Given all the chaos surrounding 2020, it’s not unusual for someone with OCD who deals with everyday anxiety to be caught up in the emotion of the moment, and have their brain go spinning off wildly in an unseen direction.
Yesterday was such a day.
I live two blocks from my alma mater, PS 259, McKinley JHS. I pass by it every day, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. I even vote there every November. I never really give it much thought, but for some reason, as I made my way thru the park across the street on my daily exercise jaunt, I was struck by a series of memories from 40 years ago.
40 years. Just the sound of that is scary.
In 1979, I was a kid in 9th grade, 13 or 14 years old, and I was already headed down the wrong path. Despite being in the advanced classes at McKinley, I was falling behind due to the fact that I was showing up stoned for school every day.
Every. Single. Day.
One of my buddies and I decided that life would be so much simpler if we didn’t have to pay to support our burgeoning habit, so we decided that the best course of action was to sell loose joints to the other kids who were joining us on our daily journeys to stonerville. Evidently some other loose joint kingpin got wind of our enterprise and ratted us out. After five days of grossing in the high single digits, we were corralled by the school safety officer (whom I shall not name) and in the nicest way possible, told that our career as drug barons were over.
“Just hand it over and we’ll sweep it under the rug”, I recall him saying.
I stood fast.
“I sold all mine”, I replied as I felt the cigarette pack with the rest of the contraband in my jacket pocket. I was confident that he couldn’t search me, and I wasn’t about to just give up my stash. When he asked why we did it, I made up a story about wanting to raise enough money to buy tickets to some concert. When he asked why I just couldn’t ask my parents, I put on my puppy face and told him that we could barely afford to pay the rent.
That part wasn’t made up.
He made us promise not ever bring weed onto school property again. In return, he would keep it a secret so we didn’t get suspended.
I voiced my thoughts about who had ratted us out (whom I shall not name), but he assured me that it wasn’t the case.
That only confirmed my suspicions.
I left his office feeling victorious.
The next day, when I got to homeroom, the diminutive teacher with the Tony Orlando mustache (whom I shall not name), announced to the entire class,
“If I had been in school yesterday, the individuals involved would have been arrested and thrown in jail.”
So much for keeping it a secret.
My partner and I chuckled loud enough for him to hear. It was a ridiculous boast on his part; jail-time for two 14-year-olds for possession of three joints? I walked out of his class as cocky as I could be, my long, unwashed hair flowing behind me.
Later that year, after he suspected me of cheating on my Spanish final, (which of course, I was) he cornered me in the hallway and began to berate me and inform me what a waste and a loser I was. When he was finished with what I’m sure he thought was a Lombardi-like speech designed to inspire me to turn from my errant ways and move to a path of academic excellence, I walked away and left him standing in the hall without responding. His words might have stung had I not already come to the same conclusion years prior. I was god’s mistake; I was one of those rare creatures — an intellectually gifted child with no future.
As Morrison wrote —
I curried favor in school
& attack’d the teachers
I was given a
desk in the corner
I was a fool
The smartest kid in class
A year and a half later, I was a high-school dropout with rock-and-roll dreams; destined to be found dead of a heroin overdose in some dank hotel in a mid-western city.
40 years later, I’m a sober man with a house and a family and three cats; someone who’s written two books, and someone who has helped dozens and dozens of men kick their addictions and lead sober, productive lives.
A 54-year old man who worries about everything as he jogs through a park across the street from his alma mater when he is struck by strange memories from four decades previous.
I’m not sure what happened to the security officer. I’ve heard some things.
The kid who ratted us out? Last time I saw him, he was strung out and panhandling in the subway on 4th ave.
“Hey Jim. Can you help me out?”
I shook my head, no.
The homeroom teacher? Evidently he was still at McKinley as recently as 2012. He led a distinguished career teaching 7th grade English. I wondered what I would say to the man, now surely in his mid-70’s, if our paths ever crossed. Would I tell him that he was wrong, that I wasn’t a loser, that I had made something out of myself due to some good luck, and some hard work, and the kindness of strangers. Or would I let my 40-year resentment take control and stand up to him, my 6-foot, 243 pound frame towing over his now frail figure as I berated him and told him what a loser he was, but that it didn’t matter because his time on earth was short. Would I try to make him feel as worthless and small as he once did to me?
I like to think not.
I think about the four boys that I’ve mentored in my life;
two of them, now grown men living productive lives;
two who are still works in progress as they move through that awkward period right before they leave the nest to find their own way in the world.
How did I treat them?
Did I bark at them when they screwed up or broke the rules that I set? Sure. Did I berate them? Call them worthless? Never.
Maybe his lessons were effective after all.
Strange memories indeed…