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‘Encounter’ with Dave Barry

Dave Barry in 2012 (Provided photo — Charlie Cowins, via Wikimedia Commons)

What began as a simple story assignment for a school newspaper ended up a trigger for parental hysteria and a brush with comic genius.

It involved an “encounter session” guidance counselor Marjory Volk had conducted in four sociology classes at the high school in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, a town of about 7,000 people 33 miles west of Philadelphia and the location of the 1958 sci-fi classic “The Blob” starring Steve McQueen.

I was the student writer given the assignment in January 1972, my first year on the paper. If I’d had some experience or even some common sense, I’d have talked to the guidance counselor and the sociology teacher for their explanations of an encounter session, and then asked them for the names of some students who could offer informed comments.

I did nothing of the sort, of course. Instead I made up some B.S. to “explain” what an encounter session was, and by a stroke of luck I bumped into a casual friend in the library the next day who had actually attended one of them.

So what happened?

He only told me about the juicy parts, the last things any guidance counselor or teacher would want anybody reading about in the paper. To me it all sounded great, of course, so I wrote about it, and voila! Instant crisis!

A group of parents read my story, blew a gasket, banded together, hired a lawyer, goosestepped their way en masse into the next school board meeting and demanded the board hand over Mrs. Volk’s head on a platter.

The area’s local daily newspaper, The Daily Local News, had this young knucklehead of a cub reporter covering their school “bored” meetings, sewer authority meetings, and practically any other meeting that required a briefcase full of NoDoz to survive through. He was named Dave Barry, the same Dave Barry who would become a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, a Pulitzer prize winner for commentary, a best-selling author The New York Times Book Review labelled “the funniest man in America,” and the subject of a “60 Minutes” interview with Leslie Stahl.

By wasting his comic genius and much of his young adult life having him cover all these meetings, The Daily Local News must have been the inspiration for this easily accessible quote of his: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.'”

Following this meeting, which must have seemed like a gladiator fight compared to what he was used to, Mr. Barry turned in the following story that came out on the front page of the next day’s issue of that progressive, hard-hitting journalistic juggernaut The Daily Local News.

At Downingtown High School

‘Encounter’ riles parents

A group of parents last night demanded that the Downingtown Area School Board take “corrective action” in the case of a guidance counselor who the parents charge acted improperly in conducting an alleged “encounter session” which was reported in the high school newspaper.

Spokesmen for the group demanded the dismissal of Mrs. Marjory Volk, a guidance counselor at Downingtown High School, and announced they had obtained legal counsel to act on their behalf in the matter.

The issue was raised by William Martin of Lionville who read aloud an account of the alleged “encounter session” from the Jan. 21 issue of the high school’s “Penny Press.” The story, which appeared under the headline “4 Sociology Classes Encounter Mrs. Volk,” carried no byline.

The article states that on Jan. 13 “Mr. Nippes’ Sociology classes staged a mini encounter session conducted by Mrs. Volk.”

The story explains that “an encounter session is claimed as being a new method to solving problems, developing communication and fertilizing knowledge.”

The article states that at the Jan. 13 “encounter session” the students engaged in “walking around the classroom with (their) eyes shut and bumping into each other” and “sitting on the floor holding hands with someone of the opposite sex and communicating to each other through their eyes only.”

“At one point,” the story continues, “Mrs. Volk told the participants to reach out and touch the part of his partner’s body that interested him or her the most. She did not, however, say ‘go’ due to the fact that preliminary reactions indicated a few sexually immature minds were in the audience. Mrs. Volk later stated that one of the objects of these type sessions is to develop an ability on the part of the students to discuss their own sexuality without embarrassment, a quality that was painfully evident.”

The article concludes with one student’s reaction: the student is quoted as saying “‘It seems to be what we need. Why don’t we have more of it.'”

After reading the article to the board, Martin called the reported incident “an attempt to start to expose our children to the new…”

From there, the rest of the story appears inside the paper, which is unavailable to me. You can use your imagination to figure out the “new” thing that Mr. Martin was so upset about because of the school’s attempt to expose his kid(s) to it.

David Venditta was the Penny Press editor who assigned me the story. Twenty years later, he sent Mr. Barry a copy of his school board story from 1972, to which he replied with a signed postcard saying, “David — I remember that night and how grateful I was that some actual NEWS occurred at a school board meeting.”

A native of Armonk, New York, Mr. Barry lives in the Miami, Florida, area, where he doesn’t miss the kind of recreational fun for which the North Country is famous, based on his assertion, “The problem with winter sports is that — follow me closely here — they generally occur in winter.”

As for the sacred art of skiing, Mr. Barry says, “Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face.”

Steve Lester lives in Lake Placid.

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