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Prompted By Student Activism

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I drifted through high school, worried about my grades, seeking good roles in the school plays, yearning until I could be in the top choir (I didn’t like being in the all-girl’s Glee Club and Girl’s Choir…we sang simple songs and at one point, I was made an alto simply because I had a strong voice, could read music and couldn’t control my break. I never got over it).

I wanted a steady boyfriend and never had one. I followed “current events”; wasn’t strongly political, aside from being liberal and hating Vietnam. But protest…not in my nature. I worked hard to get into a good college and tried to “fit in”, but sort of never did. I had a very small group of friends (and am still friendly with two of those women).

I was horrified when a kid I briefly dated (and fought with my parents over because he wasn’t Jewish) went off to Chicago in the summer of ’68 (I was ensconced in Northern Michigan at my wonderful summer arts camp). He participated in the protests at the Democratic Convention, came back to school in the fall, having been beaten by police with billy clubs. He was never the same, grew his hair long, withdrew, became sullen and smoked a lot of dope. I saw some of the brightest kids in my class become pot heads. It worried me.

Junior year, I dated a “5 year man”. He had flunked a year…so inappropriate for me, but he was fun and cute and got me hot. He did a lot of drugs. I tried to get him off everything but grass, which, though I didn’t yet smoke, I knew was harmless. He came to my house, stoned out of his mind. My mother never knew. We were in “Arsenic and Old Lace” together. He played Jonathan, the Boris Karloff character. I was Elaine, the finance, living next door, but I also was make-up supervisor and lead person, so I did his make-up personally. I made it gruesome. He had forged a peace symbol in shop class out of metal and put it on a leather strap. I wore it around my neck for months until the next play when I found him making out with someone else backstage. He showed up at my house once after I went off to college. He had started using heroin. I was horrified. I heard he worked on the docks in Detroit and died years ago in an accident, probably while high.

The boy who played the lead opposite me (the Cary Grant role in the movie) gave me the beads in the Featured photo. We never dated, but were friends. I never knew it, but he, also, got heavily involved with drugs. While I was away at college, I heard he died of a heroin overdose, very young.

We are all concerned by the opioid crisis now, but to me, it feels like aspects of it have been around for a very long time, since I know two people from high school who were affected by drug deaths. The current crisis is fueled by addiction to prescription painkillers. When pill seekers can’t get more doses, heroin, or fentanyl, a cheap, powerful, synthetic heroin becomes the killer drug of choice. People are dying, addiction is easy and getting clean is difficult and expensive. Criminals are profiting and law enforcement seems to think that locking people up rather treatment is the answer.

A few weeks ago, Trump came to New Hampshire (first primary state in the country and a place with a terrible opioid problem) and suggested that drug dealers face the death penalty. As one campaign ineffectually said, “JUST SAY NO” to such draconian measures. Local community efforts help in treatment. Being more judicious with pain medications will help. The problem is serious and takes serious treatment and effort. Not slogans and gun-slingers.

In high school, I saw problems around me and I did the little bit that I could personally to make a difference. I was never caught up in large protest movements. I loved the arts and kept with friends who were also involved in the arts, while also attending all the sporting events that I could, when not rehearsing for a show. I lived in a sheltered world and only occasionally peeked out when someone I knew personally was affected by the outside swirl.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: opioid crisis, heroin, uninvolved


  1. John Zussman says:

    What strikes me in this story is how open to experience you were, hanging out with (and dating) non-Jews, protesters, stoners, and even 5-year men. Despite your sheltered upbringing, I think you learned a lot from those experiences about who you wanted to be.

  2. Suzy says:

    Oh Betsy, through Retrospect we have discovered so many things that we have in common. This clearly is not one of them, seems like we are polar opposites on this topic! Maybe if I had known you then, I could have drawn you into political activism. I’m surprised to hear that a kid you dated who went to Chicago and got clubbed became sullen and withdrawn. For me, the Chicago experience was so important in making me what I am today, I would not have missed it for the world.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Suzy, I almost began my piece with an apology to you, knowing that you would be disappointed in my lack of activism, but that just wasn’t who I was back then. I knew one girl who participated in the first Earth Day, but other than that, I can’t remember any one I knew who was politically active. It wasn’t part of the fabric of where I grew up.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Betsy, I really think that, in the period when we went to college, just a couple of years one way or the other made a huge difference. When Suzy and I were in college, the place was on strike for two of the four springs we were there. Conversely, the kids just a couple of years ahead of us in the mid-60’s seemed to have no interest in political activism — and definitely not (yet) drugs; just remember how different their hair and clothing looked from all of us “hippies.” And certainly the music, too. And I also believe that that activism dropped hugely just a lot a couple of years later (don’t ask me, because I was just hunkering down in law school and hoping not to get drafted).

    So no need to be defensive in the least. To the contrary, I really appreciated your honesty and openness about yourself and your choices (including of men) during this period.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, John. I was thinking mostly of my high school years. College was a different time, but your observations are quite accurate. Brandeis had the Student Strike Information Center the year before I got there, and was home to Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman years earlier (both students). Mine was a very small, closely screened class. They tried to weed out potential protestors (they got hippies instead). And a lot of socially-conscious students who tutored in Waltham and planted seeds for all the social activism that goes on now. We had been on-campus a mere 12 days when two of our students, one other who had been let in on a special program for kids who didn’t really qualify and needed lots of support, and two thugs they picked up along the way, held up a bank and shot a police officer in Brighton, landing on the FBI most-wanted list. They were supposedly getting money to buy arms for the protest to end the war in Vietnam, but it all seems suspect now. I don’t remember what happened to the two thugs, Stanley Bond (the kid who didn’t belong) was caught, and blew himself up in prison. Susan Saxe and Katherine Power went underground and eventually did time. I sat next to Katherine Power at an event at Brandeis four years ago. I recognized her, based on comments she made. She is quite repentant. We had a brief, interesting chat. Those were crazy days, the early 70s. Google her (Katherine Ann Power). Interesting story.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Thanks so much, Betsy. I remember the killing of the policeman in Brighton — and, of course, paralleled a lot of the indefensible, murderous activities of the Weathermen in NY and elsewhere. Per your suggestion, just googled Katherine Power. Fascinating. You just wonder how “people like us” like Powers and Kathy Boudin could have gone so far off the rails, at least for a time.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      In my brief conversation with her, she is very contrite and sorry that she didn’t take advantage of all that Brandeis had to offer, since she was a sheltered Catholic girl, coming from a parochial school background in CO on a full scholarship and she threw it all away. She said Brandeis was a warm, welcoming environment, but instead of using what was offered, she got in with the wrong crowd with disastrous results. Perhaps that can happen when someone gets their first taste of freedom without the support systems in place to offer guidance. She came from an upbringing with no freedom of thought or choice and the flood gates were thrown open.

  5. A terrifying tale of teen tragedy, Betsy. I’m guessing you weren’t much down on sex and rock ‘n’ roll, but for the other part of the triumvirate I sometimes wonder how any of us made it through. My personal mantra: nothing under the skin. I guess it worked. Here I am.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      And we are SO glad you are still here, Charlie. Your voice and stories add so much depth and texture to this endeavor. I definitely enjoyed rock ‘n’ roll, waited until I was 18 for sex (no statutory rape stuff for me), but drugs always scared me. I wanted to be in control of my wits.

  6. Patricia says:

    John S, you are so right that a couple of years can make a big difference. In 1967 we experienced the race riots in Detroit, and while Betsy you might have been at camp during that, it was terrifying and at age 15, I think it altered whatever inclination I might have had to demonstrate in the following years.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Patti, I was at camp, but did hear about the riots and was worried sick about my parents, only a few miles outside Detroit, as our information was sketchy. I was one of the few people who actually saw the movie “Detroit” last summer, just to learn about what happened. It sickened me…racist, sadistic cop who was out of control (but in control of his fellow officers) while the National Guard stood by and said “not my job” to interfere. Then, of course, years later, when the racist murderers were put on trial, their fellow officers all lied to protect one another and everyone got off. Infuriating.

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