I was walking down a long hallway after turning passed the corner near the principal’s office. I was making my way to a classroom with a few teachers and some counselors that helped me navigate through the halls.
They were taking me to to a class where a roomful of seniors were waiting to hear what I had to say. This was part of a police initiative that was created with the intention to teach students what drugs do. This was to keep the student’s clear of the drug life.
I have to admit it. I was scared. I was afraid of what they would think of me and how I would sound. I was afraid I would be a flop.
Then it would be exactly the way it was when I was in school, uncomfortable and awkward, with me being the brunt of someone’s joke.
I was sure the students would look at me the same way I would have looked at someone like me.
I would have rolled my eyes and expected this to be jut another “Say no to drugs” presentation.
As for the idea of “Not even once,” which was the name of the program; I knew what these kids were doing. I knew what they’ve already been exposed to. So the idea of “Not even once” was somewhat unrealistic to me.
I’ve seen them before. The students, I mean. I’ve seen them in hospitals and in emergency rooms and jails. And I say this more figuratively than literally, but still, I knew where their heads were, —or at least, I thought so.
One could argue this was my own personal hangup, which it was. One could also argue that my concerns were base on my own personal bias, which they were. One could argue that I was afraid and they would be correct with this one as well.
But fine. So be it. Let me be afraid. Let me be insecure. Let me feel everything. Let me anxious and paranoid; let me feel the exact same fears I did when I was just a kid and confused about everything.
Let me be as I was when my frustration was through the roof and all I could do was try to figure out how to get the world to stop. Let me be all of this because this is something people relate to. Let me stick to the needs we feel as humans rather than speak to impress them.
The kids dress differently nowadays. The music is different now. We never had cell phones back when I was there age. We had beepers back then, or pagers, but not everyone had pagers because the technology was still somewhat new.
I walked passed the lockers in the hallway. I looked at the school’s colors and at the banners that hung across the ceilings. I looked at the art on the walls and the photos of students with their school pride.
I wondered what their football team was like or if their wrestling team was tough. I wondered what their gymnasium looked like during a basketball game
I thought about me when I was that age, away from everything that happens to a teenager while living in an upstate facility, and legally mandated there, working on a farm with no social life, no love life to speak of, and certainly no sex life or special first time romances.
There was no trips to school in a friend’s new car or my car. I never went to driver’s ed or lived through the basic rites of passage. I was a dropout. I had a record. I had a drug habit. I had scars on my body, which thankfully, my scars have faded over the years; however, I could see the emotional scars were still there when I entered the school.
I never had the basic things, like a real best friend, and I never went on a senior picnic or anything like that. No, my class trips were in places like drug spots in East New York, Brooklyn or Far Rockaway and Harlem or 134 Street and Willis Avenue. My rites of passage were more chemical than educational; and as for my graduation present; it was a bag of heroin with the word “King” printed on it.
As I walked through the corridors of the school, I made my way to meet the students. They were all young and pissed-off that they had to be in a classroom and be awake so early.
This was the first period, or block, as they called it. Their classes were 90 minutes, which was unthinkable to me. As it was, I never showed up for class when the period was only 45 minutes. Safe to say I would have never made it the full 90 minutes.
All schools have a smell to them. Maybe it’s the cleaning solution they use on the floors. Maybe it’s the cafeteria. Maybe it’s the auditorium. Either way, they all have a smell to me. They also have a feeling to me. They all have something I never had, which is an experience.
I never had this. I never went to prom. I never walked across a stage to receive my diploma.
If I’m being honest, my last graduation was when I finished elementary school. That’s the 6th grade if I’m being exact.
I see them in their young world. They are only kids but they are more than that. They have a future. I want to reach out to them. I want them to know what I missed. I want them to see where I was. I want them to know about all of my regrets and how I envy each and every one of them.
I want them to have adventure. I want them to have fun. But more than anything, I just want them to stay alive while doing this.
I want them to achieve things. I want them to go on to college and find their passion. I want them to understand their worth and know how valuable they are because maybe they won’t trade themselves away like I did.
As I walked through the hallway, I thought about my message. I wanted them to know everything about me. I wanted them to see me as I was. And, I wanted them to know that I would rather take their pain than any of them miss out like I did.
I never went to big high school parties. I was on heroin at the time. I never experienced my first crush until I was older. I hardly had a real girlfriend and besides, I was sickly and daring the edge between life and death. Who would want to be with someone like this?
I walked through the hallways and thought about the kids in each of the classrooms. I thought about their life. I thought about the things they could be and the things they could do.
Then I thought about me. I thought about the person I was when I was their age and the person I always wished I could have been.
I never had this experience. I never had those nights that people talk about from their high school memories.
At best, my stories were tragic. At best, I had nightmares to talk about. I had guns in my face and memories of broken glass from a crack-pipe cutting into my lip.
My life in school was uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to interact with others. I never learned the proper rules of engagement, which delayed me from learning and understanding the basic social cues that are necessary in life.
I always felt lost in the shuffle when I was a kid. I was frustrated, but worse, I swore I was stupid, which is why I never went to class.
This is why I pulled the fire alarm or lit a fire in the locker room. This is why I destroyed property. This is why I disrupted class and why I went into classrooms, fueled with chemicals, and so high that I was removed from the public school system.
This is also why I cut myself, This is why I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. This is the reason I would always ask the question “Why?” when it came to my life.
Why couldn’t things be easier for me? Why did I always have to find myself in the same places or suffer the same consequences?
I remember me at home, drunk as ever, and rehearsing what I would say to the girls I wished would like me back. The problem was they never liked me back.
I remember practicing speeches but I was always out of my head. I was always out of my mind and I could never get myself straight.
By the way, did I ever tell you about the night I threw my butane lighter in the front seat of a stolen car that was abandoned in a vacant lot?
I flipped open the top of my flip-top lighter, struck the roller over the flint to start the flame.
Hell, I was somewhere around the age of 14 or 15. I had long, scraggly hair that grew down over my face. I was skinny as a toothpick, cigarette dangling from my lips. I was pale. I had burn marks in my arms to show the bigger kids that I was tough and that I could endure pain.
I was drunk and high, of course. I was alone, but only for a short while. I had to get away from the crowd but somehow they found me.
So, in an effort to add an exclamation point to my behavior, I tossed the inflamed lighter into the car and watch the seat go up in flames.
I did this because it was a statement. In fact, everything I did was a statement because I lacked the language to say or tell anyone what I was thinking or feeling.
I walked through the hallways and I felt my emotions build. I was nervous and I was afraid. In fact, I was in pain. And I decided that I wanted the students to know this. I wanted them to feel what I felt. I wanted them to know all about this.
I knew that there was no way I would get them all to listen, However, I knew that somehow, someone would listen, and even if this meant just one of them —I was fine with that.
A teacher asked me if I knew what I planned to tell them. That’s when I decided what I would say. That’s when I looked at the teacher and said, “I’m going to tell them the truth.”
It was amazing to me. I am decades older and far removed from their social standards. Yet, all I did was tell them what I thought and how I felt. I told them what I did but I did not overstate or dramatize the drugs or the drug culture. I did not glorify any of this. I told them everything and noticed that many of them nodded their head.
I did not romanticize this. Why would I do something like that? Why tell them something that would build their curiosity? Why give them ideas?
In fact, I remember when I was a kid, much younger than the seniors I spoke with. Someone came in our classroom to tell us to “Just say no!” when it came to drugs and alcohol.
The speaker was a girl. She was tall. She had long, blonde hair and a cool little sway to her. She was pretty. And she was talking about the things she did. She talked about climbing on the roof of her home and drinking her father’s booze.
I remember listening to her details and thought to myself, “What a great idea!”
Later that week, you guessed it, I found myself climbing out the side window and sitting on the roof of my house, drinking some of The Old Man’s booze because there was something cool and poetic about it.
When I was done with my presentation, I looked around at the students. All of them were looking at me, teary-eyed, and shocked because I was honest with them. I was more than just another speaker telling them to stay off drugs. I was a man speaking to them as people and not as students.
I asked them for a favor. I asked that when they had their prom, if they could please send me a prom picture because I never had the chance to go.
My presentation was before the winter started. One would think that my words would have been forgotten by their senior prom. But later that spring, I received a few pictures. It might not have been the same feeling I would have had if I went to my prom, but still, I have to say the feeling was pretty amazing.
If I’m being honest . . .
The feeling was incredible!
This means they listened.