In September of 1978, English Chairman Jim Sentman asked me if I’d be interested in advising the school literary magazine. He didn’t have to ask twice. Taking on an extracurricular activity made a newbie look good to administrators, and this one would be a labor of love.
Sachem High School had been putting out a literary magazine called Inner Prisms which was a 7˝ x 10˝ chapbook-size publication, printed on heavy buff paper, with a card stock cover. Inside were poems, short stories, drawings and photos by students. The magazine was put out by the Creative Writing Workshop, whose advisor was—or had been—Vinny Leogrande, the emperor of Room 136. Vinny wasn’t interested in advising the club this year so I got my very own “domain.”
At that point I knew nothing about how a literary magazine was put together, but I had been editor of my high school newspaper, so I knew that writing and artwork had to be collected, typeset, laid out and printed. I also realized, after the first meeting, that my editorial staff would be mostly seniors and juniors. Challenging, since I taught late session, starting at 11:30 AM and ending at 6:30 PM.
I scheduled a meeting in an empty classroom at 11:00 AM. The room overflowed with acolytes, but the numbers dropped off after that. Actually, the numbers leaped off a cliff. As the years went by, I learned that the classroom always overflowed for the first meeting, and that very few groupies remained for the year (most kids were just looking for a school club to list on their college applications).
One task we accomplished at the first meeting was choosing the name Dimensions. I don’t think we had many meetings after the first one. Since I was clueless about organizing a club, we flew by the seats of our pants. In later years, we had a Selection Committee and a system of voting on submissions, but that first year we took pretty much everything. The quality of writing was not uniform—some stuff showed writing talent and some stuff—well, didn’t. But we did give the thrill of publication to some kids who would otherwise never experience it.
Inner Prisms contents were typeset and, I imagine, laid out by the printer, Shannon & Sons. I never contacted Shannon & Sons and, with a gun held to my head, I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe they were out of business. Possibly it was because I wanted more control over the layout. Since there were no personal computers, we had to use typewritten copy and in 1978, many kids didn’t even use a typewriter, so we cajoled sweet Ms. Mulligan to get the girls of her Shorthand II and Transcription classes to do type up the handwritten submissions.
Since those girls were doing our slave labor catch-as-catch-can, my editors and I did a lot of the typing. Which is to say, I did a lot of the typing. Well, a little more than just typing. I was a visionary who was waiting—not knowing it, of course—for Apple and Aldus to usher in desktop publishing. So on my Olympia Electric typewriter I tried to “lay out” the poems and stories by jiggling the carriage and creatively using the shift and tab keys. A girl named Susan Muller submitted a one-act play, and not only did I retype it, I did a multi-column layout I’d seen in an artsy magazine (complete with hand-drawn column borders). Sadly, my cursed pride would become even more cursed when enabled by technology.
Artwork was kindly provided by the art teachers, who passed along stuff from their students’ sketchbooks. Some of those sketches were way too large to fit on an 8½ x 11 page, but fortunately, there were a couple of prehistoric Xerox machines in the Main Office suite, and I cajoled the secretaries to let us hog those machines to pump out reduced-sized photocopies (as a club advisor, one becomes a master of cajolery).
I found a printer, Jorg Heuser, who was recommended by someone in the building. Jorg’s shop smelled deliciously of ink. Print shops back then used photo-offset presses that printed from photographic plates, so our pages had to be “camera-ready”—no blotches, smears, or missing elements. I learned about paper “weights,” saddle stitch binding, and Krome Kote stock for covers. I also got a crash course in how to submit invoices and estimates to the District’s purchasing department.
At last came layout night, which began in a classroom after I finished teaching. The parents of many staffers had to drive their kids to the building at 6:30 and pick them up … way later. For the first time, but not the last, I horribly underestimated the time needed for a mammoth task. That these parents did not ask for my head on a pike is tribute to their mercy. We had a stack of typed pages, a stack of photocopied artwork, a ream or two of white 20 lb. paper, scissors, rubber cement, black Flair pens, and who knows what else.
For each page of the magazine, we had to cut out the typed matter and the photocopied illustration, arrange them on blank paper, then paste them down and write in the titles by hand. We could have typed the titles, but in my hubris, I decreed that they should look artistic. Some did, and some … well … didn’t. We assigned pictures to poems and stories, and where no artwork was provided, a couple of our talented editors drew flower garlands and other decorations on the pages.
The work went on, and on, and on. The mother of one of our editors delivered boxes of pizza sometime in the night. As fluorescent lights glared against black windows, the smell of rubber cement mingled with the aroma of pizza. In fact, the actual rubber cement mingled with the actual pizza (extra-chewy crust)! The room suggested a Dickensian sweatshop, with paper spilling over everything, hunched-over kids brushing rubber cement onto the backs of poems and drawings, and me stumbling around the room, doing whatever needed to be done.
At 10:00 PM, I knew we weren’t going to finish, and the glare of headlights outside the window signaled that parents had arrived. The kids drifted out, and a few loyalists helped me clean up the wreckage. Whoever taught in this room would consign me to hellfire once their fingers contacted rubber cement residue. The night custodian would see me hanged once he saw trash pails overstuffed with glue-y paper and half-eaten pizza.
I finally shut the lights and left, with completed and uncompleted work in a big envelope. We were already late for Jorg’s deadline, so over the next few nights, at home, I finished the paste-up (not the last time I’d do that) and cleaned up each page (inhaling Liquid Paper fumes). Blubbering apologies, I delivered the mess to Jorg, who miraculously delivered 800 printed and bound 100-page magazines in a couple of weeks.
Though the District had funded the venture, we sold the magazines, for $1.00 each. I don’t recall how we set up sales, though in later years this would become a nightmare. To my delight, we sold about 500 of the 800. I should have cherished that delight, since we’d never come remotely close to such success again.
One afternoon in late spring (it must have been my prep period), I was enticed into a classroom, where my editors had a cake and thank you card for me, and a light green tee shirt with “Man of Dimensions” ironed on in sparkly letters. We had a little party, and I was suitably misty-eyed (such gratitude never happened again either).
That debut issue of Dimensions was the first of many, and the magazine grew in size and ambition each year. It also grew in time and effort required, and, though I learned tons about running a club, layout was always a horror show. But I loved the job, hair-pulling moments and all. And in April of 1979, Dimensions helped me survive the Bloody Wednesday Massacre.