I had a tough time in high school. When I was 17 the Viet Nam war was raging and I in turn raged against the war, a rebel with a cause, deeply disturbed by my country’s engagement in that immoral conflict, and it’s shameful willingness to sacrifice the lives of untold thousands of young men because of some specious domino theory. I was battling wars at home as well. My parents had recently discovered I was gay and an atheist, and their conservative Catholic Republican values were severely threatened, and so I was subjected to a humiliating smorgasbord of disciplinary and punitive actions designed to beat out of me the radical politics and moral perversions they saw me afflicted with.
At Menlo-Atherton High School I struggled to find a safe haven, but the terrain was lined by a gauntlet of homophobic bullies, and a culture of what I saw as vapid banality prevailed. My high school years had devolved into a constant search for relief and refuge. If my life had only been a matter of crossing minefields between 2 safe houses, I could have negotiated the distances, withstood the humiliations embedded there by chalking it up to the universal emotional combat duty imposed equally on any teenager. But the two places I spent the most time, home and school, had become the minefields. The buffer zones where an armistice could be reached were dwindling. I sought with quiet desperation any asylum that could shelter me (Kepler’s bookstore, Stanford Amphitheater), even briefly, from the slings and arrows of school and home life, and when I found one, I clung to it.
Miraculously it was Menlo-Atherton where I found one such safe house on Tuesday afternoons at 4:30pm in Mr. Robert Selinske’s unofficial after school film class. I lived for Tuesday afternoons at 4:30pm in Mr. Selinske's class. That was when he killed the lights, pulled those thick rubbery curtains across the wall of plate glass, and loaded the reel-to-reel projector with the foreign film he had chosen for that week's viewing. Before I ever graduated from high school, I had a college level introduction to European cinema, thanks to a couple solid years of attendance in that classroom. I saw Fellini's "8 1/2" and "La Strada." I saw Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" and "Wild Strawberries." I saw Truffaut's “Jules Et Jim” and "Shoot the Piano Player" and De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief." I got a thorough education in the French new wave and the Italian neo-realist movements. And bless Robert Selinske's heart, those films got through to me. Sitting there in the afternoon dark, a resentful teenager on so many levels but grateful not to have to go home for a couple hours, grateful for the safety and sanctuary of that darkened room with the flickering images on the portable screen, eager for art and knowledge and finding in myself an insatiable hunger for the art of movies and what those movies could tell us about ourselves, about our culture and other country's cultures.
Selinske was an English teacher at M-A., but he looked like a hippie, with a big bushy head of long hair and horn rimmed glasses. He was one of a handful of teachers the school had hired who was younger and hipper and formed the vanguard of a new breed of educators at the dawn of 1970 that kids could immediately respond to, because he looked like one of us. But it wasn’t only that. He was also my English teacher and I respected and deferred to him. I knew my place. He was still the authority figure, but there were so fewer walls between us than most teachers, and that lack of formality and pretense allowed a direct communication I had not encountered before in school. He also took me seriously, and his respect for my ideas and feelings gave me a desperately needed shot of self-confidence.
Watching the masterpieces of mid-century European cinema armed me with a revelatory understanding of life and supplied me with skills I would take out into the world I longed to be part of. They taught me more about the human condition than all my other classes combined. Those movies redeemed my teenage soul and Robert Selinske was the agent who facilitated my redemption and for that, I thank him from the bottom of my heart.