Gratitude Friday 04/23/21 - Barely Graduating High School and Surviving the Hubris of Youth
“Dropped acid, Blue Oyster Cult concert, fourteen years old, And I thought them lasers were a spider chasing me. On my way home, got pulled over in Rogersville Alabama, With a half-ounce of weed and a case of Sterling Big Mouth. My buddy Gene was driving, he just barely turned sixteen. And I'd like to say, "I'm sorry", but we lived to tell about it And we lived to do a whole lot more crazy, stupid, shit.”
– Let there be Rock, the Drive By Truckers
I have no idea how I survived my youth. Looking back at myself as a young person, I was a curious mix of cocky and insecure, with a sprinkle of anti-authoritarianism simmering in an absence of meaningful challenge. It is a bit revealing to me now that those handful of times I was challenged are the most memorable to me, my Ninth Grade English class is one example, the other was my experiences as a student of the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of the Arts in 1982, where I caught a glimpse that I could do something with my life if I applied myself. It would be several years before I made any substantive move in that direction.
It is a story of the hubris of youth. If a movie was written about some of the escapades, I suspect that many would think it fiction. As it has been said, "ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true…" I have intentionally left a lot out. There are those who read this who knew me and could attest to the veracity of it all. It is a miracle many of us made it through, and lately I have been reflective and writing more about such things. So very many of the kids I grew up with did not make it. Somehow, I made it, despite myself.
I have mentioned in prior posts I wanted to be a roadie for a rock and roll with all the trimmings. From roughly age 13 on, I was involved in the theatre, mostly behind, to the side of or looking down on the stage. In High School I was involved in the stage crew. We had our own office tucked away in the central building that was constructed in the 1920’s. That area of the school had many hidden rooms, ladders and secret passages. The stage and auditorium had multiple hidden access points from which you could get from the basement to the roof without ever using a hallway. I explored places within that school that I suspect people have not been in for 60 years prior to or 40 years after. One of the things I did other than attend class.
Part of my problem was that I was a relatively smart and unchallenged kid. Another element may have been the times, the early 80s were a permissive era. The school actually had a designated smoking area for students, as an example. We did indeed smoke stuff there. In my community most of our parents were distracted, many of the adults were concerned about losing their jobs. In this town, up until then, “the Steel” as it was known provided good jobs and a secure community. Generations of families worked there.
All that started to change on the infamous Black Friday, October 1 1977 the day that thousands of living wage jobs were eliminated at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It is hard to describe how rude a wakeup call it all was. The date was a bit of a demarcation line between eras of my life. Before then, my hometown was more or less a company town, what happened at “the Steel” impacted everyone. Our parents were not watching us closely, they were focused on keeping their jobs. It took two more decades before the last cast of steel in 1995 and an iconic US company ceased to be after a long slide into oblivion. We all felt that something had changed, even in those early days.
I was somewhat ignorant of some of these dynamics at the time, although it fit into my master
plan that included nuclear annihilation before I would actually need to apply myself in life. I thought I could skate through life in the interim. I skipped an inordinate amount of school in my youth by any standard. More often than not, I was able to secure permission after the fact as a result of being on the stage crew and being reasonably skilled at talking my way out of things. I know from experience that skipping one class can be fun for a kid, two is OK and three becomes a curse. You cannot go back, and you are in a form of purgatory, but I digress. There is just a lot I need to leave out as this is an era and a place where addiction took hold. If you look up the definition of hubris, you may just find a picture of me as a 16-year-old kid, although I would have looked like I was 12.
As graduation approached however, I realized I had skipped so much I was not actually going to graduate. I was short a class. I had a solution; I would run for class speaker. The school had to graduate the class speaker was my thought process with the limited executive function that characterizes youth (at least mine). The problem with running for class speaker was that my GPA was far too low. So I seized an opportunity, in a full class meeting, I stood up during the discussion on choosing a class speaker and suggested there be no GPA requirement. I secured an overwhelming concurrence by class members in an impromptu floor voice vote. I ran a good race and narrowly lost in the end. The winner was way more qualified truth be told, primarily because that person had actually applied themselves. Without another option, I appealed to a sympathetic teacher who helped me out with a course called “independent stage design.” I “earned” a B. I am grateful for this teacher and realize now what may have gone into the calculation to help me. I never got to ask him why or let him know that I made it through all that stuff. In hindsight I suspect he saw more than I thought he did at the time. Certainly more than I did, it is clear.
So, I graduated without really attending school much at all and applying myself even less. I was an avid reader outside of school, without that I would have been lost later in life. I mentioned addiction previously. The end of High School started a chapter of heavier use without the charmed luck of early times. I thought I had a reverse Midas touch, and the things I touched turned to liquid shit. The years from around 18 through 21 were not good ones, and they could have been much worse. No idea how I made it.
Back to High School, during those years of skipping class and other shenanigans I will not detail, there was one person on the staff of the school who was often right on my tail. I could sense he was on to me. Several times I almost got in serious trouble and he was always the one who was close by and on the job. I will not name him, if you are from my community and guess his identity, please do not name him here. He was a big man of humble background and a deep gravelly voice. At the time I saw him as my nemesis. After graduation, I thought I left him in the rear-view mirror.
By age 21, addiction was destroying me, and I sought help. Beyond therapy, I found myself in a well-known recovery fellowship at the oldest of such meetings in our area. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I needed help or I was going to die. I was scared when I walked in the door, and the first person I saw was this man, my nemesis, a person it turns out with a great deal of time in recovery who was deeply respected by many people. He looked up at me and without missing a beat in his warm, deep voice I can still hear ringing in my head he said to me “we were waiting for you, Stauffer.” Life twists in such ways, more often than not it seems.
Reflecting a few decades back and I was lucky in ways I did not deserve. The chances I got occurred for a myriad of reasons, not least of which was that some of the adults in the room decided to give me a chance despite myself. Perhaps because of their own life experiences, but I never got to ask why they helped me. I thought I was smart; the truth was I had not a clue what was occurring. I had the good fortune to run across people at key times that must have seen how young and dumb I really was. They gave me enough room to change if I did wake up. Perhaps another lesson I learned through this experience is to give people a chance despite themselves, it is what was done for me. I have tried to remember that lesson in my life and give people breaks when possible. Paying it forward is a value of mine, now.
Better living through chemistry is no longer my life motto. It is beyond irony that in adulthood, education is something I hold in high regard. I completed grad school with a 4.0. I even teach at a University. I am a hard worker. I enjoy challenge. I show up now. Integrity is deeply important to me. Just about everything in my life I find meaning with was incongruent with my young self, and all this I am grateful for.
What are you grateful for today?
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