect! I think you understand the human project very well, Harry!

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..

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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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