Events from early in high school; no particular order.
When I was in 10th grade, the English teacher handed back one of my papers and told me I had received an F. This happened within the first few weeks of the school year, it was our first writing assignment. She explained that the vocabulary was so advanced that I had clearly copied it from another source. Which wasn’t true…I told her this. She wouldn’t budge.
She did, however, tell me that if I re-wrote the paper in class, while she was watching, she would consider changing the grade.
I told her I wouldn’t do this. I’d already written the paper once. It was finished. What I did instead was walk out of class. I couldn’t think of a good reason to be there. My writing didn’t seem to be going over very well. So, as the teacher was explaining why I should get started on the re-write, I just turned around, walked out.
She reported the walk out to the front office and I got detention.
The next day, my parents set up a meeting that would involve the teacher and the school principle. They wanted the original paper to receive a fair grade. The principle listened to the arguments. I just sat off to the side and thought about other stuff; it was hard to care.
In the end, the principle sided with the teacher. His view was that, since she had given me a chance to re-write the paper, she had handled the situation okay. My refusal to accept her offer, and my walking out, just made clear to him that I was in the wrong.
So that was that. The F remained. At the end of the meeting, the principle asked if I had anything to say. I shrugged and told everyone that it would all work out. I said I would proceed to do no further work in the class. I didn’t see a reason to put effort into assignments that would just get rejected.
No one reacted…I don’t think they believed me. But that’s how things played out. On test days, I would sign my name at the top of the test, turn it in blank. I did zero homework assignments. I used the class time to just read my own books and work on homework for other subjects.
The English teacher kept warning me that I was reaching a point of no return, grade-wise…that I would get an F in the class, have to attend summer school. I never responded. Any time she spoke to me, I would just fake smile and continue reading whatever book I had brought in that day.
I did get bored one time and hand in an assignment. She asked the class to write a 1-page synopsis of some play they had been reading. I handed in a page full of random numbers, explained that the only thing I had read that week was the phone book and this was my synopsis. I assured her it was my own work. She just wrote a red ‘x’ at the top of the page and gave it back to me. I took that to be a low mark.
When the end of the school year came around, I received an F in the class. Specifically, my final grade was 0%. It was a school record. No one had ever received 0% before. I was pretty happy about it.
It turns out, I did not have to attend summer school for English…but only because I had failed other classes as well. There just wasn’t room in the schedule for all of the stuff I had to make up. With English, I had to take a correspondence course to achieve a passing grade and stay on track for graduation.
I started skipping a lot of class in 10th grade. My thoughts were going through something I couldn’t really understand at the time.
In the years prior to that, I had put a lot of effort into making friends. I would walk up to other kids, start rambling about whatever was on my mind. And the reaction was never positive. I think I confused people…I know they confused me. I couldn’t understand what people really meant when they were talking…I didn’t know about all of the hidden rituals that go into connecting with people.
The confusion I felt grew and grew. I became increasingly afraid of people…and weary with all of the rejection; it just made my heart hurt. I think 10th grade was when I started to shut down in an effort to cope with all of those dark undercurrents. It felt like my heart was blackening into charcoal, pumping something toxic, oleaginous. I couldn’t really handle a lot of sustained time around people.
So, skipping class ensued. I never had a destination in mind…I would just wander around the school, up and down hallways, around buildings, crisscrossing sidewalks and lawns.
I was pretty happy when I was just by myself, drifting around. Lonely…but being around others just left me feeling even more alone. I couldn’t make sense of that. As I walked around the school, I would sort through it all in my head, try to puzzle out how to exist in some sort balance between people and my own nature…I’d try to puzzle out how to be…but my own thoughts kept blurring and leading me in circles.
Avoiding class, walking, it left me happy enough.
Sometimes a teacher or office worker would notice me, call me out. I wouldn’t bother making excuses. If they asked why I was out of class, I would just tell them the truth: “I don’t know.”
I’d get a few days detention. Then go back to skipping.
Mostly, people didn’t notice. I learned that year: if you fall between the cracks? Odds are pretty good that no one is coming to find you. You can disappear. It happens. Whole people can just go away, even when you think they’re right in front of you.
The head janitor had his office inside of the cafeteria. In one corner of the room, you’d see the door to his office…he was always going in and out of it, doing his thing.
One day, I saw a teacher knock on his door…they talked for a few moments…then walked off together, out of the cafeteria. The janitor, I guess thinking he would be back within a few moments, had left his door wide open.
I stood, casually walked over, entered the office. No one was there.
Because it was in full view anytime the door was open, we all knew that he had this big peg board full of keys for the different buildings. I perused those…selected relevant options…and started cramming keys in my pockets. He had extras for each one, so I didn’t think anyone would notice.
Nabbing keys like this was wrong, but I saw an opportunity and reacted.
I strolled out of the office, resumed lunch. Janitor returned, went into his office, closed the door.
I didn’t have a plan for the keys. I just knew I walked around campus a lot and thought more access would be helpful.
I ended up using them to find empty classrooms to hide in. At any given time, there was always a room or two that was locked, empty, lights off. So, if one of the keys worked, I would enter those, re-lock the door, and just hang out for an hour or so. Having the lights off was nice. The emptiness of the room, the lack of people, it was a tremendously good feeling. It was escape.
The only other thing I did with the keys (that was also wrong) was to unlock the storage room where the school kept textbooks and a variety of novels for the different Literature classes. It was a small room, more like an over-sized pantry. So, I entered that and filled my backpack with novels. Poe, Hawthorne, Plato. I was more interested in science fiction and comic books overall, but I took anything that had a nice cover.
I wasn’t familiar with Kafka at the time, but I snagged a few of his books and those became my favorite. The Metamorphosis really made a lot of sense to me. So much sense that it was confusing. For me, the real world felt like some sort of endless, distorted nightmare. Whereas Kafka felt much more real and concrete. I must have read Metamorphosis a dozen times that year.
During English class, when I was ignoring the teacher and reading my own books, I was mostly reading stuff I’d acquired from this looting spree.
In 10th grade, the other kids were starting to date. I thought dates were interesting. I was curious to strike up some kind of romantic situation, so that I could go on a date.
At the same time, I wanted to avoid people as much as possible. It was a real dilemma. My conflicting needs just left me in this state where I was clumsy-headed and painfully shy during every interaction.
I was never able to rise above it and initiate anything. If I found myself standing in proximity to someone I was interested in, I would will myself to talk. But it would all come out in the usual way: I would just start rambling about whatever was on my mind. I didn’t know what else to say.
I did eventually try a new approach. Having not made friends up to that point, I at least understood that the rambling was not super helpful, in terms of winning people over. In a hopeful sign of excruciatingly small progress, I had identified my usual pattern as “a problem”. So I tried to mix it up a bit by asking questions. To me, this was the new social experiment…asking questions. That’s all I could come up with.
I would ask one question, then another…then, worried that I might start to ramble, I would ask a few more. On and on. All I did was communicate with endless questions.
It was helpful in terms of making friends…I started to make some nerd connections at that point. I think the other strange folk could relate to my struggles, so we began to establish some common ground.
But awkwardly asking 50 questions in a row (usually while hunched over, staring at my feet)…this was not a recipe for successful flirting. It was more like anti-flirting. I made a regular habit of confusing the very people I liked the most.
Stress and roaming about and trying to puzzle out what was happening. That sense of charcoal centered in the core of my life, bleeding me toxic.
And books. Hemingway, Frome, Gilman.
One of the loot-books I came across was Hunger, by Knut Hamsun.
Hunger was written in 1890. It’s about this disorganized, aimless Norwegian who just wanders around trying to make sense of his own thoughts…trying to make sense of other people.
One day, while hiding in an empty classroom, I read this passage:
“The Lord stuck his finger in the net of my nerves gently- yeah, verily, in desultory fashion- and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibers and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping whole after the finger, which was God’s finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of his finger.”
Disorder among the threads. I thought about that a lot. It was scary and compelling in equal measure.
Later in life, a psychologist would explain things to me. She was able to talk me out of ideas about disordered threads and being broken. She would make sense of what was happening. During high school, though, I was just lost in it all. I was fixated on how strange it was to feel more alone around people, yet needful for connection at the same time. I didn’t know what to do, except avoid people…skip class…hide wherever I could and read confusing books that seemed more real to me than my actual life.