Tales from a pre-September 11th World vol. I

I graduated High School 25 years ago this weekend. Our graduation had a slightly chaotic angle to it that some may have had questions about. Some even had (incorrect) answers about it. I have no idea what present-day common knowledge is, but I think I can shed some light on this chaos in my usual overwrought and verbose fashion that includes unrelated musings about topics mentioned along the way…assuming that two and a half decades should be enough time for statute of limitations to run out.

I have pretty good recall but the details here get hazy at times. Forgive me if some of what I write has been created by cognitive closure, but I’m sure of what I am writing. Also, I deny that I confirm that any of this is true. Also, most of this story was reported to me by friends. I wasn’t there for most of it.

To set up the scene, I went to a fairly small school. In 1992, we were the near-culmination of the pre computers-run-the-world era, something for which I can not thank fate enough. Before my home town of Kirtland became Land of the McMansions, we were a small working-class town with a few farms and a few well-to-do communities. It was what was supposed to be great about America: my dad was a machinist for a company and my classmate’s father was an executive in the same corporation. They lived in the same community and their kids received the same education and “opportunity”. There was no stratification by class and less of the self-separation of what Charles Murray calls “bubbles” where the moneyed live in gated communities and send their kids to private schools.  My friends and I had decided that we lived in Bloom County and tried to decided who each character was in our life. It was borderline bucolic.

We had fewer than 1000 kids K-12 and my class had 75 kids or so. We had a lot of unused lockers with so few kids (this is important).

It started with a phone call to my house made by the high school secretary supposedly to inform me that I had been suspended. I was asleep when she called, early in the school day. Like many angsty teens, by my senior year, I had pretty well checked out of the local social scene and made it my chore to be at school as little as possible.

This is a 180 degree difference in behavior compared to my social butterfly middle school years. In Middle School, though I could walk to school and often did, I usually rode in with my school bus-driving mother (bus drivers get to work REALLY early) so that I could maximize my time walking the halls and socializing before classes began.

Middle School actually included a pretty rough hazing but I came out victorious. I wasn’t anti-social but as the sole giant, hairy, Iron Maiden shirt-wearing metalhead 6th grader, I was quickly singled out as the monkey with the white white stripe and picked on pretty regularly by a contingent of meat-headed kids that I quickly identified as the 8th grade jocks, those little darlings of every school system who just can’t seem to do wrong in the eyes of the teachers and just couldn’t get into trouble by calling kids names, spitting, pushing others into lockers or starting fights if they tried. To them I also lost most of my male friends from my own class because they idolized those older kids.

Even some teachers singled me out as a troublemaker. One English teacher once told me that I was spotted smoking behind the school the previous evening. To this day, 30 years later, I’ve never smoked a cigarette and surely wasn’t on that day as she accused, but she was convinced of what she saw. Sure, I was hanging out with kids that were smoking. I was a deviant, just not in the way they thought. But I didn’t take any serious abuse. False rumors and schoolmate hostility actually rather emboldened me, but not in reactive, physical way. I walked away from every fight-because I knew I was a better person. I certainly developed a chip on my shoulder concerning school athletics and “authority figures” as I was certainly justifiably wronged. I can think of instances of this kind of “profiling” from elementary school, too.

Irrespective of my feelings about school athletics, I still went to every high school football game. They couldn’t put a big enough chip on my shoulder to keep me from my social scene and by the time we left eight grade, I was (in my eyes) King of the freakin’ World! Middle School is a time of separating the wheat from the chaff academically and I established myself as one of the sensitive achievers, making me a hero to burnouts and metalheads everywhere who were at the time generally regarded as dumb. I was artistic and had good relationships with girls (because the guys abandoned me for the attention of the jocks) and I won an honest-to-gosh popularity contest: I was elected (running as a lark) “Commissioner of Dances” on Student Council. Me! I threw dance parties! Can you believe it? Crepe Paper and balloons and stuff.

I still get an odd pit in my stomach when I remember the cheers from when my name was called during 8th grade “graduation”. I wore a 3-piece suit with an “Eddie” patch on the coat tail. Things were good all-around.

Then I spent all of high school reversing that.

I started high school with all pistons roaring. I took extra classes, advanced classes and extra credit. I was even invited to be on the Academic Challenge State team (where I kicked ass!) and then the TV show (not so much ass-kicking there). But by the time I got a car and a job and made friends with misfits from all over the county I self-exiled from school. I abandoned art, only socialized with a tiny group of friends at school, but had so many credits to graduate that I was only required to take three or four classes my senior year. So I scheduled all study halls in the morning and came in near lunch time. I took my coat and book bag to my last class and walked out of the closest door 45 seconds after the last bell rang, first car out of the parking lot so I could go to work, then Denny’s restaurant or something fun with friends. Then I would be sound asleep at 9am the next morning, when my mom wakes me to tell me that the school secretary called and said that I had been suspended for something about mice in a locker or some such thing.

I sort of knew what was going on. I had heard that for a “senior prank”, one of the students was breeding up a truck-load of mice to release in the school. But it had nothing to do with me. Not only was I innocent to the charge, I was totally hopped up and ready for a fight. So I went right to school after the call. Moments after I arrived, the Principal addressed my Calculus teacher via the P.A. system, “Is Jimm in your class?”

“Yes, he is”

“Could you send him down to the office, please?”

I’m sure I marched down there with the biggest ready-to-brawl grin, ever. This was just the last in a laundry list of instances of being maligned and knowing I was in the right. I decided that I was the champion of kids who were discriminated against because of the way they look or the music they listen to. I would go out of my way to seem shocking or scary in an absolute challenge for anyone to find me anything but a sweet kid with a big heart and prove themselves discriminatory. Kids are funny like that. I actually considered myself fairly high-minded (unlike now).

I don’t recall the conversation I had with the principal at all. I never saw the mice, but the story I was given (by either my friends or the principal) was that the kid who was raising the mice ended up killing them all on accident and decided to bring them into school and stick them into an empty locker to stink the place up. The locker he chose was one that a friend and I used for our coats & bags so that we could keep our book lockers tidy. As far as senior pranks go, this was pretty mild. In years past, we had the tree from our entryway planted in the middle of the football field, we’ve had fires…I don’t recall anyone getting suspended for those things.

I protested my innocence and was let off the hook right then and there. I thought it was odd from the beginning because, though though the Principal wasn’t as chummy with me as he was with some of my friends, we had a good relationship. He took me to the Academic Challenge Competition, floating on a sea of his Grateful Dead cassettes in the back of his VW Gulf or something like that, after all. He was the first Principal to mollycoddle intellectuals more than athletes, so we got along great. I heard that he asked one of my friends about the mouse incident and was told “If it were Jimm, it wouldn’t be mice in a locker, it would be a cow on the roof.”

Aw, thanks, guys!

But wait a minute! You suspended me through a third party after talking to my friends but not me about an event? This means war. I am obligated to give you a senior prank now. If you label me a troublemaker, I can definitely cause trouble. Because I’m geared for it and, as previously explained, still had that chip on my shoulder toward (capital “A”) Administration as well as schoolmates who seemed to have prejudged me.

Also, I was still angry that my friends and I had been forced to dismantle our “lounge” we illegally constructed (literally with circular saws and plywood and stuff) in the art room while the teacher was away on jury duty almost immediately after we built it (Junior year). As part of my self-imposed seclusion, my small group of friends and I ate lunch on a couple of couches in the art room every day. We had a fish tank, a permanent Christmas tree decorated in Halloween decorations (because, Punk Rock) and pictures of naked women on the wall (I still have that collage). The Principal said, “Yes you have to eat lunch in the lunch room with the “Plebs”.

The Real Story:

Someone was passing a couple “News of the Weird” books around school. In one, I read about graduation activities being canceled at one school because someone called in an on-stage suicide threat.  That’s it!  That’s easy!  I even mentioned it to my closest friends when we were all gathered at a house for (I think) a school project that devolved into a session of watching Holy Grail or Sledge Hammer! No one batted an eye at the idea because the basis of the friendship dynamic of my group of friends was based on saying funny or outrageous or clever things or coming up with stupid, outlandish ideas. We weren’t the beer bong crowd. But soon I will refer to them as my “closest friends” (quotes indicating sarcasm).

I had an adult female friend write this note (I don’t recall a word of it) and had her mail it to the school, then I immediately forgot about it. I never touched the paper or envelope. I presumed that the note would be dismissed or that one member of the administration would suffer silently in curious anticipation or that someone would point out that this was just something someone saw in that “News of the Weird” book which I think half of the school read. But there we were, months later at Baccalaureate at Divine Word Catholic Church (affectionately known as ‘St. Kirtland’) when the ceremony was followed by an announcement from the Principal. It was something to the wording of, “Look, we have to let you know- we think this is just a prank- but someone sent an anonymous note to the school saying, (blah blah, however he phrased it) and we need to take precautions…”

Whereupon, instead of playing it cool, my “closest friends” all whipped their heads around with what sounded to me like 6 or 8 air-cracking Karate chops which broke the sound barrier within milliseconds of each other to stare bug-eyed at me. So I had to do the dance where I try to get them to look at something besides me while I tried not to crack up laughing while also being terrified that I was going to go to jail, get bet up, shot in the face by cops, or all three.

So we go from Baccalaureate to the High School for the graduation ceremony and there’s an ambulance parked right outside the door and a S.W.A.T. team marching the whole class through metal detectors and hand-wanding them afterward. Two of my friends had pocket knives with them. Amazingly they avoided setting off the detector or wands by simply taking the knives out of their pockets and “palming” them. But we got the full T.S.A. treatment, 10 years early.

So we start Graduation and in the Salutatorian’s speech, (the Middle School Principal’s kid) he goes on about about what an imposition and disservice Baccalaureate is because of “Separation of Church and State” (he usually dressed as a nun each Halloween). Then, my father, who can’t handle heavy moments or emotion better than I can and showed up appropriately soused, ends up getting hauled off in the ambulance after having a heart episode or something. It was recently pointed out to me that my disruptive actions ended up helping my dad. I’m not sure if I ever thought of it that way.

In later days of closing schools if a Mercury thermometer breaks and kids calling in bomb threats during every mid-term exam week, I’m pretty sure Kirtland would have been turned into the Iraqi Green Zone and I would still be in Gitmo today. But in 1992, I’m sure that select members of the Kirtland faculty just had some stiff drinks at the end of that day. I even felt a little bad because in my apathy, I didn’t even bother to get a cap and gown and the Principal just gave me one in an “aw geez, Jimm” moment right before proceedings, but I barely appreciated the gesture.

It was years later that I learned that during the lead-up to graduation, the investigation into this led to the few girls who made the mistake of choosing as fashion combat boots, spiky hair and listening to The Smiths got their asses hauled down to the police station to give handwriting samples. I had no idea there was so much chaos swirling around me. I had checked out. Another unintended result was the fingering of another student(s) for my actions. I, personally, was told: “You know who did this? So-and-So”. Considering I did this because I was fingered for something I didn’t do, I should have occurred to me that this would happen. And to anyone who truly suffered for this, an apology couldn’t be enough. But I apologize and truly regret that aspect of this to this day. But I couldn’t have cared less at the time.

Of course now, out-growing the teen anger, I’ve returned to regarding my school group as family (an equally unrealistic, unhealthy view of my relationships). But what can I say, I’m a sentimentalist. As horrible as social media is, I’m happy to still be in touch with everyone. It’s a shame that we’ve replaced instead of supplemented reunions and face-to-face interactions with it. I reserve the right to have been a juvenile and to have done dumb, childish things. I’ve forgiven those who wronged me as children because they also have the right to have done dumb, childish things and I’m friends with most of them now. It’s just part of growing up and I’m happy to have shared in that. In retrospect, this was pretty horrible, considering that one of our classmates actually committed suicide in middle school and another was murdered a few years later- big news in a small school. That stuff never entered my head at the time. I wasn’t insensitive to that, just criminally thoughtless. Today, kids would need therapy for flashbacks, a safe space and probably financial assistance from The Government for life.

Come to think of it, I don’t really even know what the school secretary said to my mom or even what my mom said to me as I wrestled from the arms of Morpheus that morning. Maybe no one ever said “I was suspended- so don’t bother coming into school”. Maybe what was conveyed was that I “faced imminent suspension unless…” Maybe mom translated incorrectly. Who knows? If this is a game of telephone gone wrong, then maybe someone should have talked to me first.

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