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Gone Fishing

Once upon a time I was asked to leave school and not come back.  There, I said it.  It’s something I hate to bring up.  Not only is it embarrassing but I would hate for someone to think that I’m somehow proud of myself for reaching that level of troublemaking.  Sure, I joke all the time about how I once did this or that, and while it’s fun in its way it’s almost a punishment to myself.  Like I want people to realize I’m not trying to hide from my past, or blend in with the good, honest folk.  Many people don’t believe it.  They say, “I can’t see it.  You just seem like a nice guy.” Well this is how it went down.  Keep in mind I was a teenager, which is to say I was confused, angry, lost, bored, frustrated, hopeless… you know.  We’ve all been there to some extent.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit here.  There’s no reason why readers should have to sit through the story of my life from the beginning, though as with any story the beginning shapes the end.  My senior year.  That’s where this story begins.  I was struggling (remember, I struggle).  My problems in school have never been a secret.  Sitting in a desk all day and listening to someone talk.  For those of you who can do it, I envy you.  It drives me nuts.  By the twelfth year of it I had had enough.  Problems at home and depression had taken their toll on me.  I discovered skipping school. 

Now it wasn’t like I had never skipped a class before.  Many times before I had decided to avoid the boredom and went searching for some entertainment.  This year however it seemed like the only option.  I couldn’t sit there anymore.  I’d fight with my family all night and spend my free time smoking and drinking with friends.  When I tried to sit quietly and listen to the teacher… I can’t really explain it.  I wanted to scream and flip desks.  Drama was becoming my drug of choice.  I needed the screaming and lying and debauchery.  Turmoil fit my mood. 

So I started missing classes.  At first just one or two here and there, always carefully chosen so I could have a longer lunch, or a shorter day.  In the first few weeks of senior year however it escalated.  I started missing classes regularly.  Sometimes I would even forget what class I had and when told to “get to class” I literally didn’t know where that was.  I had to go to the office and get my schedule again almost a month into the semester. 

This did not go unnoticed.  I was talked to by my parents, the guidance counselor, and the principal.  Would you be surprised to hear that I didn’t listen?  I didn’t have it in me to listen.  Not right then, and not for a while yet.  The principal told me I had attended thirty-three percent of my classes.  Not good.  Really not good considering I had called myself in sick or had my friends in the office mark me present many times.  I was told that if I was absent anymore I was out of school.  Though I made some effort at that point it was hopeless.  I was hooked on skipping.  I could no longer sit through a class. 

So began an interesting time for me around school.  The principal was after me.  Literally.  He was chasing me.  I’d see him in the hallway trying to flag me down.  I’d pretend not to see him and the chase was on.  I’d turn a corner and as soon as I was out of his sight I’d break into a sprint.  Eluding him became a game to me.  Friends would help by stopping him to ask random and frivolous questions.  If I felt he would try to corner me during a class I wouldn’t go to it.  Any notes I received to go to the office were ignored, though I did use them as an excuse to break free from my classroom prison.  It was a losing battle and I knew that.  It’s something I chose not to think about. 

Then one weekend in early December, nearly the end of the semester, myself and my two buddies were feeling down.  Things weren’t good for us.  That our problems were largely of our own creation didn’t matter.  The fact is we were pretty miserable.  We knew a reckoning was coming.  The world wouldn’t abide our disrespect for long.  We decided a vacation was in order.  Just an escape from our dingy little world.  In the span of a couple of hours it was decided that we would set course for Cleveland where my friends older brother had an apartment.  When you’re a kid anything other than home seems cool I guess.  Plus that guy was known to drink upwards of twenty beers in a sitting, which gave him legendary status by our ranking system.  We set out immediately.

In our defense, our admittedly weak defense, we made an effort to inform our families.  We didn’t want anyone thinking we had died or something.  One of the guys  just boldly told his family, “I’m going, that’s it.” He was told he wasn’t welcome back.  Another tried to make up a story about spending the night at a friend’s house.  Unfortunately he made that call from Cleveland and was busted by the caller i.d..  Watching him trying to lie his way out of that was a highlight of our night. “Hey Mom, I’m fine…What? I told you were I was going….I don’t know why it’s a strange number… I’m not lying!… Mom! Wait… Mom! I’m in Cleveland!… No I can’t come home!… Because I didn’t drive!  Whatever! I’m eighteen. You can’t call the cops!” Poor guy.  He wasn’t welcome home either.  I chose to keep it simple and to the point, with just a hint of humor.  On the counter I had left a piece of notebook paper with “Gone Fishing” written on it.  Just enough so they knew I hadn’t been kidnapped.  I’m not proud of myself but it was kinda funny.

We stayed in that apartment for several days.  We wanted no part of what awaited us back home.  We even discussed getting jobs and settling in.  Eventually we wore out our welcome.  It was time to head back and pay the piper.  Our first stop upon arrival was the school.  We burst into the gym during volleyball class, quite pleased with ourselves and our adventurous ways.  Everyone wanted to know where we had been.   This was before social networking, hell before even before we had cell phones.  No one knew where we were.  We started bragging about our trip and sudden departure.  The story telling didn’t last long.  It was interrupted when the gym door opened and the principal walked in, looking straight at us.  Word traveled fast I guess.  Perhaps we should have made our entrance a little quieter.  He didn’t play any games this time.  We were given no chance to escape.  He pointed and his voice boomed, “You guys are out of here!”  He didn’t answer our questions or allow us to argue.  He ignored our insults.  We were marched to the front doors and quite literally expelled into a wintry afternoon. 

I can’t really explain how it feels to suddenly not be welcome.  Whether at home or at school.  Try to imagine.  Snow falling and there’s nowhere to go.  Your cold and there’s no available warmth.  Tired with no bed.  It’s a terrible feeling when the world casts you out.  We hit bottom that day.  The world was done with us.  At least our tiny little worlds.  I could tell you about sleeping in a cold car in the parking lot of my workplace hoping I woke in time for my 6:30am shift.  I could tell you about walking icy railroad tracks at three in the morning because we heard a rumor that a girl might let us sleep in her basement.  Or trying to camp in a field where we just couldn’t get warm no matter how big a fire we made.  But those things aren’t important.  Well, not to this story anyway.  This story is about how I ended up expelled from school.  I think we’ve basically covered it. 

If there was anything else to say it might be this.  The way I was feeling at that point in time was valid.  It was very real to me.  I was trying to find my way and failing.  Adults need to be very wise when dealing with troubled teens.  There is a paradox.  You can’t force them anymore, they’re not kids.  But trying to be overly sympathetic only enables them to make bad choices.  You can’t be too hard or soft with them.  Instead you have to wisely choose when to lean on them and when to bend to them.  Let them mess up but quietly be guiding.  Most of all love them, no matter what.  That’s how I see it at least.  If I didn’t learn something from this mess then what good was it?  But I don’t have kids yet, and I’m sure somewhere there is a parent just shaking their head thinking, “He’ll see…”


Why won’t you believe me!?

I’m willing to admit it.  Some of the reputation I carried as a young man was undeserved, either good or bad.  One learns while traversing the treacherous corridors of public schooling, and if one is wise it will become apparent that a reputation can be used to pave a way for yourself with minimal effort.  Being wise (arguably) I would fan any little flames I came across pertaining to myself.  For instance,  if someone said, “Hey I heard you beat some guy up outside the mall”, I would say “Yes, that was me,”  or even better, a mysterious, “Which time?”.  And so I became a tough guy without the bloodshed.  Unfortunately, like most things this seemed to work both ways, and while I reaped the rewards of lies and exaggerations the universe seemed to find ways to tarnish my character.

My sophomore year a friend of mine moved to my school.  We had met at catechism.  He loved mischief, I was thrilled to have him.  From this point on, for both the sake of awesomeness and anonymity I will refer to him as Snake-Eyes or SE. 

Around Christmas of that year I went to his house for our first ever sleep over.  That’s just good innocent fun.  Around 11pm another friend of ours called and asked us to swing by for some ice basketball.  Yep, that’s just basketball on a very icy court.  Its fun as long as you avoid a concussion or a shattered elbow.  Which we usually did.  Due to the fact that we doubted we would get permission to go it was decided not to tell anyone until we got back.  At that point we would fall back on the old, “Oh, we didn’t think you guys would care.” excuse.  Kids are devious.  Never forget that parents. 

We were only gone an hour.  We were walking back to SE’s house, which was only around the corner, when I heard a car coming up behind us.  I glanced back over my shoulder, noting that with the way the headlights were positioned it could be a police car.  I was hoping that we wouldn’t be stopped and questioned, which had happened before.  Evidently after midnight its common practice to stop teenagers who are wandering, even in the country. I heard the car begin to slow.  I figured this was going to happen so I stopped and began to turn.  Suddenly, I was struck by something on the side of my face.  The car sped off, the sounds of laughter trailing behind.  SE spun towards me.

“What the hell was that?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I think it was a water balloon,” I said.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Just wet and freezing.”

“Those guys were dicks.”

“Screw those guys.”

“What’s that smell?” SE asked.

And it hit me.  There was a smell. 

“Did those guys piss in the balloon dude?” SE asked me nervously, brushing at his lightly wetted sleeve.

I sure hoped not. And I didn’t think so.  It seemed familiar.  But that wasn’t quite right.  Not piss…

“That was a beer,” I said.  I scuffed my feet around in a circle and sure enough kicked a dented can we hadn’t been able to see in the dark. “Ugh, I’m covered in beer.”  I took off my hat and shook droplets of beer out of hair.  They’d got me good.  My left side was drenched, my over-stuffed winter jacket quickly soaking up the liquid.  We ran the rest of the way back to his house.

We burst into the living room having completely forgotten we hadn’t been given permission to leave in the first place.  We were greeted by his parents on the couch, looking grim.  We quickly started to explain how we had “just walked around the corner”, and looked to garner some sympathy by describing how I had been assaulted.  If anything this seemed to make them more angry.  We didn’t get it.  It wasn’t that late.  We had only been two-hundred yards away.  Why did they seem so upset? I was kind of expecting to be coddled a bit.  I had been attacked and I’d gotten wet, and it was very cold.  That can’t be good for a kid!  Didn’t they know I could catch my death? Not to mention the fact that  I had taken a blow to the head, and those are pretty dangerous.  They ordered me downstairs to change while they talked to Snake-Eyes.

When I came back upstairs things were getting pretty heated in the living room.  Evidently, in their opinion, teenaged boys sneaking out and coming home soaked in beer does not match up to our version of the nights events. But that’s what happened!  I was there!  I promise you!  Not only did they not want to hear it but the more we defended ourselves the angrier they got.  This was not the impression I wanted to leave on my friends parents.  As I tried to sleep that night I thought about how to redeem myself.

The next morning I was extra friendly.  Smiling till my face hurt, complimenting everything. It didn’t seem to be defrosting the parents whatsoever.  By the time I left I was glad to get out of such an inhospitable place and I was feeling badly for SE who was stuck living with those grumpy people.  Never before had I had any trouble with parents.  I was a favorite guest of several other families.  What could the problem be? Later I found out.

You see, his mother had the exact same first and last name as my mother.  That summer I had made a very stupid decision which had led to me getting busted stealing from the mall.  My court paperwork had arrived at SE’s house, not mine.  His mother opened and read about my court date.  This was after she had agreed to me spending the night, and it took a lot of work on his part to get me into the house.  I guess they decided to give me a second chance.  So, from their perspective, I was a thief who befriended their son and then after being allowed in the house got him to sneak out to some sort of drinking party that was so wild it left us completely covered in alcohol.  Then we burst in with some weak story about a drive by beer dowsing.  I was no longer welcome in their home.

As I’ve grown up I’ve become more than a little embarrassed by the way I conducted myself as a teenager.  I know we all make mistakes and it’s all ancient history but still, it makes me shudder to remember. I think it’s better to look at the humor and disregard the truly dark moments. And for those who thought I was evil, I never was. I understand why you thought so. But sometimes a fifteen year old covered in beer is innocent, and sometimes a bad kid is just a good kid covered in circumstance.

p.s. For those who are wondering.  Of course we asked them to smell our breath!  They weren’t having it.  Their minds were made up.  Not fair you say?  Tell me about it!